Paul F. Chavez, one of eight children born to Helen and Cesar Chavez and president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, writes about the death of his mother, who died June 6 at the age of 88.
For the first time, our family gathered at Thanksgiving without our mother. My brothers and sisters and I lost our remaining parent last June when Helen F. Chavez passed away surrounded by children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other loved ones. Bringing us peace of mind was knowing she was looking down on us and was happy we were all together. That was something she always loved, especially this time of year.
Some of our fondest memories are of coming together with her during the holidays and on special occasions. There was the family tradition of tamale making on Christmas Eve, when everyone pitched in. Like many Mexican mothers, she worried about having enough masa and making sure everyone had his or her favorite type of tamales to take home.
Christmas was the one time she would break away from her novellas. We all knew not to call while she was watching them and if we were visiting, the only conversation occurred during commercials. She kept a calendar marked with the birthdays of each grandchild and great-grandchild, and their spouses — and they all knew they could count on a call from Nana.
Our mother was not just the matriarch to her own large family. Beginning in the 1960s, she also became matriarch to the farm worker movement. Over the decades, countless young people from across North America joined the movement. Our mother often made seats at our table for those who couldn’t make it home for the holidays. Later, she helped prepare elaborate holiday meals for them in the community kitchen at what is now the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument. She also cooked for their weddings and other important events, and became a friend and close confidant. What my mom did for her family she did for many others. That spirit captures the essence of who she was.
She relished the role of a mother. But she also became a role model and unsung hero. She adopted a grueling daily routine once the Delano grape strike started in 1965. She would rise well before dawn to prepare our school lunches and breakfast. Then she was off to vineyard picket lines with other grape strikers. She spent the rest of the day at the office managing the credit union that issued modest loans so farm workers could survive the tough Central Valley winters when there was little work and fulfill other basic needs. Then it was home again to make dinner and see that clothes were washed, we were bathed and did our homework. She did all of this while being my father’s strongest supporter. My dad once wrote in his journal that he was discouraged after much time on the road with little progress to show. Later he wrote that he had spoken with our mom, and he was ready to go out on the road again.
This life of sacrifice began when our parents together made the decision to leave the comfortable life they built in East Los Angeles while he ran the Community Service Organization Latino civil rights group — and return to Delano so my father could organize farm workers. Our mom returned to working in the fields to support the family along with my older siblings. We never once heard her complain. She practiced a lifelong commitment to helping people, especially the farm workers whose lives she shared since childhood.
My mom also lived her convictions. She was unfailingly modest. She rarely spoke in public or agreed to reporters’ requests for interviews. She avoided the limelight and refused to take credit for what she did.
She was a person of few words, but when she did speak she spoke to the issue at hand and was direct. When our father’s mostly Latino union debated whether to join the grape strike begun by a largely Filipino union in September 1965, my mother asked, “Are we a union or not?” That ended the discussion.
Before speaking to a big crowd when President Obama journeyed to Keene to dedicate the Chavez national monument in 2012, he paid respects at my father’s gravesite. As they walked away, my mother on the President’s arm, she said, “Mr. President, will you promise me you will do something about immigration reform?”
Upon her passing we were not surprised to learn she had written a letter to be read to her children and grandchildren. It was simple, reminding us of the importance of family, to love each other unconditionally and made it very clear what she expected of us.
It was her caring and loving touch, coupled with her humility and fierce determination that made our mother who she was. That is why my sisters and brothers and I take exception to the notion that behind every great man is a strong woman. Helen Chavez never stood behind our father. She stood by his side, and sometimes even in front.