Daughter of farmworkers, now a Ph.D. student studying conditions in the fields, wins $100,000 Bullitt prize

Nina Shapiro, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

SEATTLE -- 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 was set to 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, Wash., 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.


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