It was all negative. That’s what Maria Blancas remembers about a lecture on Yakima Valley farmworkers she heard as an undergraduate studying global health at the University of Washington.
She remembers thinking: “Have you ever been there?”
Blancas grew up in Eastern Washington, the child of farmworkers who came from Mexico. She herself picked apples and collected onion seeds in summers and on weekends during high school.
And while on occasion she saw those around her in the fields get dizzy and nauseous from heat and lack of water, while she could remember feeling like her face was on fire and getting rashes on her shoulders from carrying heavy bags, she felt the community could not be summed up by its “issues.”
“There’s so much more,” she says. There’s strength, too, and joy.
Now a Ph.D. student in UW’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, she wants to paint a fuller picture as she studies farmworker conditions. On Wednesday, she will receive the Bullitt Environmental Prize, which comes with $100,000 over two years – a big boost as she completes her degree and a related documentary project.
“It’s such a big blessing,” Blancas said. “I can just focus on my work.”
In the past, she’s worked up to three jobs to support herself during her studies, and to help with family expenses. Her parents live in Quincy, her hometown. Her mom retired after an ankle injury at a packing facility and her dad still works the fields at a family-owned farm.
The Bullitt prize is unusual, described by Bullitt Foundation president Denis Hayes as “in a sense a reverse Nobel Prize.” Rather than rewarding decades of accomplishment, the prize seeks to nurture graduate students with the potential to become leaders. “We’re betting on them at a very early stage of their careers,” Hayes said.
The foundation, a major funder of Northwest environmental causes, has designed the prize to continue even as it winds down the multimillion-dollar grant-making the organization is known for.
The foundation also aims to diversify the environmental movement’s largely white leadership by giving the prize to people of color. Past winners include Nicola Smith, a Simon Fraser University doctoral student from the Bahamas studying coral reef fish ecology; and Cornelius Adewale, a Nigerian who arrived at Washington State University with only enough money to cover one semester of his Ph.D. studies, focusing on environmental practices in farming.
Part of the effort to diversify means affirming a broad sense of environmentalism, encompassing social justice, Hayes said. Latinx leaders like Blancas may be interested in the pesticides raining down on farm workers, he said, but also access to health care, education and housing.
“Maria cares about her community as a whole,” Hayes said.
You could see that early, said the 29-year-old’s mom, Luz Maria Blancas. She recalled one time her daughter was working in the fields. It was about 100 degrees and some workers who didn’t have water with them were visibly suffering. The teenager, working that summer to help pay for her quinceañera, went through the rows giving out water from her own jug.
After getting her bachelor of arts from UW, Maria Blancas returned to Quincy, for several years working as an outreach coordinator at a health clinic and teaching basic education at a community college. Academic researchers would periodically approach those organizations looking for study participants but, Blancas noticed, would never return with their results.
“How do we change this?” she wondered as she went back to academia.
In the summer of 2018, she was part of a team of researchers surveying nearly 350 farmworkers in Whatcom and Skagit counties. Crucial to her, the project, dubbed “Nothing About Us Without Us,” worked in partnership with a community organization and used respected locals, called promotores, to help gather results.
The survey revealed interesting demographics: 40% of the workers identified as indigenous peoples, mostly from Mexico, and about a quarter couldn’t read Spanish. Its findings, in keeping with academic conventions, quantified problems: 40% said they didn’t always have regular breaks, 20% lacked consistent access to water, and 60% hadn’t seen a doctor in the past year.
As farmworkers talked about their lives, researchers picked up on other, unexpected issues. The workers were looking for ways to protect themselves from wildfire smoke, drifting down from British Columbia that summer. It was a double whammy for some migrants among them, also affected by smoke previously while working in California.
A couple dozen workers allowed researchers into their homes to assess living conditions. The workers had said they had kitchens but, often, the stoves turned out to be the propane-fueled camping variety, according to Blancas.
There were stories, though, that didn’t fit into field notes, whether positive, showing for example the pride workers have in their skills, or negative, like experiences with sexual harassment. They were “being kind of lost,” she said.
Blancas is now working on a project for her dissertation that will allow farmworkers to tell their own stories. She plans a three-day workshop this fall that will guide them in creating short videos about whatever they choose.
In preparation, she created her own. It’s an unusually lyrical look at farm worker life, recalling the exhaustion, the heat and the rashes, and also the beautiful color of the sun rising over the fields and waking up amid predawn clatter as everyone got ready for work. It was her favorite part of the day, she says in the video, when she got to eat with her dad.
“When people ask me why I do the work that I do,” she says, “I always think about my family: mi familia.”