Helen Chavez, The Woman Behind the Hero

Helen Chavez BeLatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of sfbayca.com

One of the great luxuries we can count on today is the story and resilience of Latina women who have become powerful role models.

These women have not only helped shape society as we know it today but have also endowed us with tools to continue carving the path they once so sacrificially blazed — even if it is behind the scenes.

Over the past decades, the role of the Latina leader has positively mutated from being a tireless silent worker to being the face of large corporations, without fear of being labeled as “bossy” or “fiery.”

We have been successfully demolishing these inaccurate stereotypes and, in doing so, influencing others to break certain molds such as the traditional “choosing” and limitation of being either a wife or an activist/worker. Why not be both?

One of the pioneers that used her voice in multiple conversations and different roles as a mother, activist, and wife was none other than second-generation Chicana and American labor activist Helen Chavez. If the name sounds familiar, it could be because she was the wife of César Chavez, the iconic organized labor leader. And if it doesn’t — let us tell you her story.

The Real Power Behind a Movement

Helen Chavez was the definition of multi-tasking, ‘give-it-everything-you -got’ resilience. In a nutshell, she personally experienced working in a field picking grapes which eventually led her to a full-time position as a financial record keeper for the National Farm Workers Association, later known as the United Farm Workers (UFW) for more than 20 years. 

During this time, both she and her husband joined forces to create La Causa (the Cause) to shine a light on the unfair treatment and pay of the farmworkers. 

To put the need for a better union in perspective, according to UFW’s statement upon her passing, like all union staff, including Cesar, Helen Chavez “made $5 a week plus food and housing.” 

Her daily life fueled the work they did for La Causa, and that transcended to others. UFW’s statement highlighted this, expressing that “her fierce determination to help change[d] the lives of thousands of farmworkers and millions of others who were inspired by La Causa.

While she did participate in peaceful riots throughout these movements (including being arrested a few times), a lot of her notable work was done behind the scenes, administering the background process of everything and purposely staying out of the media. 

According to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs: “Cesar may have been the public spokesman and leader, but Helen dedicated herself to doing all the things that made the movement run such as, ‘keeping the books, walking the picket line and being arrested.’’ She privately kept up with her work even as her husband was heavily in the public eye.

On top of all the movement, Helen Chavez would also raise her eight children and still be the activist she was when possible. The New York Times quoted her saying: “While Cesar was organizing, I was picking grapes or doing whatever fieldwork was available. I’d work 10 hours a day, five days a week, for 85 cents an hour, I think.”

Helen and Cesar Chavez BeLatina Latinx
Courtesy of the LA Times.

A Role Model For Migrant Workers

What furthermore made Helen more of an authentic and inspirational legend was that according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, “her intertwining roles as administrator, laborer, and family caretaker made her a role model for migrant workers and women alike.” So, she knew exactly what it was to be in each position and made sure to advocate for the better care of it all. 

After all, both of Helen’s parents were migrant laborers, and she began working the fields at the young age of seven. She experienced it all throughout her life and knew that they needed to be heard.

Helen Chavez Activist BeLatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of America’s Library.

A Multitasking ‘Guerrera’

Her efforts as both a mother to her children and being a strong wife encouraged her husband César Chavez to continue their shared plan to fight for their labor rights.  UFW stated: “During the earliest years when he would sometimes return home to Delano, Calif. after days on the road feeling alone and demoralized, not having recruited anyone into his new union, she would encourage him, saying, ‘Cesar, you have to have faith in God that what you’re doing is right.’ He would feel better, go out and try again.”

This brings us hope and encouragement to stay resilient, whether it is behind the scenes, supporting your leaders, organizing protests, being the face of it all — everything, in the end, is what gets the work done. 

Helen Chavez did it all. She was a multi-tasking guerrera that kept her privacy and helped her husband both in their pursuit and in their home. 

Let’s not forget the importance of Helen Chavez as we remember her husband. We can continue her legacy, whether it’s by inspiring ourselves and advocating for our own beliefs or by simply doing our part in supporting and encouraging others to keep fighting. 

Keep fighting for your rights and your beliefs — it does not matter if you’re married, single, introverted, or in the public eye. If  Helen’s life taught us anything, it is that you do not need to be on the front pages to make your moves. Every bit of the team is essential. 

Without her push and patience for her husband César Chavez, he would not have kept going and possibly wouldn’t have become the icon of organized labor that we know of today. After all, his fights became one of the most important known within Latino activism, and we resonate with those efforts ‘til this day. 

As Latinos in this country, many of us felt seen when we recognized César Chavez’s sculpture in President Biden’s office just last month. Washington Post commented on this, saying Latino leaders felt that “it symbolizes his commitment to the Latino community and marks the beginning of a new relationship with a president they hope is far less adversarial than his predecessor.” While only time will tell, we certainly felt a sense of hope through this publicly placed appreciation.

With all that been said, long live Helen and César Chavez’s fruitful fight that will be honored through time for generations to come.