Helen Chavez remembered for sacrifices, quiet determination

Helen and Cesar ChavezPhoto: UFW

From Tehachapi News

By Harold Pierce

Helen Fabela Chavez’s feet never touched the ground during her final march Monday. She was hoisted into the air and carried into the memorial gardens at the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, iconic black and red United Farm Workers flags raised across the aisle as family members draped in white guayaberas trailed behind.

Outside, hundreds clamored outside the gate, peeking through the bars to be in the presence of revolutionary labor leader Cesar Chavez’s wife just once more before she was lowered into the earth.

“Viva Helen Chavez!” one woman yelled from the back of the garden, to which the crowd chanted back, “Viva!”

Chavez, 88, was laid to rest Monday beside her husband and just a few yards from her home in La Paz. Though she’s often memorialized as “the woman behind the man,” her son, Paul Chavez, said she was more like the woman standing beside him.

If not for Helen Chavez’s support, the farm worker movement may never have happened.

Chavez’s selfless determination to create change for thousands, her tirelessness and sacrifice was pointed out over and over by loved ones Monday at St. Malachy’s Catholic Church in Tehachapi, where Cardinal Roger Mahoney, retired archbishop of Los Angeles, presided over the the Mass of Christian Burial earlier in the day. Pope Francis sent his condolences.

Attendees included Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, and actor Edward James Olmos.

The farmworker’s dream is to get away from the fields, move to the suburbs and raise a family — to leave behind that hard toil, Paul Chavez said. Cesar Chavez had achieved that when he asked his family to leave their Los Angeles suburb and return to the fields. He asked for Helen to return to the fields. She wouldn’t refuse, returning to the same fields she picked as a child.

“They made the decision in 1962 to leave the most comfortable life they ever had to move to Delano, go back to the fields and start organizing, and my father never would have made that decision had my mother not been on board 100 percent,” Paul Chavez said after his mother’s burial.

Helen acknowledged that a decade ago in a series of interviews with longtime United Farm Worker spokesman Marc Grossman. Despite being in the background, she held a steadfast dedication to la causa, but always preferred to stay out of the spotlight.

“She didn’t want none of this,” her brother, Frank Fabela said, referring to the large funeral. “She didn’t want to be noticed.” If she saw the hundreds of people, the procession and television cameras broadcasting it, he said, she would be “turning over in her casket.”

Still, her sacrifices were many. She was arrested for the cause, and famously thrust the UFW into standing in solidarity with Filipino farmworkers, when during a debate about whether to strike alongside them, she chimed in and asked, “Are we a union, or not?”

When the Kennedy Administration offered Cesar Chavez a position heading up the just-formed Peace Corps in Latin America —- a cushy position that would have given his family more money than it had ever imagined —- Helen told him it was OK to turn it down to continue working with farm laborers.

“I knew what his mind was set on,” she told Grossman during interviews. “So who was I to change his mind and say, ‘No, I want to go to a different country and live like a queen?’ Even though I lived in poverty myself and worked in the fields all my life, you know… to me (that job offer) was not important.”

Her name’s notoriety belies her humble life. She lived in a weathered and worn two-bedroom home — the same home where she raised four of her children (the other four had moved on by the time the family relocated from Delano in 1971.) Cesar Chavez’s silver Ford town car sits out front, the same place it’s remained since he died in 1993.

Chavez’s activism never halted, not even after her husband died, Paul said. But she didn’t do it by shouting “huelga” or standing on a picket line.

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