Authors: Miriam Pawel
Another relative entered Cesar’s life during this period, a cousin who became an important lifelong friend. They called each other brother, a Mexican tradition reserved for the closest of cousins. Manuel Chavez, two years older than Cesar, also had grown up in the Gila Valley. He had dropped out of school in fifth grade, lost his mother when he was fourteen, and lived with a succession of relatives, most of whom could not control the boy. Juana and Librado took Manuel into their home in Brawley. Where Cesar was quiet and shy, Manuel was bold and brash. He had not been raised by Juana and her strict moral code. At sixteen, he was grown-up and prone to trouble, but just as apt to charm his way out of scrapes. Along with Richard, the practical down-to-earth member of the trio, Manuel became Cesar’s closest friend.
When he turned eighteen, Manuel joined the navy, following the path of many Mexican Americans who sought a way out of dead-end jobs and discrimination. He lasted less than six months before deserting. Manuel turned himself in eighty-five days later, served his punishment, and was restored to duty, only to go AWOL again after punching an officer. He was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged
on April 18, 1945. By then, the war was winding down.
Cesar had just turned eighteen. Unlike Manuel, Cesar had stayed out of trouble, with only one arrest
for fighting, charges that were dismissed. After the war ended, the United States still needed military to guard enemy territories and U.S. installations and solicited volunteers. On March 20, 1946, Cesar went to the recruiting substation in Bakersfield and enlisted in the navy.
On his application,
he listed his most recent job as a field hand and tractor driver for $40 a week on the Delano farm of William Hailey, a job that had ended the previous spring. Asked his trade, he answered “none.” He was five feet four inches, weighed 125 pounds, and had no health problems. He had 20/20 vision, perfect hearing, a resting pulse of 72, and a chest that measured thirty-three inches at expiration and thirty-six inches at inspiration. He listed his race as Mexican, but the navy called him white. He signed up for $10,000 in life insurance, at a cost of $6.50 a month, listing his parents as beneficiaries. The apprentice seaman was sent to the Naval Training Center in San Diego.
He completed training and shipped out to Saipan, where he reported for duty at the naval base on July 17, 1946. Six months later, he was transferred to the barracks at Guam, where he completed training to become a seaman first class and was promoted on May 1. Cesar’s principal correspondent was his sister Rita, who wrote every day. She sent her brother letters and care packages on holidays. (She learned not to mail chocolate, after her first Christmas present arrived in less than edible condition.) Cesar loved Duke Ellington and big-band music, and Rita wrote out lyrics to new songs and enclosed them in her letters. Cesar wrote to her that he was painting ships and repairing damage caused by the war. He sent her a navy peacoat, which was a very big deal, and a hula skirt and shell bracelets, which were just for fun. He wrote her about his new acquisition, a 35 mm camera, and told her he had adopted photography as a hobby.
The Chavez family had settled in Delano, a small city at the southern end of the vast San Joaquin Valley, about 150 miles north of Los Angeles. The grape vineyards and cotton fields provided work many months of the year and drew a fairly stable population. Juana was close to a niece who lived there. As in most agricultural towns, the railroad tracks divided Delano: Mexicans, Filipinos, and Chinese on the west side, Anglos on the east side.
Cesar returned home to Delano on leave to celebrate Christmas with his family at the end of 1947. He went back to the naval base in San Francisco after New Year’s and stayed just long enough to meet his two-year commitment. On January 19, 1948, he was honorably discharged,
with a $100 mustering-out payment and $547.39 in separation pay—but no closer to figuring out his next step.
He talked to his sister about becoming a photographer or drawing cartoons and made some attempt to take advantage of the educational opportunities for veterans, but without a high school diploma, he could take only vocational courses. At twenty-one, he went back to working in the fields with his brother Richard.
In Delano, Cesar renewed his relationship with a young woman he had met a few years earlier. Helen Fabela, one year younger than Cesar, had been born in Brawley but grew up mostly in Delano, living in an old horse stable converted into rooms. Her family worked in the fields, and Helen often helped out on weekends and summer vacations. She was the middle child in a family of three girls and four boys.
Helen’s mother, Eloisa Rodriguez, was born in Sombrerete, Zacatecas, in 1901. With one child from her first marriage, she had made her way to Los Angeles and met Vidal Fabela, a farmworker from San Jacinto more than thirty years her elder. They were married in 1923. Helen was born on January 21, 1928. Like Cesar’s family, the Fabelas spoke Spanish at home, and Helen did not know English until she began school. Like Cesar, she was a mix of shy and spunky—quiet and reserved in public, but fiercely spirited in private.
Helen and Cesar
had met in 1943 at La Baratita, a malt shop on Eleventh and Glenwood where Helen stopped to eat snow cones after school. She was fifteen, a freshman at Delano High School. Shortly thereafter, Helen left school and joined her older sister working in the packing shed of the DiGiorgio Company, where she earned 70¢ an hour. Sometimes she also worked as a clerk in local shops, including People’s Market. Many commodities were rationed because of the war, and after she and Cesar started dating she saved him extra cigarettes and gas coupons.
Within a few months of Cesar’s return from the navy, Helen was pregnant. Cesar’s sister Rita was engaged to Joe Rodriguez Medina, a construction worker in San Jose. The two siblings had always joked around—you’ll be my best man, Rita told her brother, and I’ll be your bridesmaid. And so they were. The two couples drove to Reno, Nevada, accompanied by Librado Chavez. Helen and Cesar both wore checkered gray and black suits. The couples served as each other’s witnesses, and they were married
by District Court judge William McKnight on October 22, 1948. They returned home to San Jose the next day, stopping en route to take pictures by a snowy Lake Tahoe. Cesar and Helen took a short honeymoon, touring the old missions around California. Then they returned to Delano for the cotton harvest.
The extended Chavez family had by then left Delano and settled back in San Jose, near the Sal Si Puedes neighborhood where they had first landed in a kind man’s garage almost a decade earlier. By the beginning of 1949, Cesar and Helen joined the Chavezes in San Jose. Their first child, Fernando, was born February 20, 1949. Sylvia joined the family a year later, on February 15, 1950. Cesar continued to work in a variety of agricultural jobs and saw no way to get ahead. No way out of Sal Si Puedes.
Cesar’s cousin Ruben Hernandez, who had first traveled to California with the Chavez family, heard about timber jobs up north that paid good money. When he came home to San Jose to visit and told his cousins about the money he made stacking lumber in Northern California, Cesar and Richard went back with him. Richard built cabins, and their families moved up to join them, along with Rita and her husband.
Helen gave birth to her third child, Linda, soon after they arrived in Crescent City in January 1951. The men were earning good money—$1.50 an hour
to saw, stack, grade, and sort wood. But there was little to do in the isolated northern town. Ruben and Richard played guitar and Joe Medina played maracas. Sometimes they played on the Spanish hour on the local radio station. The winter was cold and wet, they were homesick for their family, and they missed living in a Mexican community. They moved back south.
Librado and Juana had settled in a small house in San Jose, where they would live the rest of their lives. There was a second tiny house in back of 53 Scharff Street, and in 1952 Cesar and Helen and the children moved into the front house and his parents shifted to the smaller house in the rear. Cesar and Richard worked together picking apricots. Then they found work as lumber handlers at the General Box Company, sorting and stacking wood. The two brothers had children just about the same age, and they schemed about how to send their kids to college.
With Juana’s strict guidance and years of hard work, they had made it out of the fields. But education seemed the only way out of poverty and into the middle class. Then suddenly, they discovered a different path out of Sal Si Puedes.
I would do anything to get the Father to tell me more about labor history.
Father Donald McDonnell was only a few years out of the seminary when the priest settled in Sal Si Puedes, drawn to the barrio to help Mexican Americans get out. The tall, stooped, eccentric genius set out to build a church—literally and figuratively.
McDonnell’s path to Sal Si Puedes could scarcely have differed more than that of the farmworker who would become his disciple. The priest was born two years before Cesar Chavez and grew up in an Irish Catholic working-class family in Oakland. His stepfather was a policeman who imbued his children with deep convictions about the sanctity of labor unions. Don met his best friend, Thomas McCullough, in sixth grade at Berkeley Parochial School, and in their teens the two boys gravitated to the church as a vocation. Together the “two Macs” entered St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, just as the United States entered World War II. The heavy stone walls offered quiet sanctuary during a turbulent time. As they worked in the seminary’s victory garden, the Macs discussed the papal encyclicals and extracted lessons about labor and social justice.
McDonnell, with a gift for languages, picked up Spanish from the only Mexican student in their class and then bought a 10¢ catechism card with Spanish on one side and English on the other. He used the card to teach a few friends during lessons he dubbed “walkie talkies”: as they walked through the gardens, McDonnell threw out basic Spanish phrases from the catechism for the others to answer. The Macs were joined on the walkie talkies by John Ralph Duggan, another son of an Irish family from the nearby San Francisco Bay Area. All three had grown up in homes with ironclad beliefs about supporting strikers and denouncing scabs, and they believed unions were not only a right but a necessity for working people.
Ordained in 1947, McDonnell entered the priesthood at a moment when the American Catholic Church was openly struggling with what clerics called the “Mexican problem.” The sprawling diocese of San Francisco, fourteen thousand square miles that included some of the richest farmland in California, was home to roughly 147,000 ethnic Mexicans,
the majority poor farmworkers. The Mexicans were largely ignored by the church, and largely ignored it in turn. McDonnell estimated that 80 percent of the Mexicans in the diocese never attended services. San Francisco archbishop John J. Mitty increasingly worried about losing parishioners to the Protestants, who offered popular Spanish-language services at conveniently located evangelical churches and capitalized on the Catholics’ neglect of the poor Mexican parishioners.
In 1950, the two Macs, fluent in Spanish and committed to social justice, offered Mitty a proposal. Along with Duggan and a fourth friend from the seminary, they persuaded the archbishop to try a bold experiment: a new apostolate that would cross geographic boundaries with a mandate to minister to all Mexicans in the diocese. The priests had wide latitude, unique jurisdiction, and unusual independence. “Mitty saw the wisdom
and the possibilities of this,” Duggan wrote. “He gave us carte blanche to proceed as we saw fit. He had never done anything like this previously, and the Fathers were amazed.” Mitty called the four priests the Spanish Mission Band.
McDonnell’s territory was Santa Clara County, one of the major agricultural counties in the country. The rich soil and plentiful fruit in what would later become Silicon Valley earned the area the name “Valley of Heart’s Delight.” In Sal Si Puedes, McDonnell encountered conditions typical in barrios and
around the state—dirt streets, no sidewalks, second-class schools, few municipal services. There wasn’t even a Catholic church. McDonnell found a shack on Tremont Avenue that was used as a community meeting hall and began to celebrate mass
at the end of 1950 in a building known as Puerto Rican Hall. Just before Christmas, the leaking roof flooded the manger during a heavy rain.
McDonnell methodically divided his parishioners into different categories, in much the same way Chavez would later think about them: Mexican Americans who lived permanently in barrios; migrants who worked the circuit and lived mainly in the labor camps; transients from New Mexico, Arizona, or Texas who came north just for the summer harvest; and Mexican guest workers, single men imported to work on specific farms. McDonnell used unorthodox tactics.
He carried “Our Lady of the Fields,” a portable altar, into labor camps to hear confession. He conducted mass on Sunday nights and weekday evenings to accommodate those who worked in the fields on Sunday mornings. The two Macs composed their own hymns in Spanish and substituted a Spanish liturgy.
McDonnell had developed a following by the spring of 1952, when a visitor from out of town showed up at the church on Tremont. Immaculately dressed and partial to plaid shirts, Fred Ross spoke in the clear, pedantic manner of an English teacher. He called himself a community organizer. Ross did things by the book—his own book. He formulated strict rules and followed them assiduously. Rule number one: when in a new place, go see the local priest. So on Wednesday, May 7, 1952, his first day in San Jose, Ross drove around the dusty streets of Sal Si Puedes and then paid a call
on Father McDonnell.