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by Fresia Rodriguez Cadavid, AARP VIVA, Fall 2004
En español | Through self-sacrifice, a commitment to nonviolence, and their spirituality, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta changed a nation. Together they founded the farm worker movement, fought against agribusiness, and organized thousands of laborers so they could earn a living wage and have just working conditions. In 1962, they launched the National Farm Workers Association, which preceded the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) union.
To advance la causa, they led selfless lives. Both forfeited time with their large and loving families to defend the human rights of farm workers; they lived in voluntary destitution so as not to drain resources from the movement. They also lived in jeopardy; their lives threatened many times.
With their passion and strength, Chávez and Huerta endured the hardships and passed along their values of service and community to their children.
Today Huerta continues la lucha, as do her children, their families, and Chávez’s children. They continue to believe in the words, spoken by Chávez, which marked the movement: “It is my deepest belief that only by giving life do we find life.”
The Chávez Children
Raspadas and Leaflets
Eleven years after Chávez’s death, his children remember a kind, nurturing man.
Paul, one of eight children Chávez had with wife Helen, is president of the National Farm Workers Service Center Inc. (NFWSC), the nonprofit organization founded by Chávez and Huerta in the 1960s. “We learned from an early age that we needed to share our father with his larger family. Of course, there were times that we wished we had him around,” Paul, 47, explains. “We didn’t grow up with him taking us to Little League baseball games because he was on the road or on different campaigns. But what he did was find ways to involve us in his work and the work of the movement that allowed us to spend time together. He was very creative like that.”
Paul recalls the early days, when his father didn’t have staff and needed to pass out leaflets. “He would take my brothers and sisters and my cousins…and pile us into the station wagon and we would go and leaflet. It was hard work, but at the end of the day he would take us to get raspadas [snow cones] and take us to the park and play softball.”
Sharing the light moments was special. “As we get older, I see the sacrifice that my dad made and I know that it was hard, so it’s hard to sit in judgment of him, knowing that he didn’t do it out of neglect. He did it out of the simple sacrifice.”
After Paul graduated from high school, his father assumed a different role: boss. Paul remembers how Chávez encouraged him to take on different positions throughout the UFW. He first worked in the print shop and then moved on to organizing workers. After that, he served as a negotiator and the union’s political director and lobbyist in Sacramento, California, and Washington, D.C. Without his father’s constant encouragement—which made him believe in himself—he doesn’t think he could have taken on the diverse challenges. Eloise Chávez Carrillo, a payroll supervisor at Delano High School in California, remembers encountering harassment at school and in the community because of her father’s work. “It was very hard. In school, kids were just awful,” she says. “I remember I used to tell my dad, ‘Can’t you be a regular dad, have a regular job? People talk about you.’ ”
Townspeople and schoolchildren would call her father lazy and a communist, and claim he was taking people’s money. “He used to feel bad when we would share those stories with him. He would always tell us, ‘Turn your cheek. We’ll pray for them.’ ”
At Delano High School, “even the administration seemed very antiunion,” the now 52-year-old recounts. “The growers dominated this place back then. A lot of [the growers] had kids in school who were our age. There used to be a lot of picketing and activity, and of course, when we would go back to school on a Monday, we’d hear about it.”
Chávez Carrillo, a middle daughter in the family, explains that her strength to cope came from her parents. “My father always reminded us to turn the other cheek and that there were a lot of people who would say things to try to hurt you….If you just prayed and had faith, then one day they’d realize that the union was here and that it wasn’t going anywhere.”
The Huerta Children
At age 74, Huerta, a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, continues to inspire activism. Her second-eldest daughter, Lori de León, is a program developer at the foundation named after her mother. “I became very aware at a young age that there were needs of people that were not being met. I would travel with my mother to [farm workers’] homes and see dirt floors and cardboard and chicken wire, and newspaper-stuffed walls. I knew [my mother] was very special because she was helping them,” says the 52-year-old.
She recounts the difficulty of sharing her mother with the movement: “We didn’t have an upbringing. We were on our own. At a young age all my brothers and sisters realized the importance of her work.” She recalls when her mother missed her 13th birthday, at the time a very special birthday to de León, to instead help organize orange pickers who worked for Minute Maid in Florida. Huerta told her young daughter that by sacrificing her personal needs and wants for that day, thousands of farm workers and their children, could benefit. “How could anyone argue with that?” de León recalls.
The values her mother impressed upon her were demonstrated through Huerta’s activism. “There are more important things than money, like people,” says de León, repeating her mother’s teachings: “People come first. Every person has a value and must be valued.”
The high profile of Huerta, Chávez, and their work meant the threat of violence loomed large. The children feared for their parents’ safety—and with good reason, de León says. “Minutes before the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, my mother had been standing at his side on stage during his acceptance speech. He acknowledged her work and that of the farm workers who helped him win the California primary. Minutes later, he was shot.” Huerta also survived attacks in her home and on the picket line. She was once taken hostage. Learning to maintain self-control in the face of violence made them more committed to nonviolence, de León reflects. “We, my siblings and César’s children, all realized the treasures we had in César and my mother. All my siblings were willing to lay down our lives to protect my mother and César.”
Emilio J. Huerta, 47, the second-eldest son, is the NFWSC general counsel. He admits the financial strain the family endured was painful, but says his mother’s activism enriched his upbringing. As she followed the workers across the nation, Dolores Huerta took her children with her.
“In one sense it was tough because we had to move a lot…. But at the same time, we saw a lot of this country that we probably would not have otherwise seen,” he says. “We lived in San Francisco and New York City. We got to travel to places like Chicago, up and down California. We got to experience living in different communities, living among different kinds of people…. We got to be on the front line and witness firsthand a lot of the social changes that took place.”
Their mother provided a strong foundation for all 11 of them.
“She always encouraged me to use my intellect and my wit. She conveyed to me that I was smart, and encouraged me to use my skills to help people as she did,” he recounts. “At one time her dream was to have all of us become labor organizers or activists. In our own way we did. She always encouraged us to be of service to others. I’m an attorney, my brother’s a doctor, and my sister’s a nurse. We gravitated toward those careers that would help people improve their lives. That was her theme all the time as we were growing up.”
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