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Published on July 19th, 2013 | by Fernando Chavez

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Happy Father’s Day, Cesar Chavez

In this article, originally published in June 1980 for Father’s Day, Fernando Chavez reflects on his relationship with his father, civil rights icon Cesar Chavez.

About the Author
fernando-chavez Fernando Chavez is a trial attorney and Chairman of the Cochran Firm Latino section. With over 25 years experience practicing law before state and federal courts, Fernando Chavez is one the country’s most successful trial attorneys.

 

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.

Chavez Family, 1964. (Courtesy of Fernando Chavez and Cesar Chavez Foundation)

Cesar Chavez and Family. Courtesy of Fernando Chavez.

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.

Courtesy of Fernando Chavez and the Cesar Chavez Foundation

Courtesy of Fernando Chavez

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.

When I was 12, I started traveling with my father. There was a mattress in the back of the Mercury station wagon, and I would sleep while he drove two or three hours. We’d leave well before dawn and get back after dark. After a few trips, he took me on the side roads and taught me to drive. We shared the responsibility. When he’d meet with groups of farmworkers, he’d introduce me, “I’d like you to meet my chauffeur.”

Chavez Demonstration

Cesar Chavez at demonstration. (Courtesy of Fernando Chavez.)

My father was a very sensitive and affectionate man. When we were little, he’d lift us onto his knee and kiss us a lot. As we grew, he’d constantly involve us in his life and the decisions he had to make.

When we were living in Delano, President Johnson offered to appoint him director of the Peace Corps for Latin America. He called one of our regular family meetings. He explained what the job was. He said we’d probably move to Latin America, reside in a big house, have maids to help my mother, and generally live like kings. He added, “Of course, I’d have to leave the farmworkers.” He talked about them and their problems until there were tears in his eyes. Then he handed out slips of paper for us to vote by secret ballot. It was 8-1. We stayed.

Of all his children, I’m the only one who’s not working with him today on a day-to-day basis with the United Farm Workers.

I barely made it through Delano High School. I worked on assembly lines in factories for a couple of years. That’s when my father and I started to lose communication. He had always hammered away at us that we had the potential to be whatever we chose. He asked us, mostly by the example he set, to have a social conscience. One of his sons, he hoped, would be a priest or a lawyer.

The assembly line wasn’t much fun. I went back to school. I earned a bachelor’s degree in UCLA, and in 1977, a law degree from the University of Santa Clara.

I confide in my father regularly now. The other day, he called me up and asked for my advice on a matter of importance to him. Whether it was a setup, like the pitch he gave us on living in Latin America, I don’t know. But he accepted my recommendation.

Now our days of competition are over. Once again, we’re father and son.

Happy Father’s Day, Cesar Chavez


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