As farmworkers seek protections against COVID-19, a member of the Farm Labor movement looks back

LeRoy Chatfield's book, "To Serve The People - My Life Organizing with Cesar Chavez and The Poor was published last year. Cover photo courtesy of LeRoy Chatfield and University of New Mexico Press (2019)

As field workers confront the lack of protection and provisions against COVID-19, LeRoy Chatfield, an advocate of the farm worker’s movement of over 50 years ago, reached out to this reporter to mention the book he published last October of 2019, entitled: “To Serve The People – My Life Organizing With César Chavez and The Poor.”

At first glance, the teaming up of Chatfield and Chavez seemed unlikely. Chatfield, a white and blonde educated man, was at the time a member of the prestigious Christian Brothers Order. Chavez, was a Mexican-American laborer who dared to challenge the status quo. He sought to better the lives of farm workers. He was tan and weathered from working in the fields. Apart from serving in the U.S. Navy, Chavez had little formal education.

Yet, as Chatfield describes it, they had more in common than meets the eye. Before he entered the Order at age 14, the life and culture Chatfield knew was that of a laborer, like Chavez. As he told his cousin, writer and family-historian Catherine Sevenau: 

Seen here amid the crowd at a rally circa 1965 are Chavez and Chatfield. Photo courtesy of UC San Diego Library archives, Farm Worker Movement Documentation Project

“I was raised in Colusa, a rural community of barely 2,800 residents. The town is seated hard by the levees of the Sacramento River, 60 miles north of Sacramento.

My family were rice farmers. From daylight to dark, they walked the levees with their long-handled shovels lying atop their shoulders, repairing levee breaks, regulating the water, and generally fussing over the rapidly growing crop.”

A tedious and labor intensive work, Colusa as a rice growing community offered little else in terms of future prospects for the young Chatfield. “My father wanted me to get an education,” he said, and the small high school in Colusa was not what he meant. My mother was pleased because I could continue my Catholic education.  All of the stars seemed aligned for the inevitable. So with great expectation and little fanfare, they drove me to a Catholic boarding school one day early in September of 1948.”

The boarding school experience was a ticket out of the rural life of Colusa. The school made an impression upon him because the following year, at age 14, Chatfield entered the Christian Brothers.

Over the next decade he would be immersed in the life of a consecrated religious brother dedicated to teaching and to the semi-monastic community life of a respectable institute known officially as the Brothers of the Christian Schools.

Chatfield explained, “During my friendship with César as a Christian Brother, I never had any intention of leaving the order. In fact, I was already enrolled at University of Southern California in a doctoral program to prepare myself for college teaching at St. Mary’s College in Moraga.”

LeRoy Chatfield speaking at one of the labor rallies, circa 1965

Yet, the threads of their rural farm-life upbringing and Catholicism pulled the two together. These threads wove them into a dynamic social fabric; a diverse tapestry of cultures that challenged the predominantly conservative post-WWII era.

Even though the country at that time was conservative winds of change were stirring. Chavez even in his early days was part of that change through groups like the Community Service Organization.

The CSO was formed in 1947 to help champion the civil rights of Latinos. For decades the plight of Mexican-American workers and others had been a futile struggle of survival. The issue of labor and its management by various levels of ruling elites always had an upper-hand in American life.

Laborers of many ethnicities were excluded from the “American Dream.” This exclusion goes back not only 50 or 100 years, but all the way back to colonial days when privileged plantation owners ruled the land with a whip.

California and the “Golden West” was a land of plenty and much of that plenty was in its ability to provide produce. For decades Mexico, among other places, provided much of the labor needed for the “Golden West” of plenty.

For years it was common for workers to migrate back and forth. As westward expansion grew and social-economic conditions changed, migrant workers were treated unfairly and with low regard.

This disregard of laborers had been noted by many in the 20th century, among them author John Steinbeck in his 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Even though the characters were fictional, Steinbeck based it upon the real-life migration of refugees of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. The family depicted were like the thousands traversing to California to find work and a new life. While the novel highlighted a poor family of white people dispossessed of their home in Oklahoma, it revealed the universal cruelty of poverty, which can impact anyone regardless of status, race, class, or color.

It was situations such as these that Chatfield and Chavez knew well. And, it was while working with the CSO that Chavez and others, such as Dolores Huerta, got the training and experience for labor solidarity and organizing.

As in days of old, agriculture was in business for ‘cash crops’ and in California, what had been dry, desert-like in various parts could now flourish thanks to the diversion of rivers and building of dams.

Cherished and prized, grapes were among those ‘cash crops.’ Chavez was very familiar with work in the vineyards. As conditions for laborers failed to improve despite the growth of prosperity throughout the nation during the post-WWII era, Chavez was able to realize a pivotal moment. He left the CSO as national director in Los Angeles to become co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) based in Delano, CA.

At the time, Chatfield was teaching at Garces High School in Bakersfield about 30 miles away in Kern County, an area known for agriculture and oil wells.

As someone who considered himself very fortunate to be able to get out of Colusa, Chatfield never forgot where he was from. Even as he aspired while with the Christian Brothers to the highest level of an education for a PhD, Chatfield could empathize with affinity.

“We hit it off and became close friends,” Chatfield said, when he met Chavez in Delano back in 1963. “Because of my own concerns about the plight of farmworker children, I started a Saturday School educational program for those children living in the Cottonwood Road area of Bakersfield. And then the following year, I organized a full-time summer school for farmworker children in Delano.”

Chatfield’s summer school work was extended to serve both the Delano and Bakersfield areas. While he initially intended to continue on as a Christian Brother seeking to obtain his doctorate in Social Work at USC, that goal suddenly changed. A worker’s strike emerged among the grape growers of Delano, spear-headed by Chavez and others.

Chavez called upon Chatfield for help. Leaving behind his established career and esteemed vocational life, this became a major turning point for Chatfield. “I packed my few personal belongings, and started a new life working with my friend and his farmworker movement.” At the time back in 1965, “I was 31 years old without a dollar in my pocket. I had agreed to take a brand new job working with César to do something I knew nothing about. And, I was not going to get paid to do it.”

Leaving the only life he knew was difficult as he felt like a fish out of water. But Chatfield with the Christian Brother teaching skills he possessed did have the ability to speak in front of groups of people. “I knew absolutely nothing about organizing a union, Chatfield said, let alone a union for farmworkers. I understood and admired what César was trying to accomplish. He was asking for my help and I agreed to help.” Yet, in leaving the confines of the religious order, Chatfield was given the opportunity to put into action all the social justice teachings of the Gospels.

Regardless at the time of whether it was considered as a politically left-wing or right-wing thing to do, issues of social justice were something that both Chatfield and Chavez envisioned. In her 2018 book, “The Browns of California…” author Miriam Pawel mentions Chatfield and Chavez and the empowering impact of the friendship between them. This friendship helped not only to shape a movement, these two men were able to reach out to lives in many different social circles. Pawel writes that even Chavez’ wife, Helen, noted the importance of their friendship.

The pressure of being a leader and balancing the tension between growers and laborers was palatable. Chavez utilized direct but non-violent tactics to get agri-business and grower/landowners to pay attention. Having a confidant such as Chatfield was vital.

With Chatfield’s help after the success of the Grape Growers’ Strike of 1965, Chavez was able to form a difficult but important alliance with Jerry Brown. When Brown was elected Governor of California in 1975, legislation for the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act was passed. This was a milestone.

Despite criticism and shortcomings in his other activism goals, Chavez would become a major force and an icon of the labor movement, not only in California but the nation.

This was a galvanizing time that changed Chatfield completely. Immersed in a new life, he eventually got married and raised a family. He went on to do campaign work for Governor Jerry Brown. Later he became the director of Loaves & Fishes, an inter-denominational cooperative of Christian churches collaborating with businesses in the local community to feed the hungry and helping those in need.

Since the 1970s, Loaves & Fishes has become a prototype of community outreach and ministry that has been replicated in many places since its inception.

Chatfield has a prediction that in the future “César Chavez Day will be proclaimed a national holiday, taking its place alongside that of Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington.”

Today, in his 80’s LeRoy Chatfield looks back on a life that had many lifesaving moments. Photo courtesy of LeRoy Chatfield.

Whether you believe Chatfield’s prediction or not, one thing he is most certain of are the life saving moments. His meeting and working with Chavez is one of them. “Just how fortunate can one person be? He exclaimed, “I am eternally grateful!”

To learn more about LeRoy Chatfield, his work, and his book, “To Serve The People…” visit the Farmworker Movement Documentation Project at the UC San Diego Library website.