SEATTLE — As a steady drizzle blurred the view of Lake Washington and the Cascade Range, three good friends remembered drier and warmer days decades ago.
Michael J. Fox, a retired King County Superior Court judge, sat at his dining room table with Lupe Gamboa, a fellow lawyer and labor organizer, and Seattle documentary photographer Irwin Nash. It was June 11. Nearly 50 years had passed since the evening of June 19, 1971, when Fox — then a Seattle-King County Legal Aid Bureau Inc. attorney who spoke passable Spanish — and labor organizers Gamboa, Patricia Cope and Sandy O’Brien went to the Rogers Walla Walla labor camp to talk to migrant workers about the union and their legal rights.
Fox and Gamboa were arrested for trespassing, a misdemeanor, after a camp supervisor asked them to leave and Gamboa and Fox refused. They all stayed with Gamboa’s sister in Walla Walla that night.
The next morning, Fox drove everyone back to Sunnyside in his green Volvo. Gamboa, Cope and O’Brien dozed in the back seat as Nash sat next to Fox. Capturing another moment in the fight for better pay and living conditions for farmworkers in the Lower Yakima Valley, Nash turned around and photographed the scene somewhere between the two cities.
”People asleep in a car” is one of 9,449 images in the Irwin Nash Photographs of Yakima Valley Migrant Labor Collection at Washington State University in Pullman. They span 1967 and 1976 and highlight efforts by Gamboa and Fox, who were convicted of trespassing then exonerated by the Washington Supreme Court, and many others to support the many migrant farmworkers who plant, tend and harvest the Valley’s agricultural bounty.
Nash photographed dozing people, farmworkers in the fields and famous labor leaders such as Cesar Chavez in the time he spent in the Yakima Valley documenting agricultural protests of Latino and Indigenous farmworkers. Inspired by the work of his heroes Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine and W. Eugene Smith, Nash showed their lives, unfiltered.
He wanted “to call attention to the plight of a segment of the population that has never received the recognition and compensation merited by their contribution to our society,” Nash was quoted as saying for WSU’s summary of the photo collection.
After meeting farmworkers forced to sleep on dirt floors and have no bathroom facilities or breaks while working in the fields — along with other indignities such as rat feces in the flour of some labor camp mess halls — Nash also wanted change.
“The bottom line was I wanted to see legislation that makes things better,” he said June 11. “That’s why I did all that.”
Nash, who is 85, sold the collection to the university in April 1991. Most of the images came to WSU on more than 300 individual sets of film strip negatives and corresponding contact print proof sheets with as many as 36 images each.
Staff with the Kimble Digitization Center, along with students, spent nearly a year uploading images. They finished processing the collection June 14.
Lipi Turner-Rahman, manager of the Kimble Digitization Center at WSU Libraries, led the effort. She wanted the entire collection up so people could start searching it in hopes they would find themselves, family members or friends and thus refine and add to the narratives for each photo.
She’s seeking more grants for oral narratives and exhibits and overseeing a private Facebook group, Nash Photo Collection, which she created after an article by Sandeep Kaushik on Post Alley, “Her Name is Elisia,” brought the collection into the public eye.
Kaushik described how Lower Valley native Laura Solis of Seattle and her partner, Mike Fong, found 100 of Nash’s photos online while they sought a picture of her relative. She shared a photo that Nash took of Elisia Elizondo of Granger, and the reaction on social media was swift and emotional. Solis learned more about her family after discovering Nash’s often stark yet tender photos. She and Fong later met Nash, a private person who would rather talk about his photos than himself.
Nash made many friends as he spent time in the Valley in the ’60s and ’70s. Some shared their homes with him and he repaid their kindness with good cooking, including his much-loved spaghetti. He often stayed in a small building behind the Sunnyside home of Gamboa’s mother, Martina Molina Gamboa. It’s still in their family.
Speaking little Spanish until later in life when he became fluent, Nash relied on others to introduce him and take him to the places where he could photograph big events and everyday happenings.
“I had help from people in the community,” Nash said. “People guided me.”
Growing up with social justice
Nash grew up in Seattle’s Central District, about three blocks from where he lives in Sea Mar’s Cannon House assisted living facility. COVID-19 precautions prevented a meeting at Cannon House, so Fox went to get him. Gamboa drove over from his home in Seattle.
He was the only child of a homemaker and a watchmaker who learned his craft as an apprentice while growing up in Różan, a small town in Poland with a substantial Jewish population where more than 1,400 were murdered in the Holocaust. His father arrived in the United States in 1922. Sponsored by an uncle in Seattle, he worked to save money to bring over Irwin Nash’s mother in 1928.
Nash had no interest in watchmaking. But after he got a camera from his father, he started taking photos as a young teen. “I didn’t know what I was doing at the beginning,” he said. “You get familiar with a lot of technology and in those days, nothing was automated. It was like cooking from scratch.”
Almost immediately, Nash found his favorite subject.
“People. It was always people,” he said. “The primary impetus is the relationship of people to themselves and their environment.”
He learned at an early age to care about others. His father took him to a “Hooverville” in downtown Seattle where Ivar’s restaurant is located now, and Nash remembers when neighbors of Japanese ancestry were among the thousands forced into concentration camps as a result of Executive Order No. 9066. They included more than 1,000 women, men and children from the Yakima Valley.
“I was standing on the second-floor balcony of my neighbor’s” home, Nash recalled. “People were crying, but at that age I had no idea of the magnitude of what was happening.”
Nash studied psychology and anthropology at the University of Washington. He was reading newspapers in the UW library one Friday morning in the fall of 1967 when he saw an article about a drought in the Yakima Valley and the shortage of food for migrant workers. Nash headed to the Seattle Council of Churches office and learned more about the organization’s work to send food and other aid to farmworkers and their families.
“In those days, there was no municipal or federal help for people unless they were here a year,” he said. “I drove over there ... for a couple weeks and took a pile of pictures, then took them down to Seattle Magazine.”
Editors wanted the story. Nash returned to the Valley with writer James Halpin and took photos of the living conditions at the Yakima County-owned Ahtanum Labor Camp along with some at the Crewport camp near Zillah.
‘The Shame of This Valley’
Halpin’s article and Nash’s photos were published in Seattle Magazine in May 1968. A short introduction to the article, titled “The Shame of This Valley,” set the tone. “For thousands of migrants who flock each spring to Eastern Washington, life isn’t the paradise some people proclaim,” it said.
After describing all the Valley had to offer its tourists and permanent residents, “Living in starkly contrasting conditions are those who harvest the crops that provide all the well-being — the migrant workers,” Halpin wrote.
While Halpin learned about the life of a migrant worker living along the Yakima River in a burned-out school bus with his six children, Nash photographed Mrs. Lelan Cowan, a divorced mother who lived with her nine children in a two-room shack near the Ahtanum labor camp.
“Instead of beds, a half-dozen grimy mattresses are strewn on the floor. The plumbing is a sink cold-water tap; the single seat outhouse is in back,” Halpin wrote in describing Cowan’s rental home.
He talked about the infamous “bonus system,” in which growers withheld part of farmworkers’ wages, giving it back only if workers stayed the entire season. If not, the grower kept the “bonuses.”
Both men worked diligently to accurately tell the story. To get a panoramic shot of the Ahtanum camp, Nash climbed a water tower, holding on with his right hand as he held out the camera and framed the shot with his left.
Nash could see the status difference in the different kinds of agricultural work. While white workers climbed trees for that work, “stoop labor was for Mexicans,” Gamboa said.
Gamboa grew up in the Valley after his family moved from the Texas when he was in first grade. The Gamboas lived in labor camps when they first arrived, and Gamboa worked in the fields with his family before graduating from Sunnyside High School.
“I remember as a child growing up worrying about when work was going to start,” he said. “We had to make it through the winter.”
Through the years of attending then-Yakima Valley College and law school at UW, Gamboa remembered those worries.
Nash listened and learned as he photographed everyone from infants to seniors. Taking what experience and knowledge he had and what he’d seen, “I decided I’d like to do what I could” to help, Nash said. He shot a lot of pictures because he had no guarantee he could come back to the Valley.
“It’s like a rough draft for a book. You put down possibly everything you can do and later you cull it out. You distill it,” Nash said.
“I took pictures of all sorts of things. I just did what I could and hope something would be good.”
Labor meetings, family gatherings and hard work
During the years he took photos in the Yakima Valley, Nash sold some of his photos from the Valley, including one of Chavez to Atlantic Monthly. “At that time (Chavez) was beginning to become a big figure” in the farmworker labor movement, Gamboa
Of the thousands of photos he took, Nash can remember the camera settings of some. He made a few photos in color of a farmworker whose skin was inflamed by pesticide. He captured scenes of people packing up and leaving.
“My favorite photo is something I shot of people picking asparagus at dawn,” he said. “It was people I didn’t know and never got near,” he said. “The angle of light was such that it wasn’t too much after dawn. There are four people in it, each doing something different.”
Looking back on those days with Nash, Gamboa and the others advocating for farmworkers, Fox remembered how warm and welcoming communities were to him, an Anglo from the East Coast. He spent lots of time with Gamboa, Tomas Villanueva, Roberto Treviño, Carlos Treviño “and other young Chicanos, and we bonded,” Fox wrote.
“That whole thing changed my life. I was involved in a social movement that was successful. They were great people,” Fox said. He went on from there to represent the United Construction Workers Association, founded by Tyree Scott in 1970 to open historically all-white unions to minority workers. Fox represented construction workers and Valley farmworkers for 15 years.
Nash’s photos made a difference and brought friends together, Fox said. They are still friends. Fox had lunch with Nash in March. Gamboa had lunch with Fox in late May.
“We hit it off and it’s hard to believe that after 50 years, it feels comfortable,” Nash said.
And on June 19, Fox and Gamboa met Roberto and Carlos Treviño, Donna Treviño and Martin Yanez, along with other family members, to remember and celebrate.
“All inspired by these wonderful photos by Irwin Nash,” Fox wrote.
Before he, Gamboa and Nash posed for a portrait in Fox’s home on June 11, Gamboa looked fondly at Nash.
“This guy captured us. Everything,” he said.
This story has been updated.