Cesar Chavez’s family slams Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign

During the 1980 presidential primaries, Fernando Chavez traveled for months with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as they worked on the presidential campaign of his uncle Sen. Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy.

In living room after living room, Chavez said, he saw some combination of three framed pictures on the wall: portraits of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; of Kennedy’s father, the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.); and of his own father, Cesar Chavez, who had co-founded the United Farm Workers. The elder Kennedy had grown close to the labor icon in the years before the senator’s assassination in 1968.

“Those three represented hope and aspirations for people, especially marginalized people” — Black, Latino and Native Americans, and “even poor whites,” Fernando Chavez recalled in an interview. “It gave them a sense of, ‘Wow. We have somebody in our corner. We have somebody fighting for us.’”

Today, the two sons’ close ties are a distant memory. Kennedy Jr. has used Cesar Chavez’s name and image in his independent campaign for president, eliciting outrage from Chavez family members.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, left, breaks bread with Cesar Chavez in Delano, Calif., in 1968 as Chavez ends a 25-day fast in support of nonviolence in the strike against grape producers.

(Bettmann Archive)

Several of them spoke out this week, as Kennedy plans to hold an event Saturday in Los Angeles commemorating Cesar Chavez Day. In promoting the event, Kennedy’s campaign has featured his own image almost blending into a photo of his father sitting beside Chavez in 1968.

“When we saw Bobby Kennedy begin to use images of my father, and then when we heard about this event in L.A., it really prompted us to stand up and to make sure that people understood that the Chavez family does not support his campaign,” Paul Chavez, Fernando’s brother, told The Times.

“We’ve never seen anybody go as far as using that image for political gain,” Andres Chavez, Paul’s son, said of Kennedy’s campaign event invitation.

Fernando and Paul, as well as Andres — who runs the National Chavez Center in Keene, Calif. — said they are endorsing President Biden for reelection, and that if Cesar were alive, he would do the same.

Biden keeps a bust of the labor leader in the Oval Office, and Chavez’s granddaughter Julie Chavez Rodriguez, who once organized strawberry pickers and later worked for President Obama, now serves as Biden’s campaign manager.

Chavez family members were also angry when they saw, in a recent Telemundo segment, an Associated Press photo of Kennedy Jr. helping carry Cesar’s casket during his 1993 funeral procession.

About 30,000 people attended that event, Fernando Chavez said, and when family members grew tired of carrying the simple pine box through the streets of Delano, Calif., others stepped in. Hundreds of people helped carry the casket for parts of the miles-long procession, including Kennedy Jr., then an environmental attorney, and many politicians.

A Kennedy spokesperson said that an intermediary had reached out to a member of the Chavez family to invite them to the event but had not received a reply.

“Mr. Kennedy has been a friend to the Chavez family since he was a boy, and was asked by the family to be a pallbearer when Cesar Chavez passed away in 1993,” the spokesperson, who did not provide their name, said in an email. “This event is a celebration of an organizing hero, Cesar Chavez, a man who worked with Mr. Kennedy’s father until the day RFK was murdered. The campaign is proud to sponsor this celebration on the weekend that honors Cesar Chavez’s birthday in California.”

Both Paul and Andres Chavez said they hadn’t been invited to the event or heard from the campaign.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., brings up the rear as he joins Edward James Olmos, front, then-Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II and others in carrying Cesar Chavez’s casket in 1993. Many people helped carry it in a miles-long funeral procession as Chavez’s family grew tired.

(Bob Galbraith / Associated Press)

Kennedy has been holding more events in recent weeks as he strives to get on the ballot in as many states as possible — an expensive and complicated process without the backing of one of the two major parties. He announced Tuesday that political newcomer Nicole Shanahan would be his running mate.

Shanahan helped produce and pay for a Super Bowl commercial that relied on imagery and music from a television spot that John F. Kennedy ran while running for president in 1960. The late Democratic president was Robert Kennedy Jr.’s uncle.

The Super Bowl ad angered many Kennedy family members, and some have since become more outspoken about their support for Biden and their frustration with their relative’s presidential run.

Relatives of Chavez said it was painful to speak out because the Kennedy and Chavez clans remain closely connected — apart from Kennedy Jr. In 1988, Kennedy Sr.’s widow, Ethel, visited Chavez during one of his roughly monthlong protest fasts.

Kerry Kennedy, one of the presidential candidate’s sisters, visited California in 2018 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Farm Workers healthcare plan, which was named after their father.

“My family and I repeatedly stood with Cesar and his cause,” she wrote in a January op-ed in the New York Daily News.

In March 1968, Robert F. Kennedy, wearing a UFW black Aztec eagle pin on his lapel, was by Chavez’s side as he broke a 25-day fast meant to draw attention to the farmworker movement’s focus on nonviolent protest.

It had been nearly three years since Filipino and Latino farmworkers began striking over low pay and dangerous conditions.

“We have come here out of respect for one of the heroic figures of our time — Cesar Chavez,” Kennedy Sr. said at the time. “I also come here to congratulate all of you, you who are locked with Cesar in the struggle for justice for the farmworker.” Chavez, who had lost 35 pounds after subsisting only on water, was too weak to speak.

This moment cemented a friendship that had formed two years earlier, when Kennedy visited Delano for a Senate subcommittee field hearing and expressed shock and anger at how farmworkers were being treated.

Now, with the 2024 presidential election just months away, Chavez family members said they fear that in a close contest, any support for Kennedy could help Republican Donald Trump regain the White House.

“I’m kind of horrified and saddened about that,” said Fernando Chavez, who added that he hasn’t stayed in touch with Kennedy Jr. since they worked together decades ago.

Fernando and others pointed out how badly farmworkers were hit by COVID-19, partly fueled by rampant disinformation among Latinos about the vaccine’s efficacy. The Cesar Chavez Foundation worked to vaccinate farmworkers, Andres Chavez said, and Kennedy Jr.’s views on vaccines horrified him.

In a 2021 podcast, Kennedy told parents to “resist” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on vaccinating their children. Through the years he has repeatedly spread falsehoods about the effectiveness of vaccines, and more recently said the COVID-19 lockdowns were something a totalitarian state would do, likening them to Nazi Germany.

“When Trump and Kennedy were spreading misinformation about vaccines in the pandemic, people were dying,” Andres Chavez said. “I don’t think my grandfather would stand by anybody who would be spreading this misinformation — knowing that farmworkers and Latinos were among the most impacted.”