On June 6, 2016, Helen Fabela Chavez, widow of union icon Cesar Chavez, passed away. Helen was born in Brawley, California in 1928. She grew into adulthood in the San Joaquin Valley near Delano.
Helen's parents were immigrants from Mexico after their involvement in the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Like so many Mexican immigrants, they became migrant farm workers, first in California's Imperial Valley and later in the San Joaquin Valley. Helen began working in the fields when she was seven. At 15, her father died. As the eldest child of six brothers and sisters, Helen dropped out of high school to help support her family. After Cesar Chavez returned from the Navy in 1945, he and Helen began spending time together. Having little money, they walked in the moonlight or perhaps went to a movie. In 1948, they married in a church in San Jose. While starting her own family, Helen continued to be the primary source of income for her siblings and mother. She and Cesar settled in Delano where over the following years the family grew to ten including eight children, Fernando, Sylvia, Linda, Eloise, Liz, Paul, Anna, and Anthony.
From her parents' involvement in the Mexican Revolution, Helen was influenced from her youth to actively improve the lives of others. In the late 1950s, their local Catholic priest in San Jose introduced Helen and Cesar Chavez to Fred Ross, a Community Service (CSO) organizer. Fred Ross urged Cesar to organize for CSO. Cesar at first refused to work with Ross because he was an Anglo, but Helen persuaded Cesar to eventually become a full-time CSO organizer.
As a mother caring for and educating their children, and a wife, Helen focused on the home; 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. But Helen did far more than maintain the home. After her domestic chores at home were finished and the children were asleep, like many women behind the scenes, Helen worked long hours for CSO where she taught literacy classes for farm workers, assisted them in gaining US citizenship, and oversaw Cesar's daily handwritten CSO reports. After César resigned from CSO in 1962 to start the farm workers union that became the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), the family moved back to Delano. 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. Helen felt she lacked the skills necessary to do the job but quickly learned bookkeeping and maintained a financial record of the new union for more than 20 years.
In 1965, the NFWA became the United Farm Workers Organization Committee (UFWOC). The efforts of Helen and Cesar Chavez became the foundation of La Causa (The Cause.) They followed nonviolent alternatives, including marches and fasts to obtain change. They struggled against the unfair labor practices. During the following years, Helen was involved in efforts for recognition of the union; she was arrested in 1966 for shouting Huelga ("Strike") at a San Joaquin Valley ranch. As the daughter of revolutionaries, Helen went beyond the traditional role of a woman involved in political struggles, assisting in the administrative parts of the process and staying out of the public eye, until she was arrested. While she has engaged in few acts of civil disobedience, by example she has encouraged others to undergo arrest when necessary to seek a greater good.
Helen's growing up, facing the daily hardships of working the fields became an invaluable part of the spirit of farm worker and La Causa movements. "Her involvement and passion for the cause became a huge motivator for other Latinos to join the union efforts. . . . Due to the existing sexual division of labor in the union and in society, few women are able or willing to relegate their personal lives or families to a secondary position in order to pursue union organizing. She still remained invisible -- unrecognized and unappreciated by union members and supporters."
The morning after Helen Fabela Chavez passed on, Luis Valdez, the founder of Teatro Campesino that came to life in the early years of Cesar and Helen's efforts to create the farm workers union, posted a facebook piece. Luis told his friends:
"On behalf of the familia of El Teatro Campesino, I wish to express our deepest condolences to the entire Chavez family on the death of the great Helen Fabela Chavez. I had the privilege of knowing her and calling her my dear friend for over 50 years, and last saw her last March in Delano at the commemoration of the 1966 March to Sacramento. She was one of strong, determined founders of the farm workers movement, alongside her husband Cesar and Dolores Huerta. 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 grand mother of an entire movement. Rest in peace, Helen, and may angels speed you to your place among the stars in heaven."
All of us who were fortunate enough to know Helen Chavez join in Luis Valdez's condolences to the Chavez family and feel the loss of a historic woman.