Column: Cesar Chavez’s grandson wants to introduce his ‘Tata’ to a new generation

When I visited the National Chavez Center earlier this summer, the solemnity of the place hit me the moment I parked.

It sits on 187 acres in the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains, at the end of a winding forest road. All around are old buildings—houses, barns, trailers—remaining from La Paz, the kibbutz-like community that Cesar Chavez founded in the 1970s and is his final resting place.

Andres Chavez, the center’s executive director, was waiting to greet me at the entrance.

Andres is also Cesar’s grandson.

“See these steps here?” he said as we began our tour. He pointed to the path to his grandparents’ grave, surrounded by rose bushes in front of a five-spout fountain to commemorate the people killed protesting the actions of the United Farm Workers. “I used to skateboard here before school.”

What many consider holy places, Andres also knows as his childhood home.

A man in a white shirt is standing in front of an old photograph.

Cesar Chavez’s grandson, Andres Chavez, has headed the National Chavez Center since April, but had already made a name for himself beyond his pedigree in the Central Valley.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The two story house where Cesar and Helen lived? Andres recalled “stacked” Christmas parties where Helen gave her grandchildren socks as gifts. A playground behind a chain link fence? Andres and his friends used to ride their mountain bikes down the slides. The soup kitchen that Andres wants to reopen to visitors? As a kid, he washed dishes and swept floors there during communal meals and was paid in cheeseburgers.

We passed the renovated headquarters of the United Farm Workers and the Cesar Chavez Foundation, the two organizations through which the union leader launched his people power revolution. We went for photos to the visitor center which offers a short documentary about the history of the place el movimientoa replica farmhand’s hut, and Chavez’s office as he left it at the time of his death in 1993, down to overflowing bookshelves and a notepad with a to-do list.

Andres pushed a button to start a short annotated program spotlighting different parts of the office.

Nothing has happened.

“Huh,” said an embarrassed Martha Crusius. “It wouldn’t stop playing, and now it won’t play at all.”

Crusius is the National Park Service program manager who helped prepare documentation for the construction of the Cesar E. Chávez National Monument, dedicated by President Obama in 2012, which consists of the Cesar and Helen Chavez Tombs and Visitor Center.

Andres smiled. “We have work to do here.”

A man walks in front of a house.

The house where Cesar Chavez and his wife Helen lived is part of the César E. Chávez National Monument in Keene.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

He has been running the National Chavez Center since April, but had already made a name for himself in the Central Valley beyond his pedigree. He helped launch one of the few Latino-hosted political radio shows in California and helped roll out COVID-19 vaccines across Kern County. He is currently coordinating logistics for the final leg of the United Farm Workers’ march from Delano to Sacramento, which is scheduled to end this Friday.

Friends and family see Andres as the spiritual spitting image of Cesar, right down to the same warm smile and eyes, empathetic expression and healthy mop of hair.

“He’s a very strategic and brilliant thinker,” said Lynnette Zelezny, president of Cal State Bakersfield, who has appointed Andres to her Latina/Latino Advisory Committee. She credits him with helping his alma mater open campus to COVID testing and vaccines and working with Dolores Huerta to persuade the academic senate to offer ethnic studies. “Andres has the ability to bring people together. He’s a magnet.”

“He doesn’t make thunderous speeches that give you goosebumps. He just talks to people, just like my father,” said Paul Chavez, head of the Cesar Chavez Foundation and father of Andres. “He is aware of the message he has. But it’s a romantic notion that the two are similar. Everyone is their own man.”

For his part, the 28-year-old played down comparisons and ambitions to polish his own image. His job right now is to raise his grandfather at a time when he said interest in Cesar is greater than ever.

Two graves and a cross.

The César E. Chávez National Monument in Keene is also where the civil rights activist is buried along with his wife.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“A lot of people have looked at each other over the last few years and said, ‘What else can I do?'” he said at the end of our tour. “So they looked back at history. And they find the movement of peasants. The UFW was never big. But there were millions of people who were inspired.

“He was a cool guy,” Andres concluded as we finally sat down on a bench in the shade of an oak tree. “But there are fewer and fewer people who have worked with him. A lot of younger people don’t know what mine mean Tata tat’, with a Mexican-Spanish term of affection roughly translatable as ‘Grampy’.

Andres never met his grandfather, who died nine months before Andres was born. But he’s been in UFW rallies almost from the moment he could walk. His father, aunts and uncles all continued the work of their patriarch through the organizations he established.

Nevertheless, the continuation in the family business was not predetermined.

He moved from La Paz when he was 18 and earned a bachelor’s degree in public administration in 2016. He then moved to Sacramento to work for a non-profit organization focused on farm worker education and then the California State Fair.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he admitted.

About a year after his performance, Andres called his father.

“He said, ‘I’ve been thinking — I want to come back,'” Paul Chavez said. “‘I want to be part of the movement.'”

Paul hired his son as an assistant on a 10-year strategic plan for the Cesar Chavez Foundation, which is involved in everything from affordable housing to curriculum training to public health initiatives.

“In the movement you’re exposed to other people, but you’re protected from the outside world,” Paul said. “We knew we needed a different focus and it was obvious he was the guy for it.”

When the position of executive director of the National Chavez Center became vacant and Andres expressed interest, Paul had a candid conversation with his son about the prospects and dangers of the position.

“I told him, ‘Listen, mijo‘Of course there are many advantages to being your grandfather’s grandson,’” Paul said. “‘But you have to understand that you’re going to have some tough times, too. And you have to be familiar with situations where a lot of us oldtimers get defensive.’”

Paul was referring to revelations in books and newspapers – including this one – over the past 20 years about Cesar’s treatment of former colleagues that have tarnished his reputation in some progressive circles. And the Chavez family has long resisted accusations that the network of nonprofits it works for and controls is exploiting its patriarch’s name while abandoning the plight of migrant workers.

It’s a past Andres was more than willing to talk to me about.

Rural leader Cesar Chavez.

Cesar Chavez and members of the United Farm Workers picket lines in San Diego County in 1973.

(Barry Fitzsimmons / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“There were some things he could have done better – we acknowledge that,” Andres said calmly. “You have to be honest when you think there are things that could have been done better, but you also have to look at the bigger picture.”

I asked about his grandfather’s use of the term “wetback” and his longstanding opposition to illegal immigration, attitudes that have made him an unlikely bludgeon for anti-immigrant activists.

“Are we proud of that? Absolutely not,” Andres said. “But mine Tata supports [the 1986] Amnesty. By calling him anti-immigrant, you give the corporations great credit for the atrocities of what they have done. They don’t care about workers – mine Tata did. We need to get that context out there.”

Preserving and defending his grandfather’s legacy is just part of Andres’ responsibilities as director of the National Chavez Center, which also helps manage the monument with the National Park Service. He is overseeing the renovation of the old La Paz buildings in time for Chavez’s 100th birthday in 2027 and making the area a tourist destination.

“City kids deserve to be up here in the wild — it’s going to be one of the few times they leave an urban environment,” he said.

He wants to bring his grandfather’s presence more into the modern age, with gestures as big as a book of his quotes and as small as a Spotify playlist (Cesar was a big jazz fan, Coleman Hawkins a particular favourite).

More importantly, however, Andres wants the world to know that Cesar was more than just the fields.

“Everyone mine Tatas Causes are current problems,” he said. “His ideas were radical for his time. Vegetarianism. LGBT equality. Environmental Protection. police brutality. He even did yoga before it became mainstream. A lot of what he’s known for is pretty shiny now, but there’s so much more.”

We looked at the parking lot, where more and more people appeared.

“There are a lot of Subarus now,” he joked, “instead of just Chevys.” Column: Cesar Chavez’s grandson wants to introduce his ‘Tata’ to a new generation

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