Helen Fabela Chavez lived a lifetime of unexpected roles, handling each one with a natural grace that made each role look easy. She was the daughter of a Mexican Revolution Colonel who rode with Pancho Villa, and a strong spirit was in her DNA.
Helen Chavez was the unspoken key to America’s first successful farmworker’s union. Her behind-the -scenes leadership gave her husband, Cesar Chavez, his wings to fly. She never sought publicity or credit, yet for farmworkers and others, she was revered and recognized as the “heart and soul” of her husband’s movement, due in large part to her quiet determination. Yet, she often demonstrated great passion on picket lines with her sisters Teddy and Petra. They displayed a fiery intention and purpose.
When Cesar asked for her hand in marriage, Helen’s mother, Eloisa, told him, “She can’t cook because she had to work to support the family.” Even after marriage, Helen continued working in the fields to support her growing family and she became a world-class cook. She also became an expert in finances and credit union management. She was a true partner to Cesar and their connection was never more evident than when they danced the jitterbug. Cesar moved slow and cool while Helen spun like a top, putting the jitter in her bug.
In the Chavez household, even after her husband achieved fame, Helen’s personality created an atmosphere anchored by humility and a regular home life. She endured bomb threats, around-the-clock security at her home, harassment of her children in the schools and the scarcities that came from Cesar’s voluntary poverty. The Chavez children were well-guided and a lifelong bond was cemented through the example offered by their mother. Because of Helen’s guidance, no Chavez offspring has ever gloated or made claims about their father or by extension themselves, of being famous. He was just “dad.”
Helen Chavez was the perfect mother figure, respected anchor and beloved matriarch of her family. A large part of her persona were the facial expressions that reflected her feelings. She was the center of her children’s lives, sharing kindness, love and advice. She was extra special to each grand, great and great-great grandchild. Loving and listening to each as if they were her only one. To her family, she was a beacon of hope and pride.
In her youth, Helen was taken to Kern County’s Stony Brook Retreat (long before it became La Paz) just in case she got tuberculosis. Her journey has now come full circle as she chose to have her rosary and vigil in the same wing of the hospital unit where she stayed in the 1930s.
As her family carries out her final walk with the hope and promise of seeing her again “down the road” they know she is “together again, at last” with her beloved Cesar, daughter Lu, mother Eloisa, father Vidal, sister Teresa (Teddy) and a host of loved ones and dear friends. Whenever Chicharito, her favorite soccer player, scores a goal we will see and hear her cheering. Helen Fabela Chavez embodied love for family and all whose lives she touched.
Richard Ybarra is married to Helen’s daughter Anna.