US & World

Helen Chavez, widow of labor leader Cesar, dies at 88

In this file photo, Helen Chavez holds grand daughter Christian, 1, while viewing he plain pine box containing her husband’s body, Cesar, during graveside services at La Paz, the United Farm Worker’s in Keene, California headquarter on Friday, May 1, 1993.
In this file photo, Helen Chavez holds grand daughter Christian, 1, while viewing he plain pine box containing her husband’s body, Cesar, during graveside services at La Paz, the United Farm Worker’s in Keene, California headquarter on Friday, May 1, 1993.
Bob Galbraith/AP

Helen Chavez, widow of civil rights and labor leader Cesar Chavez, died Monday at a hospital in Bakersfield surrounded by family. She was 88.

Though she avoided the public spotlight, Helen Chavez helped power the farm labor movement with her “consistent humility, selflessness, quiet heroism and fiery perseverance,” according to Marc Grossman, communications director for The Chavez Foundation, who confirmed her death in a statement Monday.

Chavez was born in 1928 in the central valley town of Brawley. She met Cesar in the mid–1940s after moving to Delano, and they were married in 1948, according to the statement.

The two left behind a middle-class life in East Los Angeles to begin organizing farmworkers, Helen often having to raise the children by herself while Cesar was on the road. She also ran the Farm Workers Credit Union for many years.

Helen Chavez is survived by seven children, 31 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Grossman, who served as Cesar Chavez’s press secretary, speechwriter and personal aide, told KPCC’s Nick Roman that he was close friends with one of Chavez’s sons and knew her for 47 years.

He said Helen Chavez played a vital role in helping her husband improve the rights of farmworkers across the country.

The full interview with Grossman, edited slightly for clarity, appears below.

What roll did Helen Chavez play in the farm labor movement?

[I’ll] give you a story that really illustrates it. When they first got married in 1948, Cesar would return home from experiencing a fresh injustice toiling in the fields, and he would tell his bride Helen, “Somebody’s got to do something about it.” Helen nurtured this dream that her husband had of organizing farmworkers. She and their eight small children gave up a middle-class lifestyle in 1962, and they embraced a life of voluntary poverty after moving to Delano. During the earliest years when Cesar would sometimes return home to Delano after days on the road feeling alone and demoralized, not having recruited anybody into his new union, Helen would encourage him and buck him up and say, “Cesar, you have to have faith in God that what you’re doing is right.” And he would feel better, and he would go out and try it again.

And she was no stranger to the kind of workers that he was organizing. I mean, she grew up in Delano, and she even did farm work herself.

Helen was born in Brawley, in the Imperial Valley, but the family moved to McFarland when she was a little girl. They lived in a converted horse barn near McFarland, and when they moved to Delano, her father died, leaving the mother to raise six children. She worked in the fields, including DiGiorgio Fruit Corporation fields and packing sheds. She met Cesar there in Delano, and really, even though they escaped farm labor, when Cesar was organizing in East L.A. and other cities, the Community Service Organization, a civil rights group, they returned to Delano, and she had to go back to work in the fields to support the family while her husband organized, driving to countless farm towns around the Central Valley. It was a life that she had known and she had escaped from, and with her husband they returned to try to make some fundamental change happen.

It takes a great amount of faith on the part of a woman to raise eight children while her husband is out working on something, where for many, many years, he showed very little success. What kind of a woman was she?

Incredibly determined, fierce perseverance, unfalteringly kind and humble. She never gave an interview to a reporter. She never spoke in public. But she was the rock of the movement. When Cesar’s mostly Latino union was debating whether to join the 1965 Delano grape strike, which had begun by Filipino farmworkers, Helen finally spoke up, and she said, “Are we a union or not?” And that decided the question.

Did you have an opportunity to speak with her?

I knew Helen well for 47 years. I grew up with some of their older kids. Their oldest son, Fernando, and I have been close friends since we were in college in the late ’60s.

Cesar Chavez died 23 years ago. So she’s been a widow for all that time. Did she keep involved with the movement or did she decide that now’s time to focus on family?

She never stopped working. Even when she retired, so to speak, from running the Farm Workers Credit Union, which she did for a quarter of a century, she was with President Obama in 2012 when he visited our headquarters at Keene, California, which is now the Cesar Chavez National Monument. And as they were walking away from her husband’s grave site, she was on President Obama’s arm, and although Helen was not politically outspoken and never spoke in public, she told the president, she said, “Mr. President, will you promise me you will do something on immigration reform?” And Mr. Obama said, “Mrs. Chavez, I promise I will.” So Helen was not afraid to speak up and stand up for her principles. She was arrested a number of times during farmworker strikes and boycotts, so this was a woman who never stopped caring and never stopped working for the shared ideals that she lived through her husband.

Do you believe that Helen Chavez gets the credit that she deserves for the eventual success of the movement?

Probably not, but it was not credit that she solicited. Helen told me once when I asked her if Cesar did not know that his children and his family were going to be cared for, especially those early years when there was no one but them, you know, would he have done the work? Would he have jeopardized the welfare of his children? And she said, “No, I don’t think he would have.” So in many ways, Cesar Chavez was able to accomplish what he did and do the work that he did because of his wife Helen Chavez.