For the Final Time, They March for Chavez : Memorial: From the famous to the field workers, 35,000 turn out to pay tribute to the late labor leader.


This was the working people’s state funeral.

In a white pine coffin planed and sanded by his brother, Cesar Chavez, the impassioned campesino who had swept across this sere, hot valley like another force of nature, was carried down the roads he had once marched, past the fields where he had toiled, on the shoulders of those who had marched and toiled with him.

The numbers grew throughout the day Thursday: 35,000 people followed the body of the leader of the United Farm Workers, so many that the advance marchers were beginning to arrive at the UFW’s 40 Acres compound just as the last ones began walking, three miles back into town.

It was the last march Richard Lopez would take with his old compadre . Wearing a hat he swears was given to him by Pancho Villa’s widow, the 77-year-old Stockton man collapsed halfway in an almond orchard. He waved away those who insisted he take a car.


When he and Chavez fasted for 31 days a few years ago, Lopez said, “we made a pact. If he died first, I would walk in his funeral, and if I died first, he would walk in mine. I’m going to honor that pact.”

Chavez died in his sleep while visiting Yuma, Ariz., on April 23. The huge crowd of admirers, including many celebrities and government officials, began gathering at 40 Acres on Wednesday, and many kept vigil through the night.

On Thursday, almost everyone who had followed the red and black banners, who had waved the squares of bedsheets with the UFW eagle stenciled on them, had some story about Chavez, some epiphany that had compelled them to skip work or school and fly or drive from Miami, from Toronto, from Mexico, to be here.

Like her father, Sandra Canez, had picked grapes in this valley for years, moving from Selma to Fresno to Firebaugh and back again. Now she works for the phone company in Bakersfield, but on Thursday she was in Delano wearing her “No Grapes” button.

“When farm workers stand up from their labors in the field now, they should look in the sky and say: ‘Thank you, God, for bringing us Cesar Chavez.’ ”

Jesse Peraza, 44, a stolid former farm worker, had stood watch an unwavering 11 hours in front of the coffin where Chavez lay in the embroidered guayabera shirt he liked to wear on big occasions.

Peraza saw people pray, saw them salute el capitan and el profesor .

But then Peraza saw a grandfather lift his grandson high so he could see the face of Chavez, and it was all he could do not to weep. “See this man,” the old one told the child. “I am going to tell you about him someday.”


Someday was not soon enough for some parents who brought their children to see.

Their sixth-graders at Wildwood School in Santa Monica are performing “The Grapes of Wrath,” so the mothers drove up early Thursday morning, blasting the soundtrack from “Hair” to keep awake.

“It’s one of the few things white middle-class kids can do . . . stand together with the people who made this possible,” said Cara Robin as she looked down Garces Highway at the procession.

This marching stuff was not new for Claudia Rosa, 19, and her brother, Robert, 22. They grew up on picket lines with their lawyer-activist parents, behind the man they called “Uncle Cesar.”

“At the time, I didn’t appreciate any of it,” she said. “I was a kid and I wanted to go to swim parties and do things with my friends, and some of them were children of big growers.

“Today, seeing all these people here, it is sinking in that my brother and I were part of something historic, something wonderful.”

At the end of the procession through the fields, marchers sat and stood during a funeral Mass under brightly striped tents.


Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, in a serape, presided as he had when he mediated disputes between the UFW and growers. He read a message of condolence from Pope John Paul II and, in a homily, called Chavez a “special prophet for the world’s farm workers” and “a disciple of Jesus Christ.”

At funerals in Latin America, Mahony told mourners, the names of others who have died for justice and peace are read, and at each name, the crowd shouts “ Presente !”

“To the longtime cry of ‘Huelga!’ we must now add ‘Presente!’ ” for Cesar Chavez, he said.

The crowd leaped to its feet and roared.

Chavez’s grandchildren stepped up to the altar and laid there a wooden carving of a UFW eagle and a short-handled hoe.

Luciano Martinez, 74, who came with his family from the Coachella Valley, recalled a time when he had to furtively sneak his lunch into his mouth because field workers were not allowed to eat on the job.

After 60 years in the fields Martinez just retired--with a union pension.

“If it weren’t for Cesar, he wouldn’t have nothing, and he would still be working in the fields,” said his daughter Maria Anzaldua.

Ten feet away, Rita Avila, 48, from San Juan Capistrano--blond, blue-eyed and Irish-American--remembered the other side.

Her uncle was a rose grower, and every summer at his ranch, at breakfast, she would hear him and his grower friends gripe about Chavez--Communist infiltrator they called him.


Naturally, Avila grinned, she marched with Cesar. She marched against the wishes of her now ex-husband, a Spanish Avila, who thought she was in psychology class until he picked up the Sacramento Bee and saw her picture with Chavez.

The day was more festival than funereal; young men propped big pink bakery boxes of pan dulce on their hips and wandered through the crowd like vendors, handing out the pastries.

The celebrities turned out, protected by a ring of UFW volunteers from too much autograph-seeking.

“Where are the movie stars?” demanded fifth-grader Sonia Givens, clinging to the cyclone fence of Valle Vista Elementary along the march route.

Little girls squealed from the sidewalks and snapped photos of Edward James Olmos and comedian Paul Rodriguez.

Jesse Jackson took a turn as pallbearer. So did three of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s sons as their mother walked behind the coffin. So heavy was the coffin, and so many the devotees who clamored to carry it, that the pallbearers changed every three minutes.

Mickey Kantor, President Clinton’s trade representative and a lawyer for Florida migrant workers years ago, brought a letter from Clinton for Chavez’s widow.


Olmos and Jackson both suggested that Chavez’s birthday, March 31, be declared a national holiday. State Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) introduced a bill to make the day a legal holiday in California.

Former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., who had made possible the state’s law giving farm workers rights and protections they had sought for decades, walked behind the coffin the entire route.

“Hey Jerry,” people hollered, and “Waytago, Jer.” He said nothing. But when a stargazer stepped between the coffin and Brown to snap a picture, he muttered, “It’s not about me, it’s about him.”

After the Mass, Brown gave the shortest speech: “I will miss you Cesar.”

Teddy Hill, an African-American Delano resident, watched the march from a grocery store downtown. He also had watched when all this began here, in 1965.

“After the movement got rolling, he was to them like Martin Luther King was to me,” Hill said.

Thursday’s extravaganza was the biggest UFW march ever; ‘bigger than Gallo,” said the union’s former general counsel Jerry Cohen of the landmark 1975 march against the nation’s largest vintner.


For the space of a dozen hours and a few miles Thursday, the years were blown away like dust from the fields and it was again the ‘60s, the ‘70s, the glory days.

Forgotten for the moment were the divisions that had demoralized the union--purges of long-timers, Chavez’s interest in the Synanon movement, and now costly lawsuits.

Angie Garza, 34, who grew up in the UFW and now works in the jewelry business, found herself “wondering if the old ghosts would show up and when they did, some people were very critical.”

“Personally I’m glad they were willing to put aside the bitterness and pay respects. I think it’s time to bury the hatchet.”

Cohen was one of the former old guard who returned. “I keep telling people: ‘Somebody has to bottle up all this energy and use it.’ ”

That, of course, was the question for the next day: was Thursday a hail and farewell, or a new beginning for the UFW?


Labor organizer Ernesto Cortez has known Chavez since the 1960s.

“Hopefully this isn’t just for the moment,” he said, surveying the vast crowds.

“People have a real hunger to do something meaningful. This man touched the depths of their hearts.”

At the close of the afternoon, Luis Valdez and his El Teatro Campesino--which began its existence entertaining farm workers in these fields--gave a final performance under the huge UFW tent.

“Cesar, we have come to plant your heart like a seed,” Valdez said. “You shall never die. The seed of your heart will keep on singing, keep on flowering, for the cause. All the farm workers shall harvest in the seed of your memory.”

Chavez’s body was taken to an undisclosed place for a private burial. The family said it would announce the grave site afterward.

Times staff writer Henry Weinstein also contributed to this story.