More on passing of Helen Chavez, who helped her husband, Cesar Chavez, give birth to and sustain America’s first enduring farm workers union
Keene, Calif.—After they were married in 1948, Cesar Chavez would return home after experiencing a fresh injustice toiling in the fields and tell his bride, Helen, “somebody’s got to do something about it.” Helen Chavez nurtured her husband’s dream of organizing farm workers. She and their eight small children gave up a middle class lifestyle in 1962, embracing a life of voluntary poverty to support her husband’s labors. During the earliest years when he would sometimes return home to Delano, Calif. after days on the road feeling alone and demoralized, not having recruited anyone into his new union, she would encourage him, saying, “Cesar, you have to have faith in God that what you’re doing is right.” He would feel better, go out and try again.
Helen Fabela Chavez, 88, who played a vital role helping her husband give birth to what became the first enduring farm workers union in U.S. history—and sustained him during the 31 years he led the United Farm Workers of America—passed away of natural causes on Monday, June 6 at San Joaquin Community Hospital in Bakersfield surrounded by many of her seven surviving children, 31 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.
Helen, a humble woman from Delano, used her fierce determination to help change the lives of thousands of farm workers and millions of others who were inspired by La Causa. Born Helen Fabela on Jan. 21, 1928 in the Imperial Valley town of Brawley, to Eloisa and Vidal Fabela—one of Pancho Villa’s colonels during the Mexican Revolution—the family soon moved into a converted horse barn on the Myers Ranch outside McFarland near Delano. She worked the fields with her family.
Helen was eight years old in 1936, when the family moved to Delano. Her father died when she was 12, leaving her mother to raise six children. A good student, Helen dropped out of Delano High School in her sophomore year to help support the family. She worked at the DiGiorgio Fruit Corp.’s fields and packinghouse. Helen was known growing up for dancing the Jitterbug with her friends—including Richard Chavez, Cesar Chavez’s younger brother—on Saturday nights at the Honorifica Mexicana Hall in west Delano.
Helen met Cesar in the mid-1940s inside a malt shop at 11th and Glenwood in Delano. They began courting while she worked at People’s Market and were married in 1948, after his discharge from the U.S. Navy. The Chavezes had eight children: Fernando, Sylvia, Linda, Eloise, Anna, Paul, Elizabeth and Anthony. Helen and the children frequently moved around California with her husband as he organized chapters of the Community Service Organization civil rights group from 1952 to 1962.
Cesar and Helen decided to leave a comfortable middle-class life in East Los Angeles in 1962, and moved into a small two-bedroom house at 1221 Kensington Street in Delano to begin organizing farm workers. Having given up his regular paycheck, it was a time of great hardship. Helen often had to raise the children by herself while Cesar was on the road. She returned to fieldwork while Cesar organized up and down the state’s vast Central Valley; on weekends Cesar and some of the older children joined her.
Quiet and humble but fiercely determined and strong willed, Helen didn’t speak in public, but held deep convictions. In September 1965, while Cesar’s young Latino union debated whether to join a grape strike begun that month by members of a largely Filipino union, Helen in her quiet, no-nonsense way settled the debate by asking, “Are we a union or not?”
During the Delano grape strike Helen joined vineyard picket lines before dawn and then worked all day running the Farm Workers Credit Union for more than 25 years before retiring. It loaned more than $20 million to farm worker members over the years. During this period she not only raised her own kids, but also became a surrogate mother to many young volunteers who came to Delano and later to La Paz, UFW headquarters in Keene, Calif., to work with the movement. Helen was known for her prowess in the kitchen and good food. She cooked for countless union events and conventions as well as weddings, baptisms and Thanksgiving and Christmas meals for movement volunteers who couldn’t make it home. Like all union staff, including Cesar, Helen made $5 a week plus food and housing.
A genuinely modest person, Helen had an arrangement with Cesar: She let her husband become an international public figure and he respected her privacy. Helen never spoke at public events or granted interviews to reporters.
Yet she was with Cesar at a private audience with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in 1974. She accepted for her husband a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, from President Bill Clinton at the White House in 1994. She Christened USNS Cesar Chavez, the U.S. Navy’s latest Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ship on May 5, 2012 in San Diego. She greeted President Obama on Oct. 8, 2012, when he visited Keene to dedicate the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, the 398th unit of the National Parks Service.
Walking away from her husband’s gravesite at Keene on President Obama’s arm, a frail Helen Chavez asked Mr. Obama, “Mr. President, will you promise you will do something on immigration reform?” “Yes, Mrs. Chavez,” he replied, “I promise I will.”
Helen met Anthony Quinn, Coretta Scott King, Robert and Ethel Kennedy, Charlton Heston, Valerie Harper, Martin Sheen and many others. But she was most comfortable spending Saturday afternoons with family and friends enjoying a barbecue and a cold Olympia beer or two, listening to oldies and rancheras, and occasionally belting out a grito.
Her consistent humility, selflessness, quiet heroism and fiery perseverance were at the heart of the movement she helped build.
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