Unsung Civil Rights Hero - Helen Fabela Chavez

Unsung Civil Rights Hero - Helen Fabela Chavez
In our last article we took a look at another one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most recognized heroes: Cesar Chavez. Yet, is it not true that behind every great man stands a great woman? This article will shed a little light on the life of one of the many unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, Helen Fabela Chavez: ”the wife of...”

Very little information is available about Helen Fabela, the future Mrs. Cesar Chavez. It is said that her father was a colonel who rode with Pancho Villa, and thus rebellion was in her blood. We know that she and Cesar met in 1942. It was when Cesar was 15 years old and graduated from the 8th grade, only to go into the fields as a young migrant worker.

Their relationship continued to bloom in spite of the physical hardships, and it also endured a two year separation when, in 1944, Cesar Chavez joined the United States Navy and served two years as a deck hand in the Western Pacific.

When he returned in 1946, they resumed their relationship. Finally, in 1948 they married and took a honeymoon trip visiting the California Missions from Sonoma to San Diego. They made their first home (it is said to have been a one-room shack) in Delano and over the course of their married life had eight children and 31 grandchildren!

It is said that Helen was not idle, but instead worked side by side with her husband to see his dreams of improved social conditions fulfilled. The story goes that she and he together began a teaching program to help Mexican farm workers gain literacy in order to be eligible for taking the American citizenship exam.

Later on, she, too, supported her husband’s efforts at organizing a union by working in the fields to earn enough money for food, rent, etc. She picked cotton, walnuts, and grapes.

One online source relates the following vignette of her and husband’s shared dreams:

In 1961, a leader of the peace Corps who was familiar with the work of César in organizing the Community Services Organization (C.S.O.) offered him a job in the Peace Corps, with a salary of $21,000. In those days César had felt CSO was not doing enough to help farm workers. César knew that there was no one else to fight for the farm workers. So he turned down the Peace Corps job and the $21,000, and instead, together with his wife, returned to the farming community of Delano. They supported themselves picking grapes at $1.25 an hour, and started to build the National Farm Workers Association. His decision was completely supported by Helen. (1)
She also actively sought to reach the workers for her husband’s cause, and in doing so even braved arrest. In 1975 she and her daughter Linda were arrested because grape growers of the Jack Pandol & Sons grape ranch near Delano disregarded the new state regulation which granted permission to union organizers to meet with farm workers during off-working hours in the fields to discuss the union, and distribute information about its benefits.

After Cesar’s death in 1993, the last public mention of her is made on August 8, 1994, when she was seen at the White House ceremony accepting the Medal of Freedom, which President Clinton posthumously awarded to her husband.

It was an honor to receive an e-mail from Christine Chavez Delgado, granddaughter of Mrs. Helen Fabela Chavez. With her permission, I am adding to this article some of her insights into her grandmother’s life she graciously shared with me. Mrs. Delgado stated:

Thanks for writing this article. My name is Christine Chavez and I work with the UFW as their political director. Thank you for writing this article. I am proud to say that Helen Chavez is my grandmother. I wanted to add the following about this incredible women.
  • It was my grandmother who went to work back in the fields when my grandfather Cesar starting recruiting members into the union.
  • It was my grandmother who had to explain to her kids why my grandfather wasn't able to make it to a baseball game or a school function.
  • It was my grandmother who comforted my entire family when my grandfather passed. She said for us to be strong for the workers.
  • And it was my grandmother who comforted over 40,000 people who paid their respects to my grandfather, when he passed.
  • To this day she continues to inspire all 31 of her grandchildren including myself. She has never forgotten any of our birthdays. She can tell you where we all live and what is the latest with our lives.
  • She knows by heart what all of our favorite meals are and can have them prepared when we visit. Even my pesky vegan and vegetarian cousins are accommodated.
  • Christmas is her favorite holiday. We all gather in her small living room even though we are all crowded, she would never think of moving it to another larger house.
  • In the morning we make hundreds of tamales enough so we can all take some home to our friends. She walks around and will tell us " oh no that is to much masa, you are not going high enough, mix it more, etc." She is a perfectionist when it comes to her tamales.
  • She loves novellas, a good steak and Santa Barbara. She reads daily, autobiographies are her favorite.
  • She was married to my grandfather for over 50 years. They used to swing dance together.
She is an amazing women.
Thank you, Mrs. Delgado, for sharing this with us!

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