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Chavez homestead toured for Hispanic Heritage Month
The dwellings of Cesar Chavez's childhood in Yuma are crumbling, abandoned and neglected, or knocked down in the name of progress.
Today, only two adobe walls of the family's homestead in the North Gila Valley remain standing. His old schoolhouse is now an agriculture supply warehouse; the tower has long lost its bell.
One of two identical buildings that housed businesses run by his father had been razed, with only a cement slab left as a reminder of the once thriving pool hall operated by Librado Chavez.
Marc Grossman, Chavez's longtime personal aide and press secretary, was shocked when he saw the pool hall had been demolished. “That's outrageous!”
However, he was relieved to see Librado's old country store still stood next door, all boarded up.
Nearby, Cesar's birthplace, formerly a wooden framed house, had already been knocked down to make way for a concrete home.
Guests of the Cesar Chavez Foundation and Nuestro Rio, a Latino coalition, toured the Chavez homestead and other family historic sites Wednesday as part of a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration in Yuma honoring Cesar Chavez.
Speakers Ruben Reyes, district director for Congressman Raul Grijalva, Sal Rivera of Nuestro Rio and Grossman highlighted the cultural importance of the Colorado River to Latinos.
Cesar Chavez, who grew up to be an American farmworker, labor leader and civil rights activist, spent his first 11 years near the banks of the river. He was named after his grandfather Cesario Chavez, known as Papa Chayo, who in the early 1880s immigrated to America, escaping a life of servitude in Mexico.
Cesario settled in the North Gila Valley, where he homesteaded 80 acres of fertile land, planting alfalfa, sweet corn, maize, cotton, Bermuda grass.
He left the homestead, called La Galera, to his youngest of nine children, Felipe, the only son born in the U.S. But Felipe wasn't interested in farming and gave the land to his brothers, among them Librado, Cesar's father.
“It was tough times. It was the Depression, no one had any money, but it was a rich life for a kid,” Grossman said.
Cesar grew up surrounded by siblings, cousins, nephews, nieces, uncles, aunts and grandparents. The family had lots of fresh vegetables, fruits and meat. The kids swam in the canal, walked along the river, made slingshots, hunted lizards and shot cans. However, the kids still had chores: milk the cows, collect the eggs and chop the wood.
In a time before electricity, the most popular form of entertainment was storytelling. Everyone would gather in the courtyard and listened to the elders tell stories. That's how Cesar learned of his family's legacy, which included an uncle who witnessed the gunfight at the OK Corral and a time when the marshal deputized the Chavez men to save a man from a lynching.
“Cesar knew his family had helped build the Old West,” Grossman said, adding that those early years influenced his way of thinking in adulthood.
“Writers short shrift Cesar's early years in Arizona. California gets all the attention because it's where the movement took off,” he noted. (President Obama attended the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument inauguration in Keene, Calif., on Monday.)
“The impact of Cesar's first years growing up in the North Gila Valley were critical. Cesar had known a different life in Arizona before he became a migrant farm worker,” Grossman said.
The family lost the country store and farmland during the Depression. They moved to California, where they become migrant farmworkers.
After an almost idyllic life in Yuma, they encountered harsh living conditions in California, Grossman said. Chavez had a hard time accepting the conditions he found in California.
“When all you know is a life of humiliation, you accept it. Chavez never accepted the grinding poverty and exploitation of the California agriculture industry,” Grossman said.
Chavez co-founded the union that later became the United Farm Workers. Latino leaders and a number of people who joined Chavez in the farm labor movement attended Wednesday's event.
Rivera pointed out that the event marked a pivotal time as the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study by the Bureau of Reclamation is scheduled to conclude in November. As part of the process, the bureau collected proposals for options and strategies to address the supply-demand imbalance and then evaluated them using various criteria, including measurements such as cost, reliability and environmental impact.
In addition, Rivera released the results of a new poll of registered Latino voters revealing the importance of the river to Latinos. Of the 1,200 Latino registered voters polled in Nevada, Colorado and Arizona, 94 percent of the polled Arizonans said they felt it was “very important” or “somewhat important” that the government help protect the river; 81 percent think being more efficient is the best way to deal with the drought and water shortages.
Rivera said Nuestro Rio has been working to educate communities about the history of Latinos and the Colorado River. Using creative ways to tell Latino stories — like the “corrido” about the river that was released on the anniversary of Cesar Chavez's birthday — Nuestro Rio advocates for “commonsense options that are both cost effective and have broad political support, including improving urban conservation, improving agricultural efficiency and establishing water banks.”
Reyes also grew up near the river in Somerton. His father, a farmworker, was known for proclaiming, “Today, from the banks of the Colorado River, we will see the world.”
For Reyes, the river meant recreation. “We would escape Kofa High School and go to the ‘beach.;”
He noted that Phoenix and Tucson are “jealous” of Yuma. “Why? Because you have water. This is the lifeblood of the entire state.”
Reyes pointed out that Cesar Chavez was also an environmentalist because he was concerned with protecting farmworkers from pesticide poisoning.
Mara Knaub can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6856. Find her on Facebook at Facebook.com/YSMaraKnaub or on Twitter at @YSMaraKnaub.