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A Change of Life – 1965

By LeRoy Chatfield


  To Serve The People: My Life Organizing With Cesar Chavez and the Poor by LeRoy Chatfield (UNM Press 2019)  Because my background is somewhat unusual and not easily understood, I thought it might be helpful to provide some personal commentary by way of explanation.


In 1963, I  met Cesar Chavez in Delano California when  he was  organizing his National Farm Workers Association.  I was a Christian Brother teaching at Garces High School in Bakersfield California. We hit it off and became very close friends. Because of my own concerns about the plight of farmworker children, I started a Saturday School educational program for farmworker children living in the Cottonwood Road area of Bakersfield and then the following year, I organized a full blown summer school for farmworker children in Delano and in Bakersfield for farmworker children living in the Cottonwood Road and  La Loma areas.

Two years later, on October 15, 1965 to be exact –  at the of age 31 – I moved to Delano California to help my friend, Cesar Chavez, with the Delano Grape Strike.

I came to help because a few weeks earlier, he had called me at USC where I had been assigned by my religious superiors to begin a doctoral program in Social Work. He said he needed help with the Delano farmworkers’ strike and could I come to help him? I said I would.

I resigned from my 15-year religious vocation as a member of the Christian Brothers, left my 9-year career as a high school teacher and administrator, packed my few personal belongings and started a new life working with my friend,  Cesar Chavez, and his farmworker movement.

Consider this:  I was 31 years old without a dollar in my pocket;  I had agreed to take a  brand new job working with Cesar Chavez to do something I knew nothing about; and   I was not going to get paid to do it.

And not only that, but I also need to explain  that  from the age of 15 until age 31, I had lived, studied,  and worked in a 100% male religious organization environment,  namely the Christian Brothers Monastic Religious Teaching Order. That was the only life I knew.

Because I was required to take the religious vow of poverty,  I owned nothing . . . literally nothing.  The only clothes I  possessed were  those suitable for my  status as a religious cleric. I did not even  possess a government issued social security card  because as a Christian Brother I was never paid for my work as a high school teacher.  

And if that doesn’t sound strange enough,  I hasten to add that because I had taken  the religious vow of chastity, I never had  personal  friendships or purely social interactions with women, but only professional interactions that were  work-related. In my teenage years I never hung out with friends and talked about girls, I never attended school dances or the Prom, I never dated or held hands or ever kissed a girlfriend – not that I disapproved of any of these things, but because of the life I had chosen these things were not available and certainly not permitted.

Compared to others, I lived a self-contained and sheltered life – no daily newspapers or monthly magazines,  no radio, no popular music or movies, no telephone and no communication or mingling with the outside world.

The simple truth is this:   for more than 15 years, because of my religious vocation,  I had chosen to live a life separate and apart – IN the world but not OF the world, as I had been taught during my  religious formation years in the Christian Brothers.

In fact, I lived outside the box of normal human interpersonal relationships between men and women. But now in 1965 for the first time in my life because I had agreed to help Cesar Chavez,   I was going to live  inside the box of those  interpersonal relationships.  I was a fish out of water.  I knew it! And more importantly,  I felt it!

 Yes, I was now an eligible bachelor  and yes, I was  employed, but  without money or income, and I had no personal experience or knowledge about the social skills I would need to meet and interact with persons of the opposite sex.   

On a scale of 0 to 10, how would you score my “marriage readiness? Or my chances of forging a long term relationship with a woman? Or given my background and newly found status, she with me?  I don’t know your score, but I will give you mine!  Off the scale!   –  a MINUS 2.

And yet, despite my personal “fish out of water” lack of “marriage readiness” rating, I am pleased to tell you  I have been married 54-years to Bonnie Burns Chatfield. We have 5 married  daughters and 10 grandchildren.

I think you will agree with me that Bonnie Burns had her work cut out for her, but thank God, she was up to the task!

Looking back over the 85-years of my life, I realize I have had several life-changes,  I prefer to call them life-saving events:

(1) My parents saved my life when at age 14, they sent me away from home to attend the Christian Brothers boarding school;

(2) Brother Gilbert who was in charge of the boarding school, saved my life when he encouraged me to enter the Christian Brothers;

(3) Cesar Chavez saved my life when he asked me to come to Delano to help him with the Grape Strike;

(4) Bonnie Burns saved my life when she agreed to marry me;

(5) Governor Jerry Brown saved my life when he asked me to manage his first Northern California campaign for Governor;

(6) Dan Delany saved my life when he asked me to be the first director of Loaves & Fishes;

(7) Jennifer Szabo saved my life when she taught be step-by-step ever so patiently how to publish my Farmworker Movement Documentation Project online;

(8) Professor Jorge Mariscal saved my life when he called me and said: LeRoy, you need a book.

Just how fortunate can one person be?  I am eternally grateful!

Thank you for reading my Easy Essays, I am honored.

In conclusion, I offer you a homeless blessing I have heard for more than 20-years at Loaves & Fishes:

Thank You!    God Bless You!    You Saved My Life!













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