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Remembering César Chávez

Fifty years after devoting himself to la causa, a look at the labor leader’s legacy of service

"He Chose Work"
Chávez’s life was shaped by a family misfortune. During the Great Depression his family lost a ranch and a grocery store it owned in Yuma, Arizona, and was forced to move to California to work in the fields. His family suffered hardships, and he dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work full time as a migrant farmworker.

“I’m not very different from anyone else who has ever tried to accomplish something with his life,” said Chávez in a 1984 speech to the Commonwealth Club of California. “My motivation comes from my personal life — from watching what my mother and father went through when I was growing up from what we experienced as migrant farmworkers in California.”

He married Helen Fabela, a farmworker’s daughter. She kept the family together during César’s frequent road trips, picking crops to help support the family and provide her husband with gas money.

The family paid for Chávez’s ambition in other ways, says longtime Chávez press secretary and speechwriter Marc Grossman, who remembers when Chávez’s daughter Eloise got married. César, says Grossman, attended the ceremony at church, stayed for the first dance at the reception, then left to help organize a strike in Salinas, California.

“When he had to make a choice between the family and work, he chose the work,” Grossman says.

“But they all understood that and were proud of him.”

Eloise Chávez Carrillo, 58, says attending the local school was a challenge for the labor leader’s children because the children of growers would taunt them. “We’d come home and say, ‘Can’t you just be a regular father?’” recalls Chávez Carrillo. “And he’d just say, “We’ll pray for those who hurt you.’”

A Mixed Legacy?
Today, Paul Chávez heads the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation, a California-based nonprofit that gives out scholarships, builds low-income housing, sponsors other programs to help the poor, and works to keep the Chávez name alive.

Arturo Rodríguez, César Chávez’s son-in-law, now leads the UFW. A daughter, Liz Chávez Villariño, is chief financial officer of the Farmworker Institute for Education & Leadership Development that Chávez founded.

Liz Chávez Villariño’s son Juan, 28, often speaks about his grandfather to students and Latino groups in California. “We were raised in the movement, and I’m happy to carry on his legacy in any way possible,” he says.

Yet there are critics of the family’s efforts.

Miriam Pawel, author of The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement, says the UFW’s clout and membership have plunged. She also criticizes the efforts of the family’s tax-exempt organizations, saying they invoke the harsh lives of migrants to raise money but don’t address farmworker needs.

“Building low-income housing may be helpful to some, but migrants can’t afford it and still live in shacks,” says Pawel. “Baby boomers grew up boycotting grapes, and there are a lot of people who think the boycotts solved everything, but they really didn’t.”

To Pawel, Chávez is a hero, but with shortcomings — including an autocratic nature that hurt the UFW’s ability to grow through coalitions with other labor groups. “I believe it’s important for school kids to learn about César Chávez, but they should learn the whole story,” she says.

She may help with that with a new biography. Grossman is also working on a book about his former boss. And screenwriter Keir Pearson, who cowrote the film Hotel Rwanda, has optioned the screen rights of Chávez’s life from the family foundation to produce a biographical movie. The Sundance Institute is also sponsoring a new documentary called Cesar’s Last Fast.

Next: Beyond the UFW >>

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