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Friend of Cesar Chavez Sees Remnants Of Civil Rights Activist In Today’s Protests

LeRoy Chatfield pictured with Cesar Chavez outside the Tulare County jail in ...

Credit: Courtesy of LeRoy Chatfield

Above: LeRoy Chatfield pictured with Cesar Chavez outside the Tulare County jail in Porterville, Calif., just after Chatfield bailed out the civil rights activist, 1965.

Civil rights activist Cesar Chavez would have turned 91 on Saturday. As America honors his birthday, KPBS Reporter Amita Sharma spoke to LeRoy Chatfield, a retired educator who was a close friend and colleague of Chavez, about the labor leader’s legacy.

Q: How did you meet him?

A: I met Cesar Chavez in 1963 by taking a 3,000-mile trip to Boston to attend the National Catholic Social Action Convention. I was teaching high school in Bakersfield at the time and I went to this convention. One of the panel members talked about Cesar Chavez who was organizing farmworkers in Delano. I almost fell out of my chair because being from Bakersfield, I was 30 miles from Delano, and I had never heard of Cesar Chavez. I had to go 3,000 miles to hear his name and see what he was doing. So when I came back to Bakersfield, I made up my mind to try to contact him. I couldn’t find his name in the telephone book so I called the panel member and asked was he sure and he said yes he was sure there was a Cesar Chavez and he said Chavez had a brother by the name of Richard, maybe he was in the phone book. And there was a Richard Chavez in the Delano phone book. So I called him and he got a message to Cesar and Cesar called me and then I went to Delano and met him for three hours. That was 1963.

RELATED: Cesar Chavez: The Life Behind A Legacy Of Farm Labor Rights

Q: What did you discuss with him?

A: I wanted to find out what he was doing. He was organizing farmworkers to gain union recognition and to fight for social justice in terms of wages and working conditions. And I said,'Well, I’m very interested in that but I thought education was the answer to poverty for farmworkers.' He said, 'No, it isn’t because they don’t have any stability.' He told me that he himself was in 28 elementary schools growing up. If the family doesn’t have stability, your children cannot go to school and education cannot be a factor in their lives.

Q: How would you describe your relationship with him?

A: Cesar Chavez was my best friend for 10 years. When the Delano Strike broke out in September of 1965, he called me and asked if I would come to Delano and work with him because he needed my help. He said he needed help with the strike and it was a very difficult time for his National Farm Workers Association. That was his union. I said, `OK, I’ll come.’ But that meant I had to resign my 8-year career as a high school teacher and at that time I was also an assistant principal. I went to Delano in 1965 and I worked with him full-time for eight years.

Q: What kind of person was Cesar Chavez?

A: He was a marvelous teacher, a very good listener. He organized you one person at a time. He took his time when we were talking. It was as if I was the only person he had met or ever would meet. It was total concentration. It was very empowering. He was very quiet, soft-spoken. He just was a very nice person.

Q: What did you learn from him?

A: I learned a lot of things. I learned to organize. I learned how to take something that doesn’t exist and make it exist. And that is what a good organizer does.

Q: In the last year, there have been high-profile protests across America by women, young immigrants and students advocating gun control. Do you see remnants of Cesar Chavez in those marches?

A: When I see these marches, I see the empowerment that Cesar was able to impart to people, that they could actually do something, that they were not powerless. He always said that the growers have the money but the farm workers have the time and not having money is absolutely no excuse for not organizing and using the currency you have.

Q: How do you plan to celebrate Cesar Chavez Day?

A: I will make a presentation at Del Mar High School about Cesar Chavez.

RELATED: UCSD Acquires Digital Archives From United Farm Workers Union

Civil rights activist Cesar Chavez would have turned 91 on Saturday. As America honors his birthday, KPBS Reporter Amita Sharma spoke to LeRoy Chatfield, a retired educator who was a close friend and colleague of Chavez, about the labor leader’s legacy.

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