One evening several months ago, I sat in United Farm Workers’ president Arturo Rodriguez backyard talking story with Cesar Chavez’s brother Richard and several amigos who had grown up with Richard and Cesar. While we discussed Cesar’s nonviolent approach, Richard laughed. “He believed in nonviolence in forming the union but when we were kids, being two years older than me, Cesar sure wasn’t nonviolent when I disagreed with him.”
I was shocked when I learned that Richard had died on July 27. He was 82.
Richard and Cesar grew up on a small farm outside Yuma Arizona, not just as brothers but also as inseparable buddies. Their family lost their farm during the Great Depression, and Richard and Cesar would spend the 1930s and 1940s toiling together as migrant farm workers in the fields, vineyards and orchards of California.During the 1950s the Chavez brothers became active in the California Service Organization (CSO); Richard becoming the organization’s president in Delano.
Feeling that CSO was not the most effective means to improve the life of farm workers, Cesar, Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla, Richard and an effective group of other volunteers, began to organize out of a small home in Delano. In 1962, Richard designed the iconic Black Eagle that came to symbolize the United Farm Workers on flags and unions labels during strikes across the fields of California and the nationwide grape boycott of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1963, at Cesar’s urging, Richard borrowed money on his home to start the Union’s credit union for farm workers.
Richard spent the next 20 years organizing farm workers throughout rural California, leading successful boycotts of grapes in New York and Detroit. He served on the United Farm Workers board of directors, oversaw bargaining for contracts and administration of the contracts once signed.
Earlier this month, Richard’s funeral was held at the 40 acres Delano union center, the center Richard helped design and build in the early stage of the United Farm Workers’ growth.
While Cesar Chavez would go on to become a labor and civil rights icon, many people had never heard of Cesar’s younger brother Richard. But upon hearing of Richard’s death, President Barack Obama said, “Throughout his years of service, Richard fought for basic labor rights but also worked to improve the quality of life for countless farm workers. Richard understood that the struggle for a more perfect union and a better life for all America’s workers didn’t end with any particular victory or defeat, but instead required a commitment to getting up every single day to keep at it.”
United States Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said, “I have been privileged to work with Richard Estrada Chavez to ensure that the story of the farm labor and civil rights movement that started in California’s Central Valley is celebrated and shared for generations to come. It was an especially meaningful day to stand alongside Richard in February as we dedicated the ‘Forty Acres’ site as a National Historic Landmark. ´
Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said, “Richard served an integral role alongside his brother in the struggle for the rights of farm workers which dramatically improved the lives of millions of migrant workers. I am saddened to learn of his passing, but I know his legacy will empower and inspire Latinos and other Americans for generations to come.”
I was fortunate enough to work at Richard’s side to help abolish the cortito or short-handled hoe that forced farm workers to spend the long hot summer stooped in the fields.I watched, as Richard quietly helped farm workers across the nation stand tall. The farm workers thank him. Like the hundreds if not thousands of volunteers who helped a group of migrant farm workers mold into a nationwide spokesman for farm workers, in Hilda Solis’s words, Richard “was a quiet hero and his legacy will be his passion for justice.”
Jourdane is currently deputy attorney general in San Diego. He has previously worked as an attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, and served as Deputy Secretary of Legal Affairs in the Governor’s office and as a Superior Court judge. He has published two books: “The Struggle for the Health & Legal Protection of Farm Workers: El Cortito,” and “Waves of Recovery.”