1991 Eulogy for Juana Estrada Chavez by Cesar Chavez

December 18, 1991—San Jose, Calif.

Thanks be to God that our mother's family—those she loved so much—were able to be at her bedside during the final hours.  Our mother left us a beautiful heritage of courage and faith—a heritage  that, please God, will sustain us come what may, until we meet her again in paradise.

  In a passage from the Book of Proverbs, King Solomon offers his description of a good woman:
  Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall  rejoice in time to come.
  She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue  is the law of kindness.
  She looketh well to the ways of her household, and  eateth not the bread of idleness.
  Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband  also, and he praiseth her.
  Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that  feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.
  Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works  praise her in the gates.

Juana Estrada Chavez does not need for any of us to speak well of her this day.  The simple deeds of a lifetime speak far more eloquently than any words of ours about this remarkable woman and the legacy of hope and strength that she leaves behind.

Rather than bore you by talking about how good she was, let us share some of the events we witnessed and some of the lessons we learned growing up as the children of Juana Chavez.

It was the Depression years of the late 1930s and early '40s.  But as poor as we were and with what little we had, mama would send my brother Richard and me out to railroad yards and other places looking for "hobos" we could invite to our tent to share a meal.

In those days the highways were littered with families whose cars or pick-up trucks had broken down—with no place to go and no way to get there. When we were on the road, no matter how badly off we were, our mother would never let us pass a family in trouble.

She brought in a whole assortment of homeless families who didn't have a place to stay.  We didn't either.  But she'd bring them into our tent and make room for them in what little space we had.

Our mother would tell us, "you always have to help the needy, and God will help you."

Lifelong friendships were born that way.  Some of the people she befriended more than 50 years ago are here today. 

It was the rainy winter of 1939.  We were living in a farm labor camp for cotton pickers outside the small farm town of Mendota in West Fresno County.  The camp was unpaved.  It was pouring rain.  The mud was so bad that cars couldn't get in or out.  A young girl was giving birth to her first baby.  There was no way to take her to the doctor.  So my mother rolled up her sleeves and delivered the baby.  And it wasn't the last time it happened. 

In those days few people had money for doctors.  Many hadn't even set foot in a doctor's office.  A lot of the farm workers also didn't speak the language.  Many didn't believe in doctors.  Our mother was a folk healer.  Besides delivering babies and curing common colds and headaches, she cured children of sustos empacho mollera pujon y ojo.

Her favorite herbs were yerba buena, yposote, yerba del pasmo, sauco—and she really believed in manzanilla.  I'd go to her and say, "mama, I have a headache."  She'd say, "manzanilla."  "Mama, I have a stomachache."  "Manzanilla."  "Mama, I feel depressed."  "Manzanilla."  So much so that my nickname came to be...Manzi.

It was also that year when dad was hurt in an auto accident and couldn't work—for a whole year.  Our mother and the oldest sister, Rita, supported the family tying carrots in the Imperial Valley.  But they didn't know how to do the work.  They were farm workers, but they were fresh from a little farm in Arizona and had never done that kind of work before.  So they'd leave home at 3:30 in the morning.  And they didn't get back until 7:00 in the evening.  They earned $3 a week.  But they kept us together until dad was able to work again.

One January or February we were driving to the Imperial Valley from that labor camp in Mendota when we ran out of money in Los Angeles.  Mama quickly sold two beautiful quilts she had crocheted.  And we had money to buy gas and continue on our journey.

It was 1941, and there was very little work.  We were lucky to find jobs picking cotton in the San Joaquin Valley.  When our big, heavy sacks were full, we'd line up and wait to have the sacks weighed by hanging them on a hook at the truck of the labor contractor.  You'd get 3/4 cents per pound of cotton.  But sometimes the contractor would cheat the workers by putting his knee under the sack so it'd weigh less.  Instead of getting credited for a 100 pound sack, the worker would get marked down for only 80 pounds.  All this would happen pretty fast and the victim's view was usually blocked.

Well, mama was pretty sharp.  She saw the contractor cheating a worker who was in line in front of her—and she called him on it.  The contractor was furious.  The entire Chavez family got fired.

It didn't bother her.  Our mother used to say there is a difference between being of service and being a servant.  We were living in Delano during the early '40s when I started driving.  All of us—especially Rita and I—became a travelling service center.  Our mother would have us do all kinds of errands, often driving people to Bakersfield, 30 miles away, to see the doctor or police or district attorney or welfare office.  We drove many a girl having a baby to the General Hospital.  One baby was born in the back seat of our car.

After going to work in the fields early in the morning, by 10 a.m. we'd have to change out of our work clothes, jump in the car to Bakersfield, return home, change back into our work clothes and try to get some more work done.  Mama never let us charge a penny for our troubles, not even for gas.

When she wasn't helping people or getting us fired for challenging labor contractors, we were the strikingest family in all of farm labor.  Whenever we were working where there was a strike or when the workers got fed up and walked off the job, she'd be the first one to back up our dad's decision to join the strike.

Our mother taught us not to be afraid to fight—to stand up for our rights.  But she also taught us not to be violent. 
We didn't even know enough at the time to call it nonviolence.  But from an early age, through her dichos and little lessons, she would always talk to us about not fighting, not responding in kind.

She taught her children to reject that part of a culture which too often tells its young men that you're not a man if you don't fight back. She would say, "No, it's best to turn the other cheek. God gave you senses like eyes and mind and tongue, and you can get out of anything. It takes two to fight, and one can't do it alone."

This is a day of sadness for Rita and Richard and Eduwiges and Librado and me, for all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren who are here today.  But the services this morning are not an occasion for sadness, much less for despair.  Rather, this is a time to celebrate, in the spirit of Christian joy, our mother's life and the goodness and mercy of God.

Her 99 years are a story of triumph over cruelty and prejudice and injustice.  She was a wise woman who fulfilled God's Commandments by loving and serving her neighbors—even to the point of sacrifice.  Our mother's good deeds—good deeds above all of charity and compassion and kindness—are known to many of you.  All who knew our mother as a personal friend or more immediately as a member of the family can vouch for the fact that she had understanding.  By this I mean that she had the gift of faith—that gift of knowing what is truly important in life.

We are here today to say that true wealth is not measured in money or status or power.  It is measured in the legacy we leave behind for those we love and those we inspire.

We are here today because our lives were touched and moved by her spirit of love and service.  That spirit is more powerful than any force on earth.  It cannot be stopped.

Death comes to us all and we do not get to choose the time or the circumstances of our dying.  The hardest thing of all is to die rightly.  Juana Chavez died rightly.  She served her God and her neighbor.

Now it is for you and me to finish the work Juana Chavez has begun among us in her quiet and simple ways, until we too can say that we have obeyed the commandment set out in the Book of the Prophet Micah in the Old Testament: "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."

"Happy are those who died in the Lord; Let them rest from their labor for their good deeds go with them."


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