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California and the West

Home for Memories of Cesar Chavez

Legacy: Shed that sheltered his impoverished family is gone, but house of their benefactor will become landmark.

June 29, 1998|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OXNARD — None of the other down-on-their-luck farm workers her family helped out would end up famous.

But that was never the point. The migrants had no money, no food, no jobs, no place to stay. Often the only thing they had plenty of was kids.

So when another dismal carload would creak up near Felipe Navarro's grocery in La Colonia, he would knock on the kitchen window and his wife, Theresa, would fill a platter with steaming burritos. She'd whip up hot chocolate, too--a sweet treat for exhausted families a world away from whipped cream.

They were small kindnesses, perhaps, but Cesar Chavez never forgot them.

When the famed labor leader was a boy, the Navarros gave his family--all seven of them--shelter for the winter in a backyard shed. Decades later, he still counted them as friends, visiting Theresa as she lay racked with one of diabetes' hundred painful complications.

Today the shed is gone, and Felipe and Theresa are dead. The tiny white frame house built by Felipe and his brothers still stands on North Garfield Street, in the heart of Oxnard's poorest neighborhood. It is to be dedicated later this year as an official county point of interest.

But for Martha Navarro, one of the couple's 12 children, the house is more than a minor landmark. It is a reminder not only of Cesar Chavez but also of a time when people shared more than they do now, when those in need could find cold beer and a warm heart at the corner store.

"There was a kind of love and a caring back then that you just don't see anymore," she said. "Sometimes you don't even see it at church."

Martha was just a toddler when the Chavez family came through for the first time. But over the years her father recounted the story many times. After all, the boy who had swung like a monkey from the backyard avocado tree had become the scourge of the growers, the organizer of devastating boycotts, the leader who gave Latinos a rare, exhilarating jolt of political clout.

In 1937, the Depression, drought and a bad business deal cost the Chavez family everything they had. Cesar's parents, Librado and Juana, lost their farm in Arizona's Gila Valley, as well as the store and poolroom they ran. Like some 300,000 others, they hit the road.

Their battered Studebaker took them to Atascadero, to Gonzales, to Half Moon Bay, to San Jose. They picked cherries, apricots, plums--backbreaking work, despite the fruit-salad sound of it. A morning's pea-picking netted the entire family 20 cents. They crammed themselves into tiny rooms, scraped together enough for gas, and followed the crops to the next set of hovels.

In Oxnard, their luck, such as it was, ran out. Their car broke down and they had no jobs.

"My father saw them on the street and said, 'There are children out there. We have to do something,' " said Martha Navarro. For the next few months, the Navarros made room for the Chavez family in their rental home on Roosevelt Road. Fourteen people bunked in the two-bedroom house. Felipe, who worked on the Borchard ranch in Oxnard, helped the family get jobs harvesting walnuts.

They came back to the Navarros for two more harvests. By then, Felipe and Theresa had built the house on Garfield and started the grocery next to it. In the backyard, they installed a shed that used to shelter tractors on the Borchard ranch. Now it sheltered Chavezes, and sometimes other penniless wanderers.

Over the years, the Navarros prospered. The kids pitched in behind the cash register, and Theresa made tamales that people drove miles to buy. Felipe worked both at the ranch and in the grocery, doing favors for those who needed them.

When a new family down the street was temporarily without utilities, Felipe sent over warmed milk for the baby. When workers needed bologna and cheese for the next day's sandwich, he'd open late at night to fetch it for them.

To the poorest, he often would give food instead of credit.

"Don't tell me you'll pay me if you can't," he'd tell them. "If it's for your kids, that's fine. I want you to be able to look me in the face instead of crossing the street when you pass the store."

Cesar Chavez never stayed with them again.

When his family pulled through Oxnard on their endless trek, they rented a place for $10 a month. But when Cesar returned in 1958 as an organizer for the statewide Community Services Organization, he was no longer the shoeless 11-year-old whose life's passion was marbles.

Now he was a charismatic leader battling for an end to the government's bracero program, which funneled workers from Mexico on to California farms at wages far lower than local workers could accept.

*

The Community Services Organization ran English classes and voter registration efforts. Martha Navarro worked as a translator in its Oxnard office. Through its programs, her parents--immigrants from Mexico with virtually no schooling--became U.S. citizens.

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