By Fernando Chavez, eldest son of Cesar Chavez
Originally published in June 1980.
Fathers are hard to talk to face-to-face. When you reach a certain age, the companionship ceases and the competition starts. The father-son chemistry changes. A wall goes up.
Then it becomes a question of how quickly and how well you can dismantle it.
Even as I was growing up, the competition for my father’s attention was intense. There was my mother, Helen, my brothers Paul and Anthony, and my sisters Sylvia, Linda, Eloise, Anna and Elizabeth.
There was my father’s commitment to his job, which extended from before sunup to well after sundown. And there was his notoriety — first local, then statewide, finally national — which attracted a continuous flow of labor organizers, politicians, reporters, opportunists, statesmen, people wanting help from him and people wanting to give him help.
So many people wanted my father to be so many things.
All I wanted him to be was my father.
My first recollections are when he worked for the Community Service Organization (CSO), which at that time was the most active civil rights organization for Mexican Americans in California. Before he became its director, he was a field organizer, which meant setting up chapters throughout the farm valleys of California.
Before I reached the eighth grade, we had lived in San Jose, Oakland, Madera, Hanford, Oildale, Oxnard, Los Angeles, and Delano. At most of my new schools, I didn’t even bother making new friends. I knew I wouldn’t be around long enough to enjoy them.
Cesar Chavez gets organizing
In 1961, my father asked CSO to get involved in organizing the farmworkers who were migrating around the state. He was turned down, so he quit. On his own, he started the National Farm Workers Association.
It had been tried before, by people with big bankrolls. They failed.
My father started with nothing. Of necessity, his family became the heart of his staff. We’d make posters and signs, lick stamps, address envelopes. He always had things for us to do on the weekends and during the summer.
In pairs, my brothers and sisters and cousins and I would go leafleting, knocking on doors of farmworkers and giving them announcements of meetings. My father would drive up and down the blocks to make sure we were okay.
Material things meant nothing to him. We always had something to eat. Sometimes we got it picking up potatoes in the fields after the crews had been through them.
“I want you to learn what farm labor is like,“ he’d say. But we’d have enough potatoes for weeks. A used couch or used TV was as good as a new one, he’d tell us.
When I was 10, he took me to help the John-Kennedy-for-President campaign in Los Angeles. With some other kids, I spent the day handing out pamphlets. It poured rain, and I was soaked and miserable. Then we kids were introduced at the headquarters and applauded for our participation, and each of us was being handed a $5 bill for our work. I was going to buy a model airplane. But when my turn came, my father said, “Fernando wants to donate his $5 to the campaign.” I went off to the corner and cried.