Authors: Miriam Pawel
Those basic facts
recorded by a census taker on April 3, 1930, captured the skeletal outlines of the world in which Cesar Estrada Chavez grew up. Behind the dry statistics were the people and places that shaped Cesar’s life, the physical and emotional geography of his childhood.
The boy born on March 31, 1927, never knew the grandfather he was named after, Cesario Chavez, better known as Papa Chayo. Cesario had grown up in Hacienda de Carmen, a small village in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. He was born around 1845, the same year as Dorotea Hernandez, who became his wife. Stories passed down through generations offered various accounts of why the family left Mexico and headed north. Papa Chayo ran afoul of landowners who ruled the Hacienda and fled rather than face conscription into the army. Or perhaps he served in the army and deserted. Or most likely he simply saw better prospects across the border. Whatever the circumstances, Cesario and Dorotea crossed into Texas
in 1898 with eight small children, including Librado, their youngest son. They first lived in El Paso, moved a few times in search of work, and eventually settled outside Yuma, where Papa Chayo built a thriving business
hauling wood. He employed much of his extended family, who transported wood in mule-drawn carriages to power the paddle-wheel steamers that plied the Colorado River.
On New Year’s Eve, 1906, Cesario Chavez filed a claim
under the federal homestead program and took title to the 120-acre farm in the North Gila Valley. He built his house with extra-thick walls, placing eighteen-inch adobe bricks sideways, to withstand the extreme summer heat. The adobe sparkled with small shells embedded to give the building greater strength. Inside, plaster covered the walls and open wood beams lined the ceiling.
By the time of the 1930 census, Dorotea lived in the main house with her one unmarried daughter, who had come to take care of her elderly mother. The house was connected by a wide breezeway to a large room that Papa Chayo had built to store food and grain. Librado and his family lived in the
, or storeroom. It had two doors and four small windows, built for ventilation, not view.
The compound stood on a small hill, facing west toward the California border about a mile away. The house fronted on the North Gila Main canal, just a half dozen feet wide. To the south
of the main house stood the outhouse. To the north was a small vegetable garden, and past that a large cypress that the children climbed and nicknamed the “umbrella tree.” Further north along the canal were the homes of Cesar’s aunts and uncles, Tia Carmen and Tia Julia on the same side and Tio Julio across the canal, alongside the Chavez family fields.
Librado and his brother Julio grew cotton, watermelon, alfalfa, and Bermuda grass, for the seeds. The crops were planted on eighty acres that sloped gently down from the west bank of the canal, so that gravity did the work of irrigation, pulling river water into the fields when a series of gates were opened. Small log bridges crisscrossed the canal and a wooden bridge in front of the Chavez homestead led to the corral for the horses that drew the plows.
Directly across the fields from Papa Chayo’s homestead were three small buildings that Librado saw each day, a constant reminder of his failure. On November 25, 1925, a short time after their marriage, Librado and Juana had bought the cluster of buildings
that housed a store, pool hall, and living quarters. To finance the purchase and stock the store, the couple took out mortgages totaling $2,750. Librado was the postmaster as well as storekeeper. He was a poor businessman and despite the multiple incomes soon fell into debt. Librado’s children later blamed the financial problems on his generosity and willingness to extend credit at the store. Other relatives faulted Librado for lazy business practices, absenteeism, and a fondness for gambling. Within a few years Librado was forced to give up the store and pool hall to pay back the mortgages. On April 22, 1929, a few weeks after Cesar’s second birthday, they lost the land. Juana was pregnant with her third child, and the family moved across the fields into the galera on the Chavez homestead. They brought with them two remnants from the failed business: a pool table and a three-hundred-pound ice chest.
Cesar grew up in a typical extended Mexican family—patriarchal in name, matriarchal in practice. Dorotea, nearly blind but mentally sharp, was the only literate elder. She had been orphaned at a young age and raised in a convent, where she learned to read and write. In the absence of a nearby church, she supervised her grandchildren’s religious education and prepared them for confirmation.
Juana Estrada Chavez was the guiding force in Cesar’s nuclear family. A dark-skinned, petite woman with Indian features, Juana was smart, strong-willed, and unusually independent for her time. She was born June 24, 1892, in Ascención in the Mexican state of Chihuahua and crossed the border as a six-month-old with her widowed mother, Placida, an older sister, and her uncle. He supported the family, working in the mines in Lordsburg, New Mexico, and then in a smelting plant in El Paso, Texas. Juana’s mother remarried and the family moved to Picacho, California, before settling in Yuma. Juana never attended school. She picked cotton, squash, and tomatoes and made mattresses from corn husks. As a young woman she worked as an assistant to the chancellor in the girls’ dormitory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she sewed, cleaned, and did laundry for the coeds. The chancellor’s wife gave her a recipe for turkey stuffing, which became a family Thanksgiving tradition, passed down through several generations.
Long before she married
into the clan, Juana knew the extended Chavez family, connected through work and marriage. Juana’s family operated boardinghouses in Yuma that housed workers employed by Papa Chayo’s wood-hauling business. In 1906, Juana’s older sister, Maria, married Julio, Librado’s older brother. A half sister, Francisca, later married Papa Chayo’s nephew. Papa Chayo often joked that Juana, too, would marry into the family one day, after he was no longer around. He died in 1921, and several years later his prophecy came true. Librado was thirty-seven and Juana was thirty-two, an unusually late marriage. Their first child, Rita, was born on August 21, 1925, and their first son, Cesar, almost two years later. Both times Juana returned to her mother’s house in the city of Yuma to give birth.
While Cesar was still an infant, his grandmother began to suffer from dementia. After Mama Placida died in 1930, Juana said she never cried again, and she never wore black. Years later she would admonish her children not to wear black to her funeral.
Juana and Librado Chavez made a striking couple: Librado a husky man, about five feet eleven inches and 225 pounds, with poor eyesight and large Coke-bottle glasses; Juana a tiny woman, just four feet ten inches, slender with long black hair. The diminutive wife and mother made decisions for the family, and Librado went along. She ran a strict household in accordance with clear beliefs. She favored herbal remedies: Cesar did not see a doctor until he was almost twenty. As a child, his nickname was “Manzi,” because of his fondness for the manzanilla tea his mother made to cure colic and other ailments.
Her children considered Juana to be more superstitious than religious, a person of great faith. Like many Mexicans, she believed in saints as advocates and lobbyists. She worshipped Santa Eduviges, an obscure Bavarian from the early thirteenth century known as the patron saint of brides, difficult marriages, and victims of jealousy. A duchess by birth and again by marriage, Eduviges (also known as Hedwig) renounced her worldly possessions when she was widowed and joined a convent. She practiced abstinence, fasted, and meditated on the supernatural. She ministered to the poor and earned sainthood for her generosity to the sick and feeble. Every year on October 16, St. Eduviges’s feast day, Juana dispatched her older children to find homeless men and invite them to the house for dinner.
Juana instilled in her children the importance of helping others and the need for personal sacrifice. She raised her children with firm rules and
(advice) that underscored those beliefs: Never lend money to your relatives; if they need money, give it to them. When an uncle asks for an errand, perform the task without question. Favors, she told them, are just that; when the children did favors for neighbors, they were not allowed to take a nickel in return. She quoted
, or sayings, about not fighting and told them to just walk away from conflict. She insisted they share everything. She cut food in equal portions for the children; if someone complained they got the small piece, she took the food away from all. She told the children parables about good kids and bad kids: the disobedient son who was taken away by the devil; the drunk son who was about to hit his mother when the rock froze in his hand.
Mostly, life for Librado and Juana’s children in the Gila Valley was carefree. They were not well-off, but they were comfortable, well clothed, and never hungry. Juana grew tomatoes, cucumbers, and hot chiles in the garden, turned sweet berries from the mesquite trees into drinks, and made fresh cheese from the milk of their cow. Even in 1932, in the depth of the Depression, when Librado could not sell his cotton and corn and had to trash his crops, the family had plenty of chicken. When Librado earned a few dollars, Juana used the money to buy salt to give the chicken flavor.
The children enjoyed the security of an extended family scattered across the tranquil Arizona valley. Two of Cesar’s aunts lived in small houses on Papa Chayo’s land. One of Papa Chayo’s brothers had emigrated to America with him from Hacienda de Carmen, and over time the Chavezes intermarried with four families in the Gila Valley. Their surnames mingled—Arias, Rico, Quintero, and Arviso—and many ended up related to each other through multiple ties, whether cousins, in-laws, or double cousins. In the three-room schoolhouse that the children attended, Rita and Cesar were related in some way to almost every student.
The Chavez home had no electricity, and they stored food in the ice chest. They used water from the canal for drinking, cooking, and bathing. They heated water inside and washed in a big tub outside. As the eldest girl, Rita did much of the cooking, cleaning, and washing. She heated irons on the wood stove, attaching a cool handle each time the one she worked with became too hot. Juana was clear on gender roles: girls should not do men’s work, and boys should not do women’s work.
Cesar’s chores included chopping wood, exercising the horses, harvesting watermelons, and feeding the animals. They had a cow, horses, and so many chickens that they couldn’t give eggs away fast enough. During the Depression, Juana sent Cesar and Richard to trade eggs for goat’s milk, flour, or freshly butchered meat. They hunted quail and rabbit and caught catfish in the irrigation ditches. When gophers became a problem for the canal and interfered with pipes, the irrigation district paid Cesar and Richard to catch the animals, a penny per tail.
Two years after Richard was born, Juana gave birth to a daughter. Helena was only about eleven months old when she fell ill, suffered severe diarrhea, and died. Juana was pregnant, and a few months later she gave birth to another daughter, whom she named after her patron saint, Eduviges. The youngest child was Librado, known as Lenny, born in the summer of 1934. By then the roof on the storeroom had begun to leak, and the family moved into a two-room cottage built next to the main house. The two adults and five children slept on three double beds.
The children viewed the outdoors as their playground. They rode horses, and in the summer the canal became their backyard swimming pool. Cesar and Richard shot pool on the table salvaged from the failed business. At night they gathered around fires and listened to the grown-ups tell stories. They measured time by when a horse gave birth, or how soon the first watermelon would ripen.
To get to school, the children crossed their fields, then turned right and walked about a half mile north to the Laguna Dam School, whose high steeple marked the skyline. The T-shaped building housed three classrooms—first through third grade in the left-hand room, fourth through sixth grade on the right, and seventh and eighth in front. Children were not allowed to speak Spanish, and when he entered school, Cesario became Cesar. Rita was an excellent student, but her brother chafed at the rules and discipline. His first few days in school, he insisted on sitting next to his older sister, rather than with his own grade at his assigned desk.
By the time Cesar began school in 1933, his family faced more financial difficulties. Librado had fallen several years in arrears on property taxes for the homestead. In December 1930, the state had put the family on notice: the Chavezes had seven years to pay several thousand dollars in back taxes or lose title to the land. Librado made another short-lived attempt to make a go of the store and pool hall in rented space, hoping to capitalize on traffic generated by the building of the nearby Imperial Dam. The store again ended in failure. On March 14, 1936, perhaps as a sign that she lacked faith in Librado’s financial responsibility, Dorotea deeded the farm
to her youngest son, Felipe, although he lived in California.
Dorotea died in her home on July 11, 1937. Three months later, Yuma County auctioned off
the Chavez farm for back taxes and penalties of $4,080.60. On December 6, 1937, Felipe Chavez filed suit
against the county board of supervisors, charging they had improperly seized his mother’s land because, as a widow, she should have been exempt from paying taxes. The legal action bought the family some time.