Helen Fabela Chavez, widow of farm labor and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez passed away June 6 of natural causes. She was 88.
While often described as “quiet and humble,” Helen was fiercely supportive of her husband’s efforts to build the United Farm Workers of America, at times being the family’s only source of income and standing beside her husband on the picket line
Born on January 21, 1928, in Brawley, California, Helen Chavez grew up in a converted barn near the Central Valley town of McFarland, California, and in nearby Delano, where she dropped out of high school to support her family by working in the fields, according to the United Farm Workers website. She met her husband, Cesar Chavez, in Delano while they were both laboring as farm workers in the mid-1940s. Helen and Cesar corresponded while he served in the Navy and married upon his discharge in 1948.
Helen, with a growing family that eventually numbered eight children, moved frequently with her husband when in the 1950s he organized the most effective Latino civil rights group of that period. Cesar Chavez’s decision, along with his wife, to resign from that job in 1962 and move to Delano to begin building what would become the United Farm Workers, meant the family gave up its middle-class life in East Los Angeles for a life of self-imposed poverty.
Helen went back to work in the fields to help the family survive while her husband travelled the Central Valley recruiting farm workers. She also cared for their eight children: Fernando, Sylvia, Linda, Eloise, Liz, Paul, Anna, and Anthony.
In 1965, during the Delano Grape Strike, one of the most volatile times in the Union’s history, Helen supported the movement by taking over management of the Farm Workers Credit Union, and worked full time at the union office while maintaining a home life, according the UFW.
“Because of Helen’s focus as a mother caring for and educating their children, and a wife, most of the credit for the efforts of migrant farm workers to overcome the opposition and antagonism of agricultural employers, the growers, went to her husband,” according to Maurice Jourdane, a longtime Chavez family friend and the attorney who successfully pushed for an end to the use of the short-handled hoe in California. “Helen did far more than maintain the home,” said Jourdane. “To help support the family, Helen returned to the field picking grapes for less than $2 a day and became the full-time administrator of the union’s credit union” … quickly learning the bookkeeping skills needed to maintain the UFW’s financial records for more than 20 years, according to Jourdane.
Helen and Cesar Chavez became the foundation of La Causa (The Cause), Jourdane writes in his blog on the Huffington Post.
With her more famous husband, Helen fought for recognition of the Union; she was arrested in 1966 for shouting Huelga (“Strike”) at a San Joaquin Valley ranch.
On his Facebook page, Teatro Campesino founder Luis Valdez, had this to say about Helen Chavez: “I had the privilege of knowing her and calling her my dear friend for over 50 years … Regardless of how tough the fight became, she was always a believer in the struggle for social justice, and it was this faith and strength that undoubtedly fueled the creation of United Farm Workers of America.
The daughter of a revolutionary general in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, she became the wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother of an entire movement.”