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Flora Chavez, 85; Longtime Westside Activist, Volunteer

September 14, 2003|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Flora Chavez, a Westside activist who for 40 years fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless, provided legal aid to the disenfranchised and loaned money -- often from her own pockets -- to the poor, died of cancer Sept. 4 at her Venice home. She was 85.

A white woman who spoke Spanish with a Kentucky accent, Chavez was the director of the West Los Angeles branch of the Community Service Organization, a statewide group formed in 1947 to mobilize Mexican Americans for community action.

She was sometimes paid, but for the most part was a volunteer, running the group out of her modest home in a gang-ridden Venice neighborhood. She used her Social Security income to maintain many of its services, which included helping immigrants apply for citizenship, sponsoring a food co-op and running a credit union.

"She was a very unusual person in that she gave of herself to everyone," said Helen Chavez, the widow of United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez.

Flora Chavez was not related to Cesar or Helen Chavez, but marched alongside them in the late 1960s, when the fledgling farm workers union took a historic stand for grape pickers in Delano. She brought food to the striking workers every weekend, and drove groups of their children to Los Angeles, where they could receive free dental care.

She also was a foot soldier in the civil rights movement, once lying down in front of cars bringing Ku Klux Klan members to a meeting in Los Angeles. In the 1970s, she fought crime in the streets of Venice, lobbying for more police patrols and bilingual officers, holding community meetings to ease tensions between Latino and black gang members and, with longtime Venice activist Pearl White, launching her own version of Neighborhood Watch.

On many nights, to the horror of family and friends, she personally tended to the victims of gang shootings, muggings and stabbings in her home. One time, she routed a crack dealer from under her house and forced him to empty his pockets. Then, her granddaughter Shannon Sansaricq recalled, "she brought him into the house and fed him."

At the age of 83, Chavez became the legal co-guardian of a then-7-year-old girl, whom she had raised since birth after her birth mother abandoned her. Until Chavez became ill, she took the child to school every day and was one of the most dedicated volunteers -- and the oldest, by far -- ever to sweep the playground or read a story at Broadway Elementary School in Venice.

"She is one of these local legends," former Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, whose district included Venice, once said of her dogged constituent.

Chavez was born Flora Siler in Pine Knot, Ky., and was raised in Albuquerque, N.M., where she met her husband, Filaberto Chavez, a silversmith and jack of all-trades. They married in 1935, and the following year she gave birth to the first of their three children.

Her husband and daughter Dixie Lee Irvin preceded her in death. She is survived by daughters Phyllis Chavez of West Los Angeles and Kathy Kalyn of Aloha, Ore., four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Chavez and her husband moved to Southern California in the 1940s. Filaberto became a sheet metal worker for Douglas Aircraft, while she took a job at Hughes Aircraft in El Segundo. During World War II, she also served a stint at the Lockheed plant in Burbank, where she organized workers.

"She was like Rosie the Riveter," Kalyn said. "She was the first women's libber, an activist for everyone's rights before it was fashionable."

In the 1950s, Chavez met labor organizer Anthony Rios, founder of the Community Service Organization. Rios, who died in 1999, mentored many Latino leaders, including Cesar Chavez and his UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, former Rep. Edward Roybal and former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso. He encountered Flora Chavez when both were going door-to-door in Venice to register Latinos to vote.

Impressed by her devotion to grassroots action, Rios recruited her some years later to work for his organization, which eventually had 30 chapters throughout the state.

When Chavez arrived in 1969, the West Los Angeles branch was struggling. Its three-year-old credit union was near collapse. She took immediate action.

"She paid off some of the loans herself," said Jolene Fukushima, the group's bookkeeper for many years, "and she made it a solvent credit union."

Despite bureaucratic challenges and hassling by state regulators, Chavez kept the credit union afloat for 30 years.

It was a sturdy, if humble, operation. Chavez refused to put a sign for the credit union on her house because she feared it would invite criminals. Nevertheless, word of its existence spread. Over three decades, it had 400 members and dispensed $2 million in 680 loans. During those years, it had only two defaults and no robberies. And its books were always balanced -- in hand-written ledgers. Chavez never computerized.

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