Chavez homestead offers rare insight
by James E. Garcia - Mar. 8, 2009
Special for the Republic
Talking about plans to preserve the Harvard dorm room of Franklin D.
Roosevelt, renowned historian Doris Kearnes Goodwin described the
extraordinary feeling of literally walking in the footsteps of a
great historical figure.
I know the feeling.
I once stood in a mammoth art studio made of black volcanic rock and
designed by the brilliant muralist Diego Rivera.
In a small village called Anahuac near Mexico's Gulf Coast, I toured
the remnants of a home built by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez.
More recently, I visited the childhood homestead of the late Cesar
Chavez, the legendary civil-rights leader and founder of the United
Farm Workers union who was born near Yuma in 1927.
Each of these sites represents not only a moment in the remarkable
personal histories of these individuals, they reveal hints about the
future that was about to unfold for them.
I visited the Chavez farm about a year ago with Francisca Montoya, a
former farmworker who is now director of the Cesar Chavez Foundation
We were accompanied by her education director, Delia Torres, and
Torres' young son, Amias.
My visit to the property, which Chavez's family reportedly lost in a
tax and real-estate swindle during the Great Depression, stirred a
mix of emotions.
The home, sadly, is in ruins. Only half-walls remain of its adobe
frame. The roof, doors, and floors are gone. Most of the property,
which sits on the bank of an active irrigation canal, is overgrown
with brush and mesquite trees.
It's clear that few people know or even care that the crumbling home is there.
I found this disturbing. Americans can visit the birthplace memorials
of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., but the Chavez family
farm is gradually being reduced to dust.
Yet I also was inspired by the visit. I was touched knowing that it
was in that house that Chavez acquired his core values. Chavez often
said it was his mother who taught him the virtue of non-violence,
which he later combined with the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi and
King as he built his non-violent labor movement against California
Chavez's father, Librado, was a business owner and farmer before the
family joined the ranks of hundreds of thousands of other Americans
who flocked to California to find work in the fields.
By all accounts, Librado was a proud and generous man. Long before
Chavez formed the UFW, Librado was quick to join wildcat worker
strikes against unscrupulous landowners.
As I wandered around the Chavez homestead, I stumbled upon an
abandoned well. Because I'm a playwright, it was easy to imagine
Chavez's mother instructing her then 10-year-old son to go out and
fetch a bucket of water.
I've even envisioned him standing before the well, eyes shut tight
and wishing that his family's life had not taken a turn for the worse.
Since then, I've co-written a play inspired by that visit. It's
called "A Boy Named Cesar." In the piece, aimed at elementary-school
children and up, 10-year-old Cesar Chavez - thanks a certain magic
wishing well - travels to his future, guided by the ghost of his
grandfather, Papa Chayo.
On stage, we follow Chavez's life up until the late 1960s, though he
would live another 25 years. In the last scene of the play, as the
Chavezes pack up the family Studebaker and prepare in 1938 to drive
to California, Cesar asks Papa Chayo how his story will end.
His grandfather tells him, "You'll come back home, mijo."
Chavez did come home.
In 1993, Cesar Estrada Chavez died in his sleep visiting friends in
the southern Arizona town of San Luis, just a few miles from the
original Chavez homestead.
After decades as the tireless leader of the UFW, it must have seemed
like a good place to rest.
James E. Garcia is a senior research fellow with the ASU Center for
Community Development and Civil Rights College of Public Programs.