Helen Chavez, the wife of Cesar Chavez, was surrounded by family at San Joaquin Community Hospital when she died from natural causes on June 6. She was 88.
Known as humble and quiet in public, Mrs. Chavez’s fierce determination was vital in helping her husband recruit thousands to build the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), the most enduring farm workers union today.
Mrs. Chavez was media-shy and gave few interviews, but told the Los Angeles Times in 1976: “I want to see justice for the farm workers. I was a farm worker and I know what it is like to work in the fields.”
Although a good student, she dropped out of Delano High School in her sophomore year to help support her family, according to a UFW statement. Helen met Cesar in the mid-1940s inside a malt shop, and the two were married in 1948, after his discharge from the U.S. Navy.
The couple left a comfortable, middle-class life in East Los Angeles in 1962, and returned to Delano to begin organizing farm workers, ultimately founding UFW.
Mrs. Chavez worked in the field picking grapes while her husband organized and built the new union. She ultimately became full-time administrator of the credit union, and remained a financial record keeper for more than 20 years.
“Quiet and humble but fiercely determined and strong willed, Helen didn’t speak in public, but held deep convictions,” read the statement. “In September 1965, while Cesar’s young Latino union debated whether to join a grape strike begun that month by members of a largely Filipino union, Helen in her quiet, no-nonsense way settled the debate by asking, ‘Are we a union or not?’”
Today, more than two decades since the passing of Cesar Chavez, the UFW continues to organize in major agricultural industries across the nation and has seen dozens of key union contract victories.
Recently, Mrs. Chavez advocated for immigration reform. While walking at her husband’s gravesite in Keene, California in 2012, she asked President Barack Obama:
“Mr. President, will you promise you will do something on immigration reform?”
“Yes, Mrs. Chavez,” replied the president. “I promise I will.”
Mrs. Chavez is survived by seven children, 31 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.
An all-night rosary and vigil was held on Sunday, June 12 at her husband’s burial site.
On June 13, Mrs. Chavez was buried next to her husband in the Memorial Garden of the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene.