Helen Chavez, wife of labor leader Cesar Chavez, dies

Cesar and Helen Chavez in London promoting the farm workers’ second grape boycott in 1974.
Cesar and Helen Chavez in London promoting the farm workers’ second grape boycott in 1974. Special to The Bee

Helen Fabela Chavez, a dedicated mother, worker advocate and wife of famed labor leader Cesar Chavez, died Monday in Bakersfield of natural causes.

Mrs. Chavez was 88.

Known for her fierce dedication, humbleness and strong will, Mrs. Chavez was an integral part of helping to form the United Farm Workers Union.

Although she shied away from the media spotlight, she worked tirelessly behind the scenes, raising her family of eight children and supporting her husband, who would become an internationally known figure.

“She was his foundation,” said Marc Grossman, a longtime friend and union spokesman.

Born in Brawley, Mrs. Chavez grew up working in the fields of the Imperial Valley. She was 12 when her father died. During her sophomore year of high school, she dropped out to help her mother, who was raising six children.

For fun, Mrs. Chavez enjoyed dancing, especially the jitterbug. She and her friends would meet at the Honorifica Mexicana Hall in west Delano.

Mrs. Chavez met her future husband in the mid-1940s while at a malt shop in Delano. After a courtship that lasted several years, they married in 1948. When Cesar Chavez, who died in 1993, was discharged from the U.S. Navy, the couple started a family. Over the years, they would have eight children.

Grossman said that from the beginning, Mrs. Chavez was dedicated to helping her husband and raising their children. The early days were hard, Grossman said. While Cesar Chavez was on the road, recruiting and promoting the union, she went back to working in the fields to help make ends meet.

“She knew other wives of other organizers and union leaders who gave their husbands a lot of grief for being gone so much and working for little money,” Grossman said. “But she never once complained. And as much as she was a mother to her own children, she also was a mother to many volunteers.”

Grossman said Mrs. Chavez’s strong, quiet determination became evident during a discussion in 1965 when the union was debating internally about whether to join a grape strike started by a union made up of mostly Filipino workers.

Grossman said she settled the debate by asking, “Are we a union or not?”

In her later years, Mrs. Chavez would meet presidents, religious leaders, activists and actors.

In 1994, she was at the White House to accept the posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award, from President Bill Clinton on behalf of her husband, who died in 1993.

She also greeted President Barack Obama in 2012 when he visited Keene to dedicate the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument.

Mrs. Chavez also came to know Anthony Quinn, Coretta Scott King, Robert and Ethel Kennedy, Martin Sheen and many others.

Still, despite knowing famous people and presidents, Grossman said Mrs. Chavez was most comfortable with her family and friends, having a barbecue, listening to music and enjoying a cold Olympia beer.

“Her consistent humility, selflessness, quiet heroism and fiery perseverance were at the heart of the movement she helped build,” Grossman said.

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob

Helen Fabela Chavez

Born: Jan. 21, 1928

Died: June 6, 2016

Occupation: Retired, Farm Worker Credit Union

Survivors: Children Fernando, Sylvia, Eloise, Anna, Paul, Elizabeth and Anthony. She was preceded in death by husband Cesar and daughter Linda.

Services: 6 p.m. Sunday, rosary and all-night vigil at the Villa La Paz Conference and Education Center, 29700 Woodford-Tehachapi Road, Keene. (Villa La Paz is on the far north side of the 187-acre grounds of the National Chavez Center in Keene); 9 a.m. Monday, Mass of Christian Burial, St. Malachy Catholic Church, 407 W. E St., Tehachapi, (St. Malachy, Cesar and Helen Chavez’s parish in Tehachapi, is 10 miles southeast of Keene off Highway 58.)

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