A nearly forgotten collection of old photographs of migrant farm workers in Washington State has resurfaced, enabling a lost history to be recovered. This is the story of the unearthing of this archive and the moving lessons the large archive teaches about “the awakening of a people.” –Ed.
It began when Seattle resident Laura Solis kept staring at the old, grainy black-and-white photograph. It depicted an ordinary moment in the work life of an anonymous migrant farm laborer — a Latina like Laura but older, her face weathered by the sun. The woman was wearing a heavy work shirt and jeans, black hair covered with a bandana, boxing asparagus in a freshly harvested Yakima Valley agricultural field.
Solis was struck by the woman’s face, her stoic concentration on the task at hand. Laura, who herself had grown up in a family of farm workers in Granger, Washington, wondered who this woman was, what her life must have been like. Locked in that image, there must be a story waiting to be told, Laura thought. Somebody must know who she is, or was.
She didn’t know much about the photo. Digitized on a page of the Washington State University Library’s web site, the brief caption identified the photo as having been taken in 1972. The woman was identified only as “mother Elizondo.”
For nearly 50 years, that is all that Laura Solis or the handful of others who looked at the photograph knew about the person depicted in it. Like thousands of other migrant Latin farm workers, that woman toiling in an asparagus field nearly 50 years ago was invisible, nameless, forgotten.
Solis had come across the image when, in the midst of a personal project to try to verify a tidbit of family lore, she visited a Washington State University Library’s web page and found a description of an obscure photographic collection. Acquired by the library in the early ‘90s, it consisted of approximately 11,500 photographs of migrant agricultural workers in the Yakima Valley, all taken between 1967 and 1976 by a little known Seattle photographer named Irwin Nash.
The collection captured scenes from an early and turbulent period in the ongoing struggle for farmworker rights. For nearly three decades it has remained locked away in a sub-basement of the WSU Library. Only about 100 of the photos – less than one percent of the total – had been digitized and were available for Laura to view online.
Until her partner Mike Fong, a deputy mayor at the City of Seattle, stumbled across its existence, Laura had no idea the collection existed. No one in her family knew it existed. And as it turns out, no one else in the heavily Latin farm-working communities captured in the collection knew it existed. Like the subjects of the photos themselves, the Irwin Nash collection of Yakima Valley farmworker photographs remained largely unknown, invisible, forgotten.
That is changing now. Due to the improbable chain of circumstances that led Laura Solis to that photo, combined with the sometimes alchemical power of social media to make unexpected connections, the story of “mother Elizando” has been recovered, her personal history recognized and celebrated.
As a result, the treasure trove of thousands of photographs in the WSU Library basement is generating a renewed interest and excitement from farmworkers’ rights leaders, Washington State elected officials, and library archivists. A few months ago $20,000 was raised in just a few weeks to digitize the collection and make it accessible online. Ambitious plans are now in the works to launch an oral history effort to contextualize the images, identify their subjects, and to recover and tell their stories before they are lost forever to the ravages of time.
It all started with a serendipitous holiday conversation. Solis and Fong were in the midst of a Christmas visit to her family in Granger, a typical Eastern Washington agricultural town of a little over 3,000 souls nestled between I-82 and the Yakima River about 25 miles southeast of Yakima. Laura’s father casually mentioned that Laura’s uncle had once met a high ranking Nixon administration official when he visited the Eastern Washington agricultural fields sometime in the late 1960s or early ‘70s. A photo of the encounter had appeared in the paper, they were told, which was a memorable moment for an itinerant Mexica-American farm-working family that had migrated from Texas to Washington State to toil in the fields for Green Giant.
“We were jealous your uncle was in the paper,” Laura’s father jokingly told them. “That was a big deal!”
The anecdote set Solis and Fong off on an archival treasure hunt. After some further probing of family memories, they decided the incident must have taken place around 1969, and the federal official may have been Elliot Richardson, who served in the Nixon administration in a variety of cabinet posts, including Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, and Attorney General.
So they began the slow, painstaking process of working their way through old copies of the Yakima Herald, preserved on microfiche at the University of Washington Library. They weren’t finding any proof of the Solis family lore, but they did come across a lot of stories about burgeoning battles in the fields over farm worker rights. They were disgusted and angered that many of the stories seemed slanted, even racist. The word “wetback” even appeared in one headline.
“It was really depressing,” Solis recalls. It wasn’t just the bias and the racism that bothered her. It was that the stories quoted officials, and some activists and union leaders, but the farm workers themselves were absent. “The people were missing. They were invisible.” It was clear to her that the workers were largely seen as interchangeable cogs in a machine, anonymous bodies recruited to fill a need for labor in the fields, nothing more.
“The voices of the people were missing,” Solis repeats. Having worked in the fields herself as a child, she felt that absence keenly, and personally. “It mirrors what I experienced growing up in terms of feeling invisible in the larger community.”
Reading the Herald stories of labor unrest in the fields of central Washington next led Fong to start searching for more information about the people who were leading the efforts for economic justice for farm workers. That’s how he stumbled upon the existence of the Nash collection, from an “embedded, obscure link on the WSU Library web site.” Fong scrolled through the approximately 100 thumbnail photos digitized on the site. “When I really looked at them I thought, oh my god this is amazing!” he recalls. Then he realized they represented only the tip of the iceberg, that the collection actually comprised more than 11,000 additional photos.
Fong alerted Solis to the digitized thumbnails, and she was instantly captivated. “I grew up doing that work so it was very familiar. So I started looking at the faces. Who is this person?” Solis says. She thought it was possible she might know some of the people depicted, but she didn’t recognize any of them. “I thought, somebody’s got to know who these folks are.” That prompted her about a year ago to post some of the black and white images on her Facebook page.
That was on February 23, 2020. It didn’t take long before Solis hit pay dirt. Two days later, a relative of hers named Adam Elizondo recognized the woman in the photo as his grandmother. He reposted the photo on his page, along with an emotional tribute:
What kind of man would I be if I did not get up every day to provide for my family?
What kind of man would I be if I refused to sacrifice my body and time to make sure my kids have everything I did not?
What kind of man would I be if I did not respect and understand what was sacrificed for me to stand where I stand at this very moment?
What kind of man would I be if I ignored what others gave up to make me what I am today?
I’ll tell you what I will never be, I will never be ungrateful for having people that showed me all I’ve said above.
Elizondo, because of her my life is better, because of her I know why family matters, because of her I am who I am.
Because of her I live with humility and respect for those who showed me the way and endlessly sacrificed for their families. Because of her I will always value the little things in life that she worked so hard for every early morning and long hot day.
I love you Grandma Elisia Elizondo and thank you for showing me the way.
Other relatives then commented, expressing their thrill at seeing the photo from so long ago and their mutual love for Adam’s grandmother (and, as it turns out, Solis’ mother’s aunt, though they’ve never met). The anonymous woman in the obscure photo now had a name, a past, a family who loved, cherished and looked up to her, and who were inspired by the image. Something lost had now been recovered, and it seemed significant, to a diaspora of people who had once toiled anonymously in the Yakima Valley’s fields.
Solis and Fong were blown away by the reaction. It began to dawn on them that there exists a hidden history in those photos that was just waiting to be recovered. “Knowing what they meant to me and to Adam, I thought they must mean something to other people,” Solis recalls. By now it was clear to Fong and Solis the potential the collection had to recover an underappreciated slice of the state’s history. “I think this was a situation where maybe [the WSU Library] didn’t know what a treasure they have,” Solis says. The couple then began brainstorming about what they could do to help surface the collection and raise community awareness of its existence.
First, Fong connected with Israt Turner-Rahman (who goes by the nickname Lipi), the manager of the Kimble Digitation Center at the Library. She was immediately captivated by Fong’s account of how the photo of “mother Elizando” had generated such an emotional outpouring when her relatives had seen it on Solis’ Facebook page. She examined the collection more closely, and realized how sweeping it was, and how it captured so much more than the political struggle for farmworker rights.
“There were photographs of women putting on their wedding dresses. They actually are the memories and stories of that community,” Turner-Rahman told me when I interviewed her in August. “This wonderful collection is sitting in a sub-basement. It is not getting disseminated to the people who need it.” She thought that finding the resources to digitize the collection and make it available online would enable this community of farmworkers and their descendants “to have their history and their narrative become part of the conversation about the history of the state.”
Digitizing photographs is a time consuming, labor intensive process, and converting such a large collection would take months of effort and cost thousands of dollars. That is why, aside from a graduate student digitizing a smattering of photos from the collection about eight years ago – the low resolution thumbnail photos Fong had originally stumbled across – the collection had been stored away in the archives for nearly 30 years, collecting dust.
Rahman-Turner informed Fong that the Library had already applied for an $8,000 state cultural heritage grant administered by the Washington Secretary of State’s office, which if granted would be enough to digitize about a third of the collection. Fong then, along with several legislators – State Reps. Javier Valdez, Rebecca Saldaña, Alex Ybarra, Bill Ramos, and Emily Randall – drafted a letter in support of the grant application.
In that letter, the legislators emphasized the emotional impact these photos would have with Yakima Valley farm workers, They wrote that, “Recently, some of the photographs from the Nash collection were shared via social media. These images elicited emotional and deeply moving responses from many people with roots in the Yakima Valley. In fact, some even proudly recognized family members in the photos, leading them to share their own stories and memories… The photos depict the lives, families, struggles and triumphs of the Chicano experience that words cannot accomplish. This very powerful human connection made possible by Mr. Nash should be available not only to the people across our state but the entire world.”
Their support paid dividends. In early August, WSU learned that the $8,000 grant to begin digitizing the photos had been approved.
In the meantime, others began to get involved as Solis and Fong continued to evangelize for the collection. First, they tracked down a leader in the Yakima Valley farm workers’ rights movement depicted in the photographs named Guadalupe Gamboa, who goes by Lupe. Gamboa recalls getting the call from Solis. Gamboa had known the photographer Nash and is depicted in some of the photos, but until she told him, he had no idea that the archive existed. Solis told him she has been unaware of the history of her community – and the epic struggles Gamboa and other activist leaders had engaged in — until she saw the photographs in the Nash collection. She related that she was incensed that no one had taught her that history, the history of her own community.
“When she called me I was elated,” Gamboa says, “because I always thought it wasn’t right that this community’s history was erased.”
Lupe, the son on Mexican immigrants, grew up working in the Yakima fields at a time when farm workers had almost no protections. Part of a family of nine, Gamboa, his parents and siblings all squeezed into barracks-style labor camp housing. He began
harvesting hoeing sugar beets while still in elementary school.
At the time, farm workers were excluded from every major piece of state labor legislation, Gamboa recalls. They weren’t subject to child labor laws, there was no sick time, no vacation time. “If you didn’t work you didn’t get paid.” And pay rates were very low.
By his teenage years, Lupe began to chafe at the way he was being treated. “I grew up feeling a sense of injustice, of being deprived, that this wasn’t right,” he recalls. In the early 1960s he began hearing about a farm worker leader in California named Cesar Chavez who had begun organizing workers to demand better treatment. It was the first he had heard of anyone challenging the “caste system,” as he refers to it, that held sway in the fields.
Chavez’s example inspired Gamboa and about a dozen other activists to form a farmworkers’ union in the Yakima Valley, and they began agitating for better working conditions in the fields. He got to meet Chavez in 1966. After graduating from the University of Washington in 1968, Gamboa returned to the fields as part of the American Civil Liberties Union’s farmworkers project, registering workers to vote and challenging the rampant barriers that had been erected to keep them from making their voices heard politically.
In 1970, Gamboa was deeply involved in a week-long wildcat strike that began on a hops farm in Granger and quickly spread to 15 other farms. It was a seminal moment, he recalls. At the time male farmworkers were paid $1.50 an hour to harvest hops, women received $1.25. With the strike spreading and paralyzing the harvest, the farmers relented and gave in to the strikers’ demand, raising their pay to $2 an hour. “That was the first major time that workers rebelled against the conditions in the fields,” Gamboa says.
One person who was tagging along with Gamboa during the hops strike was a young photographer from Seattle named Irwin Nash. Nash had begun regularly visiting the Yakima Valley in 1967, camera in hand, to document the farmworkers’ struggles. Sometimes he would stay with Gamboa at his home in Sunnyside. “He was independent and he didn’t have much money,” Gamboa remembers, “but he was very motivated.”
After the 1970 strike, the struggles in the fields continued for years, Gamboa says. There were “incredible retaliation” and a “blacklisting campaign” but Gamboa and others kept up the struggle. He remembers getting arrested in 1971 with other activists at an asparagus farm in Walla Walla County, charged with criminal trespass. Gradually, in fits and starts, they made progress winning recognition for the workers, better pay and working conditions. By the late 1970s, much of the turmoil had subsided.
As the farmworkers’ struggles faded into the past, the younger generation growing up the towns of the Yakima Valley had little idea of what their elders had been through. While Gamboa had squired Nash around the fields and to community gatherings, he had no idea what Nash had done with all of the photos he was taking. The history he had lived through was beginning to fade into the mists of time, undocumented and increasingly forgotten.
Then Laura Solis called. Gamboa was excited to learn that Nash’s collection had been preserved in an archive at WSU. “It is so important to tell the story of the struggles of the workers, of what they went through to build this rich industry.” Nash’s photographs, he said, cataloged critical moments in the history of an emerging community that otherwise was being lost. It “captures the awakening of a people” is how he put it to me.
When Fong told him the WSU Library lacked the funding to make the collection available online, Lupe sprang into action. He called old friends, former and present legal services lawyers and some of the organizations that were active in the struggle. When he asked for support, the response he got was overwhelmingly positive. He quickly raised more than $15,000. “People were saying, ‘It’s about time this story got told,’” he says.
As I was working on this story, I rooted around on the internet trying to discover what had happened to Irwin Nash. I found some old, outdated records, but nothing recent. I concluded, erroneously as it turns out, he must have passed. While we were talking, Lupe Gamboa told me that Nash is still with us, and that he would connect us. Lipi Israt-Rahman said the same. A couple days later Gamboa emailed me. “I made contact with Irwin this afternoon. He is well and has very good recollection of past events. He is 84 years old and is currently living in an assisted living facility in Seattle. He recalls that we first met when I was a student activist at the UW. He was friends with people involved in the Chicano student movement there and took photos of the grape boycott activities there,” he wrote.
Irwin Nash and I connected on the phone soon after. Even his mid-80s, Nash’s lifelong passion for social and economic justice burned brightly. With a firecracker intensity, he told me the story of how his upbringing in Seattle led to his burgeoning political activism and concern for the plight of the downtrodden, which eventually took him to the Yakima Valley’s agricultural fields in 1967 and kept bringing him back through the mid-‘70s.
Nash explained that he grew up in Seattle’s Central District the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland who emigrated in the 1920s hoping both to escape anti-Semitism and to improve their economic circumstances. He recalled the neighborhood, back then in the 1940s, was diverse – “all kinds of racial and ethnic mixes” – and that despite their differences, everyone seemed to be in the same boat. “There was a lot of friendliness, and warmth,” he said. “Families got along.”
But as he got a little older it began to dawn on him that not everyone was treated equally in our society. The discrimination against people of color was impossible to miss. “None of that sat well with me when I was a kid.”
Nash had developed an interest in documentary photography at an early age, and around the age of 13 he got his first camera. Later, he began working as a freelance photographer. Through involvement with the Council of Churches, Nash met a bilingual poverty worker who offered to take him around the migrant labor agricultural camps in the Yakima Valley.
Though he spoke no Spanish at the time, Nash agreed, and was immediately struck by the plight of the people he met. “You go into a situation and you encounter people who are a minority in this country, not fluent in English, who were working in conditions where they got no protections. It made me angry. My sense of right and wrong was highly irritated. It was very bad then.” Nash said to me. He saw their plight as rooted in pervasive racism and remembered thinking that unless something significant changed, “all these people are screwed. That’s how my quest began.”
That 1967 visit became the first of many trips over the next several years, as Nash began documenting not just the political struggles of the farm workers but their domestic life as well. Along with agitation in the fields, he photographed weddings, community meetings, visits to the clinic, everyday life. “This was a labor of love,” he says. “It needed to be done.” Nash was impacted enough by his experiences visiting those farm worker communities that eventually in the late 1970s he moved to Mexico for a time and learned Spanish.
Eventually, Nash says, he “accumulated a whole pile of material,” approximately 11,500 images in all. A few of his photos were used in a Seattle Magazine story from May 1968 about the farm workers’ plight titled, “The Shame of this Valley,” and a few were used in a 2009 KCTS9 documentary. Mostly, though, they didn’t get much exposure. “All along I hoped they could be of use to improve the living and working conditions of the farm workers,” Nash said, as he linked the photos he was taking 50 years ago with Seattle’s still supercharged progressive tradition – he approvingly mentioned the recent push for a $15 minimum wage – of seeking greater economic justice. He tells me he’s always been motivated by a desire to “see things get better than they are now.”
Around 1990 0r 1991 a former director at the WSU Library named John Guido learned about the collection and contacted Nash about acquiring it. Nash thought it would be a good way to get the collection into a central repository where it might become “useful to people over the years,” so he agreed to sell the collection. He wouldn’t tell me how much he was compensated, other than he sold it “not for very much.”
There it languished, and Nash didn’t hear anything more about his photos until Lipi Turner-Rahman contacted him and told him that Solis and Fong’s discovery of the archive was provoking a surge of interest in it. “This whole thing was a mystery to me until two weeks ago,” he told me when we talked last August.
Turner-Rahman filled Nash in on the Library’s expanding plans for the collection. As she explained it to me, digitizing the collection will enable the photos to be incorporated in classroom instruction, for example in introductory history courses. And will allow for a multi-year oral history project, capturing the narratives and histories of the people depicted – many now in their 80s – for the benefit of future generations.
After the initial $8,000 state grant was approved last August, the Kimble Center hired six students to begin the scanning process, Rahman-Turner explained to me recently. Working off Nash’s negatives, two electronic copies of each photo were made, one an archival, high resolution copy and a normal resolution version for posting on the Library’s web site. By late January, the students had finished scanning all of the photos, and currently are in the process of adding metadata – dates, names (where they are known), and a more detailed description of what is depicted in each photo. As of early March, about 4,000 of the photos are now available online, with a new batch uploaded every Friday.
Once the full collection is public, which should be around June, Turner-Rahman said the Library will start a new phase of evangelizing the collection, reaching out to the farm worker community to ask them to identify the people in the pictures and offer up their stories, and to the local media as well. She also hopes to get further help then from the State of Washington to promote the collection.
Already, the digitization effort is sparking interest. Lipi relates that recently she was contacted by a woman who was excited to report that one of the newly uploaded photos is of her and her sister when they were young children.
“This is a population in Washington State that is integral to our narrative,” Lipi said. “It is imperative to finish [scanning] the whole collection and get it up.”
At the close of our August conversation, I asked Irwin Nash what he thought about all of the newfound interest, and these grand plans for the collection. “It’s gratifying,” he replied. “I hope it does some good.”
Elisia Elizondo still lives in Granger, Washington, in a house with a big yard that she has owned since the late 1970s, where multiple generations of her large family – she had nine children, seven boys and two girls – used to gather. She is turning 90 this year, her grandson Adam Elizondo told me, and old age has begun to catch up with her. But Adam, who is 43 and lives now in Yakima, remembers her in her prime, the matriarch of the family, her house the center of Elizondo family life when he was growing up. He recalls that everyone in the family, young and old, would work in the fields, and then gather at her house. “She raised us,” he said when we chatted recently on the phone, “she was always family first.”
She lived a life of hard work and ceaseless toil, Adam said. Her husband died young, at 38, so she raised her children largely on her own. He remembers she would wake up every morning at 3 am, take care of the house and the family, feed the kids and get them off to school. Then she would work in the fields much of the day, breaking up that labor with her second job as a cook at a daycare center. She’d get home around six in the evening, cook for her family and soon after she would retire to bed.
She followed that routine day after day, week after week, year after year, the obligations of work and family dictating the rhythms of her existence, and the sacrifices she made. “She’s a great woman,” her grandson said. “She was always just the most hardworking person I’ve ever known. One of the toughest ladies you’d ever meet.”
Adam said that seeing that photo of Elisia boxing asparagus that his cousin Laura had posted on Facebook unleashed powerful memories and emotions. “As soon as I saw that photo it immediately took me back to when I was a little kid, crawling around as a baby in the fields,” under the watchful eye of his grandmother.
“I had no idea [the Nash collection] existed,” he said. “These photos are so important, not just for my family history but for the history of this area. For me this is everything. People can see how people used to live, can see the hard work that it took in the fields to get this area to where it is today.”
Nearly 50 years ago his grandmother was doing what she did day in and day out, toiling in the fields, boxing asparagus, when a once forgotten photographer named Irwin Nash snapped a photo of her. It took all that time, but now “mother Eilzondo” has a history, a story, a family. Her name is Elisia.