YAKIMA — Tomas Villanueva, who for decades advocated for farmworkers in Washington state, has died. He was 72.
His daughter, Graciela Villanueva, told The Associated Press her father passed away on Friday.
From the state capitol to orchards in Central Washington, Mr. Villanueva played a key role in improving working conditions for farmworkers, advocating for minimum wage and health-care standards. He also worked on improving farmworker housing in the days they camped unsheltered on the banks of the Columbia River.
Former Gov. Mike Lowry, who worked with Mr. Villanueva on farmworker-housing issues as a congressman in the 1980s and during his time as governor from 1993-97, said Mr. Villanueva was informed and passionate but also had a way of easing politicians into seeing the farmworker side of things.
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“Sometimes, understandably, people working on issues of fairness will come on awfully strong,” Lowry said earlier this year after Mr. Villanueva was honored by the state Secretary of State’s office. “Tomas was very effective at reasoning why we ought to be doing a better job as a society to provide for farmworkers.”
Lowry would go on tours of farmworker camps with Mr. Villanueva. He said he still remembers people sleeping unsheltered in sleeping bags on the banks of the Columbia River.
“There have been a lot of improvements made since then, and Tomas is the reason for that and other reforms,” Lowry said.
Mr. Villanueva led several farmworker strikes over the years to demand better conditions on the fields, such as making toilets and drinking water available to laborers, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported.
Mr. Villanueva was a founder and former president of the United Farm Workers of Washington state. He also helped start a food cooperative and the Farm Workers Family Health Center in Toppenish, which eventually became the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic.
Born in Monterrey in northern Mexico, he was one of 18 children, although six died in childhood. When he was 13, his family immigrated to the United States, where they followed crops from Texas to Ohio to the Pacific Northwest before settling in Toppenish in 1957.
“I consider him the premier Latino leader in Washington. He motivated people and gave workers a feeling of self-worth,” said Lupe Gamboa, a longtime friend and farmworker advocate. “It wasn’t just Tomas, but he was a catalyst for change for everything that happened.”
The Villanueva family plans to hold a memorial service in the Yakima Valley in a few weeks.
Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, www.yakimaherald.com