Find Your Passion: Telling A Mexican-American Story

Lisa ElizondoA summer research internship enabled Elizondo to capture oral histories from the farm workers movement in Washington. (Jeff Hanson)

By Richard LeComte

Lisa Elizondo has given names and faces to the history of the farm workers movement in Washington state in the 1960s and 1970s.

Last summer, Elizondo, a McNair Scholar at The University of Alabama, went on a whirlwind tour of Washington and Oakland, Calif., to gather oral histories of the farm workers’ movement in Seattle, the Yakima Valley and other locations. Her project was funded by the McNair Scholars Program. She uncovered stories of how Mexican-Americans united to improve lives through health clinics and academic opportunities.

“The nature of an oral history project is the story,” says Elizondo, a junior majoring in American studies and minoring in Latino studies in New College. “So, I told the story. I asked, ‘Why study Washington? What sets it apart from other hubs of the Chicano movement? And the answer is that it created opportunities in both health care and education.”

Elizondo found her answers in the interviews she conducted during her McNair Scholars Summer Research Internship in June and July under the guidance of Dr. Michael Innis-Jiménez, assistant professor of American studies at UA. She presented a summary of her research as a plenary speaker at the 18th annual University of California Berkeley McNair Research Symposium in Aug. 2010, and during the fall semester at a UA lecture that was part of the celebration of Hispanic Latino Heritage Month.

“Her project not only provides us with a glimpse of the Mexican-American civil rights movement outside of the traditionally studied states of California and Texas, but her oral histories will be a treasure to future researchers,” Innis-Jiménez says. “Elizondo has an extraordinary ability to gather the histories of these individuals who have important stories to tell. She does a great job of analyzing their experiences and creating a well-rounded snapshot of the historical and contemporary importance of El Movimiento in Washington state.”

Yakima Valley produce map
PDFView larger PDF version of Yakima Valley produce map.
A modern map depicting Yakima Valley and the produce grown there. (Courtesy of the Yakima Valley Visitors & Convention Bureau)

Named for astronaut Ronald E. McNair, who died in the Challenger space shuttle flight in 1986, the McNair Scholars Program was started for individuals who are either first-generation college students or are underrepresented in graduate studies, who meet financial criterion. Students who are accepted to the nationally-funded program participate in research and other scholarly activities.

The farm workers’ and Mexican-American civil rights movements hold deep meaning for Elizondo. Her parents, Norma and Epifanio Elizondo, were activists when they were students at the University of Washington in Seattle. That university, Elizondo says, was a wellspring for the movement. In the late 1960s, African-American students and the university’s president struck an agreement to bring more students of color to the university.

“So, they went out into eastern Washington into the Yakima Valley and recruited a lot of Mexican-American kids who had graduated high school but were still working in the fields,” says Elizondo, who is a National Hispanic Scholar and a former member of the UA softball team. “They weren’t sure what they were going to do. These teens hadn’t even thought of college as a possibility. The recruiters said, ‘Come with us. We’re starting a new era at the University of Washington.’ And that’s where a lot of the Mexican-American students came from.”

Elizondo’s parents had moved to Washington state from Texas with their families as part of a stream of farm workers looking for more steady employment. When they got to the University of Washington, they helped organize boycotts and spurred action on several other fronts using a variety of means, including an activist theater group.

“They boycotted grapes on campus,” says Elizondo, who grew up in Burleson, Texas. “Since Seattle is an urban area, there are grocery stores around campus, and students picketed outside of them. Dr. Erasmo Gamboa, former activist and professor at the University of Washington, told me that they were the first campus in the United States to completely remove non-union grapes, which was a major accomplishment.

“They also had an activist theater group that performed skits about different aspects of Mexican-American life in Washington-- farm work, the beautiful and vibrant culture, and their struggles to be educated equally. It was interesting to go through and see old pictures and see the roles my parents were playing in the movement.”

Much has been written about the California United Farm Workers movement led by César Chávez, but not so much about what happened in Washington state. Family memories inspired Elizondo to bring these stories to light, and family connections helped her find activists to interview.

“I owe the success of this project entirely to my parents,” she says. “I met with their old college friends. A lot of those people had stayed there. A lot of the people who came up as leaders of the movement in Washington were personal friends of my parents and my grandmother. It was really awesome to see history come to life in a personal context.”

Chávez was a major inspiration for the movement in Washington; one of the people she interviewed had driven down to California to meet Chávez, and was able to watch him in action.

“They had heard all about him organizing strikes and boycotts with farm workers, so they decided to go down and see what all the fuss was about,” she says. “They went down there and knocked on the door, and a man answered. They asked to see César Chávez, and the man said, ‘I’m César Chávez.’

“They said they had thought it would be a nice building and a big organization for the United Farm Workers, but they got to it and found a small run-down house instead. They said, ‘We have heard a lot about you —what are you doing?’ He said, ‘Instead of telling you what I’m doing, why don’t you spend a couple of weeks working with me?’ So, they’d ride the buses and note who was bringing in scabs to break the strikes and things like that.

“They drew a lot of inspiration from him. Chávez came to Washington a number of times, spoke at the University of Washington and stayed at a house I actually got to see. I saw the attic and bedroom that he used to stay in. It was an emotional moment for me to be in the same room that the forefather of El Movimiento had spent so much time in. I was truly in awe.”

The fruits of the Washington state movement are still around. Activists lobbied for a law to prevent school-age children from working in the fields during the day, which resulted in increased graduation rates for Mexican-Americans. Elizondo also notes the accomplishments of Rogelio Riojas, the first, and current, director of Sea Mar Community Health Centers, based in Seattle. The Sea Mar system has become a key place for serving the often-overlooked low income and minority populations in the state of Washington.

Throughout their college careers and after graduation, some of the student-activists also returned to the Yakima Valley to aid their fellow students and farm workers. Activist Tomás Villanueva founded the local Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, which today has 20 facilities and is considered the largest system of farm worker clinics in the United States.

“The connection between the University of Washington and the Yakima Valley is one that can’t be ignored or discounted,” she says. “There’s such a rich Mexican American community in the Yakima Valley, and that’s where a lot of the students came from. Many activists went back to the Valley and are still making an impact there as educators and advocates. The connection is still as important now as it was then.”

But what fueled Elizondo’s passion the most were her face-to-face interviews with so many of the activists who had joined hands to help improve the lives of their fellow human beings. She’s grateful for the opportunity to let these people tell their own stories.

“I let people talk. That’s the best thing to do,” she says. “I would have liked to do that to a larger extent, sit down and spend a day with them, but due to the time constraints and the time I had to put the project together, most interviews were about an hour. I had the same basic questions that were conversation-starters. Eventually, people opened up and were more than happy to share their experiences with me. I’m just glad that I have the opportunity to let their stories speak to others.”

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This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.