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Christine Chavez shares her life story about her grandfather Cesar E. Chavez

Christine Chavez grew up learning about farm workers rights, the labor movement and community organizing. As a young child she was standing in the picket line fighting for the rights of others and learning from her grandfather, Cesar Chavez, how to fight against the wrongs done to others through non-violent protests.

“We spent a lot of time working in the farm workers movement. It was so important to my grandfather to see all of his children and especially his grandchildren walking in picket lines, going on marches or working and volunteering in the United Farm Workers office. He use to tell us ‘guys, in this family we don’t have family picnics, but we have family pickets,’” said Chavez.

She was invited to speak last week at the 10th Annual Cesar Chavez Lecture Series at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Before giving her presentation on her grandfather, Chavez recognized the Alonzo family and thanked them for supporting her grandfather and the others that formed the labor movement and Farm Workers Union.

“There is no way they would have been able to do what they did if it wasn’t for the supporters like you and your family. I was admiring all the different posters he (Jose Alonzo) had created and someone mentioned to me that he would put them on his children and you would go out and boycott in front of the Safeway store. It was a very similar story to our childhood and I want to say thank you for that,” said Chavez.

Her grandfather was successful in moving the boycotts from the fields in California to the cities.

“That is where the Alonzo family came in, and many other families, supported those boycotts. Tens of thousands of supporters picketed supermarkets, millions of consumers boycotted grapes, forcing grape growers to sign a contract in 1970. At one time, 17 million Americans were boycotting California table grapes,” said Chavez.

Lining the walls at Pierson Auditorium were posters drawn by Jose “Chepe” Alonzo, who in an interview with KC Hispanic News in 2014, said he met the civil rights leader at the old Valentine shopping center at the intersection of 36th and Broadway in Kansas City, Missouri and marched with Cesar Chavez in support of the United Farm Workers.

“I did it because of my parents. I saw the suffering my parents went through and I saw these other people with Cesar and I said to myself I am going to join them,” he said.

As a nine-year-old boy in Topeka, Kansas, Alonzo got a taste of the backbreaking work when he began working in the beet fields. He knew that work was not for him. As part of his activism he got involved in direct action. He made posters that called for the boycott of fruits and vegetables urging people not to buy them unless they had the United Farm Workers emblem on them. He would take his posters and his family and picket at Safeway.

Yolanda Velasquez, daughter of Jose Alonzo, said her dad did the artwork in the early 70’s.

“Our priest at St. Thomas Church in Kansas City, Kansas had asked for volunteers to clean the church as there were a caravan of farm workers who were coming to Kansas City to bring awareness of the plight of the farm workers, and they needed a place to rest and eat. Our priest wanted to provide for them. I feel that is where my dad became interested in this. He loved bringing awareness and he loved to draw and that was his way of offering his support,” she said.

Growing up, Velasquez childhood interchanges with Chavez as they both can recall pickets and rallies.

“I remember picketing with my dad on Saturday mornings at various Safeway stores. There was an instance that it did get hostile when we were at the Valentine shopping center one morning and I knew something wasn’t right, and we had people coming out and asking us to leave and we didn’t. They got a little loud with my dad and he shooed us away, but soon after that we left. Usually though when we did the pickets it was peaceful,” she said.

As Velasquez waited for Chavez to take the stage and looked over her dad’s artwork, she said, “it is overwhelming to see his work here. Many of these things I haven’t seen for years. The artwork has been at the home until recently when we allowed the artwork to be on display at various events. Seeing the artwork shows people that even though there were thousands of miles between Cesar and here, my dad was fighting just as hard here in the Midwest as they were in California.”

Frances Alonzo, wife of Jose, didn’t go along to the pickets, but she supported him doing what he wanted to do.

“We learned about the movement that Cesar Chavez was doing with farm workers when our priest asked for volunteers to clean the church and help to feed the farm workers coming into town. After learning about the work they were doing, my husband was dedicated to helping with the cause,” she said.

As she looked around the room at the attendees and her husband’s artwork, Frances said, “I wish he was here. I wish he could see this and he would be very proud. It makes me feel very good that they are acknowledging his artwork because he was truly faithful to their cause,” she stated.
Christine Chavez told the crowd that Cesar Chavez was her mother’s father and that she is one of 31 grandchildren. Her mother Sylvia is the oldest daughter of Cesar and he and his wife had eight children.

“I like to tell people that it was really my mom who instilled in us the sense of pride that I feel as a Mexican American, as a woman and as a granddaughter of Cesar Chavez. My mom made us wear the red UFW button all the time for our school pictures,” she said.

Following in her grandfather’s footsteps, she is a fighter for civil rights, social justice and labor equality. Her work has raised awareness to protect the civil rights of farm workers and the larger immigrant community. She’s also been recognized for her dedication to fighting for marriage equality, and she continues to work toward bringing historically disenfranchised communities together to forge peace and unity.

She once heard her grandfather say, “we don’t need perfect political systems, we need perfect participation” and it has influenced her even to this day.

After this year’s Presidential election, Chavez wished that she could have turned to her grandmother Helen Chavez for advice, but she lost her grandmother in June before the election.

“I was so scared what (the election) would mean for the thousands of farm workers who labor in our fields. Most who don’t have documentation to be in this country. I remember all the times I called her when I was young. She would say, ‘mija you will lose sometimes, but it is what you do after that, that counts. In the farm workers movement we had so many set backs and losses. You must remember you can never give up even though it feels that there is no way out, you have to remember that the struggle for justice is a marathon, not a sprint,’” she said.

At an early age she was always encouraged to get involved and speak against any injustices. She learned two important lessons from her grandfather—solidarity and commitment.

She recalls a time when she was 15 years old and her grandfather was invited to New York. He decided to take Christine and her sister Vanessa along on the trip.

“We had never been on an airplane and we definitely never been to New York. The organization planned to put my grandfather up in the Park Plaza Hotel, which is a very fancy hotel. My sister and I wanted to stay there but my grandfather disagreed. He would never stay in hotels, he always said no matter where we go across the United States we can find a supporter and stay in their home. We begged him to stay in the hotel while we were in New York and he finally agreed. We were so excited and imagined all the things we would do in the fancy hotel. When we pulled up in front of the hotel, the maids were on strike. My grandfather was furious that we made him drive to the hotel, we didn’t get to stay in the hotel and my sister and I had to get out and walk that picket line to show solidarity. I have never forgotten that,” she said.

It was during her 16th year that she began to realize who her grandfather was and the impact that he had on others.

“I began to see him as a civil rights leader. It was the summer of 1988 when my grandmother Helen called our family and said your grandfather hasn’t eaten for one week,” said Chavez.

This was the first time that they witnessed one of his fasts to bring attention to a wrong. She recalled how they were not prepared for what was to come that summer.

“At the age of 61, he conducted his longest public fast of 36 days on water only to bring attention to pesticide poisoning to the farm workers and their children. While he fasted week after week, we saw him go from a very active, vibrant person to being bedridden and almost losing his life. I had never witnessed that level of commitment and dedication in any person before or since,” she said.