Helen Fabela was born on January 21, 1928, in Brawley, California, an agricultural community 20 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border. Her father and mother were farm workers who had immigrated to the United States; they were married in Los Angeles in 1923. The family relocated to California's San Joaquin valley, an agricultural epicenter bounded by the San Joaquin river delta to the north and Bakersfield to the south, and settled in a community near Delano. Fabela first met her future husband in 1942 while the two were both students at Delano High School. With the death of her father, she left high school to work full-time in the fields to financially support her family. She married César Chávez on October 22, 1948, in Reno, Nevada.
As agricultural workers, Helen and César moved frequently. For a period after their marriage, they sharecropped strawberries in Greenfield, California, a city near the western boundary of the San Joaquin Valley. (Sharecropping is a system in which a landowner permits tenants to use his land in exchange for a percentage share of the yield.) The family moved again to Crescent City, a city in northern California just south of the Oregon border, to enable César to work in the area's lumber mills. It was while the couple lived in Crescent City that Helen gave birth to the couple's third child, Linda, on January 22, 1951. By 1952, the family had moved again, this time to a barrio of San Jose called "Sal Si Puedes" ("Escape if you Can"). At the urging of Helen, Chávez eventually met with Fred Ross, one of the founders of the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Latino grassroots civil rights organization at work in the San Jose area, and agreed to work as a community organizer for the CSO.
It was during the period that César Chávez worked as an organizer for CSO from 1952 until 1962 that the first clear sense of Helen's critical role emerges; her activism fits the rubric of what scholar Margaret Rose calls "female collective action—that is, work performed, often behind the scenes, in an auxiliary or supportive fashion." Helen's varied roles during this period included teaching literacy classes for migrant workers, caring for the family's children (by 1959 the couple had eight children), working paid jobs to help support the family; and handwriting the daily logs of her husband's activities with the CSO. This blending of roles persisted throughout her husband's career as a labor organizer; that is, her domestic roles as mother and wife blending with her economic role as one of the family's principle providers and blending further still with her auxiliary work on her husband's behalf.
Chávez resigned from his role as an administrator of CSO in 1962 to form the Farm Workers Association, later to become the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). Due to the family's tightening finances, Helen worked in the morning picking grapes at a rate of $1.24 per hour and worked in the afternoon assembling cardboard boxes at a local factory. Her evenings, no doubt, were occupied with domestic responsibilities and auxiliary work for the NFWA. A quotation from Helen during this period is telling: "If we were going to have a meeting, I would address all the envelopes or address postcards, whatever had to be done." To ease her burden, Dolores Huerta, one of the leaders of the NFWA, appointed Helen as the association's accountant. Helen, who had no prior experience as a bookkeeper, initially resisted the appointment before accepting the position. She would later become the full-time administrator for the NFWA's credit union. It is a testament to Helen's great skill that she kept error free books for the more than 20 years she held the position.
In sharp contrast to more public female figures such as Huerta, the union's chief negotiator, Helen's more circumscribed roles as mother and wife frequently prevented more public forms of activism. Nevertheless, she was still arrested on four occasions for her civil disobedience. In 1975, Helen and her daughter Linda were arrested for attempting to organize field workers. They were eventually released when the state courts upheld a regulation that allowed labor organizers to meet with workers outside of work hours. Helen was arrested again in 1978, this time with her husband for testing a statewide ban in Arizona that prohibited picketing. Helen's public acts of civil disobedience encouraged more women within the organization to embrace new modes of collective, labor activism.
With her husband's death in 1993, Helen receded from the public spotlight. She accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton on her late husband's behalf on August 8, 1994. Although she preferred quieter, domestic roles whose import it can be difficult for biographers to tease out, as the wife of a prominent labor organizer, she was never far from the fray. A letter in the César Chávez archives, sent to Helen shortly after César's death, is suggestive of the vitriol she no doubt endured during their marriage: "Your husband was a communist, who sought to tear asunder the moral fabric of our country. . . . Your husband is dead at last. Good riddance!" The letter illustrates that, even after the death of her husband, Helen continued to share jointly in her husband's monumental work and legacy.
Oboler, Suzanne, and Deena J González, eds. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas in the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005; Ponce, Mary Helen. "Remembering the Invisible Women Behind Cesar Chavez’s Throne." The Los Angeles Times, March 14, 1999; Rose, Margaret. "Traditional and Nontraditional Patterns of Female Activism in the United Farm Workers of America, 1962 to 1980". In Chicana Leadership: The Frontiers Reader, edited by Yolanda Flores. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.