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How Helen Fabela Chavez, Cesar Chavez’s wife, played a critical role in establishing farm workers’ rights

By Andrea Flores

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    CALIFORNIA (KCRA) — Helen Fabela Chavez, wife of civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, was not a fan of the spotlight, but played a critical role in establishing farm workers’ rights in California.

It’s her husband who was known to lead marches, but Cesar and Helen’s kids say Cesar wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what he did without his wife.

“My mother never stood behind my father, she was by his side, and sometimes out in front,” Paul Chavez said. “She was there from the very beginning. The decision to organize farm workers wasn’t a decision that my father made, my mother was part and parcel of those decisions.”

At the Cesar Chavez National Monument in Keene, Helen can be seen all around the property, from her final resting place right next to Cesar, to Villa La Paz, dedicated to her in 2010.

Their son Paul, now president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, says his mother was his dad’s biggest supporter.

“She talked about living the indignities that farm workers suffered back then, and continue to suffer, and she had a score to settle, along with my father, to try to make things right,” Paul said.

It was Helen’s fierce determination that fueled Cesar to leave their middle-class life behind to begin the movement. The mother of eight went back to working in the fields to financially support the family, while he organized the union.

“She would get up early and make lunch for us kids, and she would take off and go picket the fields for a while. She’d come back and get us off to school, and she ran the farm worker’s credit union,” Paul said.

Helen’s perseverance kept Cesar going.

“I remember years ago looking at one of my dad’s journals,” Paul said. “In the journal, it says, ‘I’m really tired, I don’t know how much longer I can put my family through this.’ The next journal, the following day, he says, ‘I spoke to Helen. I’m ready to go.’ That was my mom.”

After Cesar’s death, Helen remained committed to the movement until she passed in 2016. It’s that dedication that motivates Paul to continue the work his parents started together.

“As we go about doing this work and people remember my father’s life and work, and his contributions, I can’t help but think about my mother and the role that she played in making sure that he could go out there and do that work,” Paul said.

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