Chicano Movement in Washington: Political Activism in the Puget Sound and Yakima Valley Regions, 1960s-1980s

  • By Oscar Rosales Castaneda
  • Posted 10/21/2007
  • Essay 7922
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In the late 1960s, the Mexican-American civil rights movement flourished throughout the United States, in 1967 making its presence known in Washington’s Yakima Valley. A dramatic shift occurred in the Chicana/o and Latina/o community in Eastern Washington as a previously silent population raised its voice to advocate labor rights and social equity. When Yakima-area students recruited by the University of Washington made their way to Seattle, they brought the energy to initiate the Chicano student movement. The dualistic geography was reflected in the movement's activities, uniting the farm workers' struggle in Eastern Washington with campaigns targeting community and educational objectives in Western Washington. Chicano youth, particularly students at the University of Washington and at campuses throughout the state, generated much of this activism. Students formed local chapters of the United Mexican American Students, the Brown Berets, and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA), among other organizations. They spearheaded the formation of organizations, committees, programs, and activities, both on and off-campus, including the United Farm Workers Cooperative and the United Farm Workers grape boycott, El Centro de La Raza, community health centers, and the Chicano Education Opportunity Program (EOP) and Chicano Studies center at the University of Washington.

Genesis of a Movement 

The activity in Washington state mirrored that of the larger movement nationwide as it sought to, in scholar Jorge Mariscal’s words, reject “dominant versions of U.S. history, and began an arduous journey toward self-determination and self-definition" (Mariscal).

What distinguished the activity in Washington from that at the national level is in how in Washington, organizational activity up until the mid-1960s had been rather non-existent. The formation of many of the well known community institutions now in existence developed as the Chicano or Mexican American community grew from 2.04 percent of the total Washington population in 1970 (1970 U.S. Census) to 5.3 percent by the year 2000 (2000 U.S. Census), to an estimated 8.8 percent in 2005. Though still small in comparison to urban centers of the Southwest, the Seattle area and Puget Sound region has now surpassed the Yakima Valley as the center of Chicano and Latino life in Washington state. This in part reflects the growth of the Hispanic population in Puget Sound counties (in 2005 the King County population was 6.7 percent Hispanic and the Pierce County population was 6.8 percent Hispanic).

United Farm Workers Cooperative

The Yakima Valley began organizing in 1966. Inspired by the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee’s (UFWOC) grape boycott, two students from Yakima Valley College, Guadalupe Gamboa and Tomas Villanueva, two friends who were both sons of Yakima Valley farm worker families, traveled down to Delano, California, and met with UFWOC leader Cesar Chavez (1927-1993). Upon returning, Gamboa and Villanueva co-founded the United Farm Worker’s Cooperative (UFWC) in Toppenish, Washington.

The United Farm Worker's Cooperative in Toppenish is credited as being the first activist Chicano organization in the state of Washington. Founded amid several War on Poverty efforts in the Valley, Tomas Villanueva recalled that the UFWC was "completely non-governmental." "I convinced people to give $5 into their shares and I got very successful. I got enough that would build a little store. It was very small to start with and we started running a sort of service defending people when growers did not pay their wages or when people got injured. We got people to get food stamps and those things. Then we found a bigger building for the co-op” (Villanueva). 

ACLU Summer Project 1968  

In the summer of 1968, the United Farm Worker's Cooperative solicited the assistance of the Washington American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a project that provided legal aid to people of farm working background. The report that emerged from the project underlined the conditions present in the Valley that forced Chicanos into a state of political and economic subjugation.

According to the report written by Charles E. Ehlert of the Washington ACLU:

“A United States Department of Agriculture study ranked the economic status of the rural population of Yakima County among the lowest two-fifths of rural populations of all counties in the United States, taking into account a composite of factors, including dependency rates, amount of income, length of schooling and condition of housing. Yakima farm workers suffer from low wages, lack of job security, poor health, high mortality and injury rates, inadequate nutrition, education and housing, discriminatory exclusion from the benefits of social welfare legislation enjoyed by others and a lack of political power”(Ehlert).

At this time, the situation for farm workers in the Valley was dire as Yakima County reported 39 percent of the population living below the poverty level. Institutional neglect coupled with discrimination kept Chicanos locked in a cycle of poverty. It was under these circumstances that the UFW Coop brought in the ACLU, in Ehlert’s words, because, “farm workers [were] not able to obtain justice and decent lives for themselves and their children through the normal political process” (Ehlert).

As a result of various lawsuits filed through the ACLU, Yakima County was forced to take measures to ensure that Chicanos were afforded equal voting rights through removal of the English literacy requirement, as well as afforded other considerations given to all people under the law that had previously been out of reach of this community.

Yakima Valley Activism

In 1970 the United Farm Workers' Cooperative organized workers during a series of  wildcat (not union-supported) strikes in the hop fields of Yakima County. However, the organization did not receive official recognition until the mid 1980s, when it became the United Farm Workers of Washington State.

In addition to the UFW Co-op, there were other forms of activism in the Yakima Valley. The Cursillo Movement was organized through the Catholic Church. Politically moderate, its purpose was to engage people in social action and encourage participation in church life.

Another group formed in 1967, the Mexican American Federation (MAF), pointed toward a new direction in Mexican American community organizing. In previous decades, most associations were social and cultural in nature. The Mexican American Federation was one of the first groups to advocate for community development and political empowerment in the Yakima Valley.

Grape Boycott at UW   

In 1968 the Black Student Union at the University of Washington began recruiting Chicano students from the Yakima Valley. Few as they were, these students were inspired by much of the activism on college campuses. They already possessed an understanding of the plight of farm workers as well as of the perceived repressive, race-prejudiced system of power. Soon after setting foot on the UW Campus, 35 Chicano students, led by Jose Correa, Antonio Salazar, Eron Maltos, Jesus Lemos, Erasmo Gamboa, and Eloy Apodaca, among many others, formed the first chapter in the Northwest of the United Mexican American Students (UMAS). Modeled after the group that was founded at the University of Southern California in 1967, the UW UMAS worked to establish a Mexican-American Studies class through the College of Arts & Sciences.

United Mexican American Students also engaged in a campaign to halt the sale of non-union table grapes at the University of Washington. Working alongside other activist organizations such as the Black Student Union, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and members of the Associated Students of the University of Washington’s Board of Control, and the Young Socialist Alliance, the group first petitioned the dormitories to stop selling grapes in their eating facilities, and quickly secured an agreement.

But efforts to persuade the Husky Union Building to cooperate proved more difficult. Nevertheless, on February 17, 1969, the UW Grape Boycott Committee was victorious as the HUB officially halted the sale of grapes. The victory made the University of Washington the first campus in the United States to remove grapes entirely from its eating facilities. At the national level, the grape boycott organized by the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee achieved success in 1970 when the union won a contract.

Student Activism  in Eastern Washington

In addition to the grape boycott, United Mexican American Students (UMAS) also called a conference in Toppenish to generate support for the creation of Chicano youth groups at the high school and college levels. With the assistance of UW faculty, UMAS created "La Escuelita" in Granger in 1969, which in turn led to the creation of the calmecac project, a program that taught history and culture to Chicano youth in Eastern Washington.

The student movement was also spreading to other campuses. Following the lead of UW UMAS, Chicano students organized at Yakima Valley College to form a chapter of the Mexican American Student Association (MASA) in 1969. MASA, like UMAS, had its roots in southern California, originating out of East Los Angeles College. Later in 1969, Chicano students who had made their way to Washington State University (WSU) in 1967 via the High School Equivalency Program organized another MASA chapter in Pullman.

Emergence of M.E.Ch.A

In the fall of 1969, UW UMAS officially adopted the name MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan). This reflected a shift in consciousness as well as a generational change as members rejected the term "Mexican-American" in favor of the label "Chicano." Over the next two years, Yakima Valley College and Washington State University would follow suit. Throughout the 1970s, numerous MEChA chapters emerged in Washington state, including groups in the Columbia Basin, at Seattle Central Community College, Central Washington University, A.C. Davis High School in Yakima, and in various other communities. 

In April 1972, students organized the first statewide MEChA Conference at Yakima Valley College. The conference resulted in the creation of a statewide board authorized to facilitate communication between all MEChA chapters in Washington about activities at the state level. Chicanos near the Spokane area waited until 1977 to organize at Eastern Washington University. The Spokane organization affiliated with MEChA in 1978.

According to Jesus Rodriguez (b. 1945), an activist in several organizations and a key organizer of the Seattle chapter of the Brown Berets, in the few years after the organization was established, “MEChA became more diversified and developed subgroups to deal with specific problems in health, women’s issues, community concerns, graduate students and so forth”  (Rodriguez). In effect, MEChA became an umbrella organization that housed such groups as Las Chicanas, the Brown Berets, the National Chicano Health Organization, and the Chicano Graduate and Professional Student Association. In fact, many students were involved in multiple groups at one time, as there was participation across the several entities presided over by MEChA.

More Than Political Action  

MEChA was much more than a political action group. Its efforts on behalf of Chicano students and community members included a multifaceted focus on social and cultural matters, as well as educational and political objectives. Cultural organizations and initiatives sponsored or supported by MEChA had a significant impact throughout the Pacific Northwest. The cultural promotions of MEChA included Teatro Campesino, Chicano/Latino graduation, Christmas “posadas,” Cinco de Mayo celebrations and other social events to meet the needs of students who were often far removed from their respective communities.

MEChA students also sponsored lecture and film series, rap sessions, food and clothing drives, dances featuring acts like Little Joe y La Familia, Eligio Salinas, and Los Lobos, as well as numerous Latino festivities and workshops. In addition, MEChA invited national leaders to the college campuses to talk to students about events taking place in other parts of the country. Such speakers included Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers of California, Reies Lopez Tijerina of the Alianza Federal de Mercedes in New Mexico, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez of the Crusade for Justice in Colorado, Patricia Vasquez of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and various other guests ranging from artists and poets to leaders of the La Raza Unida Party.

Organizing Without Borders

While student activism promoted culture and progressive political consciousness, organizing activity among workers continued both in Seattle and the Yakima Valley. In the valley the first Farmworker Strike Committee was formed as a result of the 1970 wildcat strikes in the hop fields Though unsuccessful, the strikes generated the organizational structure for future activity that would lead well into the 1980s.

Groups such as CASA-HGT (Centro de Accion Social Autonoma-Hermandad General de Trabajadores or Center for Autonomous Social Action-General Brotherhood of Workers) in Seattle attempted to unite workers regardless of documented status. The leftist orientation of the organization, originally from southern California, was a key determinant in the way it attempted to address the question of immigrant worker rights in the late 1970s as renewed nativist (anti-immigrant) sentiment placed these workers at risk of exploitation.

In the Yakima Valley, in Granger, Radio KDNA went on the air in December 1979. Radio KDNA was the first radio station to dedicate its entire programming to the Spanish-speaking population of Eastern Washington. It is a non-commercial, education-oriented public radio station. Many listeners are farm workers in the valley, and the station describes itself as "La Voz del Campesino." It was a critical institution for advancing labor rights.

This was especially important with the formation of the United Farm Workers of Washington State in 1986. Initially, the organization, based in Sunnyside, Washington, was an independent union. The group then affiliated with the AFL-CIO in 1994 and became the regional branch of the United Farmworkers Union of America. The UFW would secure its first contract by the mid-1990s and would continue much of its work in agitating for workers, many of whom were recent immigrants.

The Present Day

Almost four decades after it began, the Chicano Movement still has a visible impact. As a result of activism at the grassroots level on the part of various communities of color, there has been a fundamental change in how people talk about race, which is a lasting effect of the broader civil rights movement. The most visible results of the Chicano Movement are still primarily within academia, with the establishment of numerous student centers at college campuses all over the country that cater to students of color as well as the establishment of Chicano Studies Departments, research centers, academic journals, and so on.

At the local level, the movement gave rise to community institutions, helping to build a Chicano community where none had existed before. Alliances with other communities of color were essential to the movement’s success. The broad alliance for civil rights that emerged allowed for further progress within the Chicano community at a time when the local population was miniscule in comparison to the urban Chicano communities of the Southwest. This collaboration across racial lines was a unique development in the Northwest within a context that witnessed population growth alongside activist engagement, and is an integral part of the legacy of civil rights activism in the region.

What made it even more noteworthy was the fact that the Northwest had no significant previous tradition of political mobilization in the Chicana/o and Latina/o community such as took place in the Southwest.  Washington had neither the political infrastructure (organizations and institutions) as for example with the Mexican American Movement of the post-World War II period and the emergence of political organizations (i.e., American G.I. Forum, and the League of United Latin American Citizens, among others) as was witnessed in the Southwest. The vast majority of organizations still active to this day emerged post-1965 after the war on poverty efforts were initiated and the Yakima Valley and increasingly after the emergence of the Chicano Youth Movement in Seattle after 1968.

Activist youth organizations also still operate on many campuses. MEChA declined during the 1980s, with low numbers at many campuses and many chapters becoming inactive, but has experienced a revival since the mid 1990s, partly in response to the massive anti-immigrant backlash in California, as well as the attacks on affirmative action and other programs throughout the country.

Locally, the passing of Initiative 200 in 1998 and the World Trade Organization demonstrations in November 1999, signaled a critical juncture in the development of the MEChA chapter at the UW, eventually making its way across the state. As of late, the resulting activity from the initial formation of the movement in the 1960s has grown to incorporate many different concerns. Yet, it is perhaps the question of labor, that is now once again coming to the fore with a new emergent mobilization for workers’ rights. This can be seen with the latest incarnation of the Immigrant Rights Movement which fuses labor, human rights, and cultural assertion in a way that parallels the initial rumblings of Chicana/o Activism.

From Southwest to North

Across the country, the Latino population is still somewhat limited to the Southwest. However there have been significant population shifts on the West Coast. According to the U.S. Census, Latinos now comprise the largest ethnic minority group in both Washington (8.8 percent Latino as of 2005) and Oregon (9.9 percent as of 2005). In Washington the Latino population more than doubled from 1990 to 2000 and the growth continues. Certain counties such as Adams County (50.9 percent Latino in 2006) and Franklin County (57 percent Latino in 2006) have a majority of Latinos.

The increasing urbanization of the Latino community in the Pacific Northwest and migration northward from traditional populations of the Southwest suggest future trends in demographic shifts on the West Coast. This is especially true as the conceptualization of El Norte continually evolves to include the regions north of the California-Oregon state border.

With the strengthening of social networks and with the growth of various Latina/o diasporic communities, activism in its various forms will continue to have its effect.    

Sources: Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (Seattle, WA, University of Washington Press, 1995); Carlos Munoz, Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement (New York: Verso, 1989), Jesus Lemos. “A History of the Chicano Political Involvement and the Organizational Efforts of the United Farm Workers Union in the Yakima Valley, Washington” Master’s Thesis, University of Washington, 1974), Charles E. Ehlert, “Report of the Yakima Valley Project"  (Seattle: American Civil Liberties Union, 1969), Gilberto Garcia, “Organizational Activity and Political Empowerment: Chicano Politics in the Pacific Northwest,” in The Chicano experience in the Northwest (Dubuque, IA.: Kendall/Hunt Publishing. Co, 1995),  Ernesto Chavez, “Mi Raza Primero! Nationalism, Identity and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement” (Berkeley:  UC Press, 2002), Jorge Mariscal, Brown Eyed Children of the Sun: Lessons from the Chicano Movement, 1965-1975 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005), Rogelio Riojas Interview 19 January 2006, and Jesus Rodriguez Interview 3 March 2006, and Jeremy Simer, “La Raza Comes To Campus: the new Chicano contingent and the grape boycott at the University of Washington, 1968-69.” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project 2004-2006 website accessed October 9, 2007 (; Jesus Rodriguez, MEChA Newsletter University of Washington, 1981, and “La Historia de MEChA” Internal Document for MEChA Executive Board, 1987, Jesus Rodriguez Papers, MEChA de UW Archives; Radio KDNA website (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History “Chicano activists occupy abandoned school that becomes El Centro on October 11, 1972.”(by David Wilma); John Greely, “Hub Board Recommends Stoppage of Grape Sales,” University of Washington Daily, February 6, 1969; U.S. Census (1970), U.S. Census (2000); U.S. Census Bureau, State QuickFacts, Washington (2005) (

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