Early UFW pioneer Alfredo Vazquez’ life ‘had purpose,’ helping Cesar Chavez make history in the ‘60s and ‘70s
In the tough, early years of the United Farm Workers, Alfredo Vazquez would return home exhausted after weeks of spending 16- and 18-hour days enduring abuse and threats during farm labor strikes, marches, boycotts and fasts. But his eyes would light up when he explained to his nine children the historical importance of his work for social justice because his life “had purpose,” according to his son, Miguel Vazquez. Alfredo R. Vazquez passed away at age 98 on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 2015, after vowing that “I did what I came here to do.”
Born on May 30, 1917 in El Paso, Texas, Alfredo met and married his wife, Cruz DeAnda, who was also from El Paso. The family labored in South Texas as migrant farm workers. Alfredo also worked much of his life on cattle ranches, breaking and training horses. The Vazquez family migrated to East Los Angeles, but regularly traveled to the Central Valley to follow the crops. Even after permanently moving to a house in the country west of Visalia in the early 1950s, Alfredo left home for long stretches working on valley ranches, frequently joined by his children.
Shortly after the UFW was founded, Cesar Chavez held his first house meeting to recruit local farm workers at the Vazquez ranch home in 1963. Cesar arrived with Dolores Huerta, Reverend Jim Drake of the California Migrant Ministry and LeRoy Chatfield, a former Christian brother who joined the union cause. “The pitch from Cesar and Dolores was how it was high time someone represented the farm workers,” Miguel Vazquez recalls, and they turned to Alfredo first because he was a leader in the area.
By the time Alfredo moved the family to a house he built in nearby Goshen in 1964, he was organizing Tulare County farm workers into the young union. He took jobs in at different companies to learn from co-workers what was happening and even became a driver for a grower, all to gather intelligence and report back to Cesar.
Alfredo was gone from home a lot once the Delano Grape Strike started in September 1965, handling a variety of sensitive assignments and often working undercover as a “submarine,” a spy collecting information inside struck vineyards, despite the danger to his personal safety. He also traveled across California and Arizona with Cesar as part of his security detail on occasions when the union learned about assassination plots.
His prolonged absences placed pressure on Alfredo’s family, especially on his five sons and four daughters. The younger children were especially affected. But Alfredo was determined and totally dedicated to the cause. He’d return home drained from long spells on the road. But he’d become animated relating to his kids the significance of the work he was doing. “He had purpose,” affirmed his son.
Alfredo also taught his children to be strong, even while enduring intimidation and racism—and being spat upon—on picket lines. When his daughter was accosted at a strike line and his sons considered retaliating, Alfredo quoted Cesar, “Nonviolence is our strength”—and added, “We’re stronger than they are.”
After serving full time with the UFW for 15 years, Alfredo worked at a Tulare County cement firm and was manager of a farm worker community co-op store in Fresno County. He later worked at an El Monte, L.A. County senior citizens center, driving the elderly to appointments and delivering food twice a day. Into his 80s himself, Alfredo would joke, “Time to go feed the old people.”
After living with his son for nine years in Hacienda Heights, Alfredo bought a house on a large property in the Tulare County town of Farmersville. He grew huge varieties of everything in his garden and lived alone into his 90s. When family members worried about Alfredo undergoing open-heart surgery, he pointed to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren around him and observed, “I did what I came here to do. If God wants to take me, I’m ready.” He surprised the doctors, survived the surgery in good shape and lived until age 98, passing away peacefully on Dec. 31.
Alfredo Vazquez is survived by seven children: Fernando D. Vazquez, Joe A. Vazquez, Miguel Gabriel Vazquez, Bernadette D. Vazquez, Marty Vazquez Akin, Gerardo R. Vazquez and Lucia Vazquez; plus 20 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren. A daughter, Carmen Vazquez Canales, and a son, Carlos M. Vazquez, preceded him in death.
Friends and farm worker movement supporters are encouraged to attend Alfredo’s services. A Rosary is set for 6 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016, at Salser & Dillard Funeral Chapel, 127 East Caldwell Ave., Visalia, CA 93277. A Mass of Christian Burial is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, at Holy Family Catholic Church, 1908 North Court St., Visalia, CA 93291.