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06/07/2016 11:54 am ET | Updated Jan 13, 2017

Activist Helen Chávez, Widow Of César Chávez, Dies At 88

She played a vital role in helping César Chávez launch and sustain the United Farm Workers of America.

Helen Chavez, activist and the widow of the late Cesar Chavez, died Monday at age 88.

Chavez died from natural causes and was surrounded by family at the time of her death, the Los Angeles Times reports. 

Born Helen Fabela in Brawley, California, on Jan. 21, 1928, Chavez began working in the fields when she was a teen to help support her family. She met her husband, labor leader Cesar Chavez, in Delano, California, in the mid-1940s. They were married in 1948 and had eight children.

Described by those who knew her as a “fiercely determined and strong-willed” woman, Chavez played a vital role in helping her husband launch and sustain the United Farm Workers of America, the first enduring farm worker’s union in U.S. history. 

“Enduring [great] hardship, Helen often had to raise the children by herself while Cesar was on the road. She returned to fieldwork while Cesar organized up and down California’s vast Central Valley; on weekends Cesar and some of the older children joined her,” noted the United Farm Workers in a statement released Monday. 

“Her consistent humility, selflessness, quiet heroism and fiery perseverance were at the heart of the movement she helped build,” the organization added. 

Civil rights activist and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta echoed the UFW’s statement, telling NBC News the organization would not be what it is today had it not been for Chavez. 

“I call her the invisible foundation because she was so supportive of everything that Cesar did,” Huerta explained in the video below. “Helen never liked publicity, she never liked to be in the limelight, but we knew she was always there. The United Farm Workers would have never been what it is today had it not been for Helen, because her support for her husband, for Cesar, for her children… and not only that, but also for all the volunteers and all the staff of the United Farmworkers. So she will be sorely missed and we have lost a great, great human being.”

Cesar Chavez died in Arizona in 1993. Helen Chavez is survived by seven children, 31 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. 

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