Helen Chavez, the widow of civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, died Monday at a Bakersfield, California, hospital with many of her seven surviving children, 31 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren by her side, according to the United Farm Workers. She was 88.
Helen Chavez helped her husband launch and sustain what became the first enduring farm workers union in the United States. She used her fierce determination to help change the lives of thousands of farm workers and millions of others who were inspired by La Causa, the UFW said on its Facebook page.
"If it wasn't for her, Cesar would not have been able to do any of his work," said Rudy Medina, Chavez's nephew.
Helen Chavez was quiet and humble but fiercely determined and strong-willed, the union said. She didn’t speak in public or talk with reporters, but she held deep convictions.
"She was right there as a steadfast foundation," Medina said. "She kept him going ... and she never wavered."
Born Helen Fabela on Jan. 21, 1928, in the Imperial Valley town of Brawley, California, her family lived in a converted horse barn outside McFarland before moving to Delano. She met Cesar in the mid-1940s. They were married in 1948 after his discharge from the U.S. Navy, and they had eight children.
Cesar and Helen left a comfortable middle-class life in East Los Angeles in 1962 and moved back to Delano to begin organizing farm workers, the UFW said.
Helen often had to raise the children by herself while Cesar was on the road. She returned to field work while Cesar organized up and down California’s vast Central Valley; on weekends Cesar and some of the older children joined her, the union said.
"They say behind every great man is a great woman," Medina said. "That's Helen Chavez."
Cesar Chavez died in 1993 at the age of 66.
Details on services for Helen Chavez will be issued Tuesday.