Farmworker Becomes Artist, Education Leader, Champion for Change
Story from California Human Development
When Frances Ortiz-Chavéz was a teenager, she spent her summers picking California’s peaches and tomatoes. Today, she uses her hands for more delicate work, but the impact of her time spent in the fields remains—and speaks clearly—through the art she creates. ‘From the first day I walked into an all English-speaking classroom, I turned to art as a way to express my deepest feelings and a way to fit in,” says Ortiz-Chavéz.
Born in Mexico, Francisca (Frances) and her family immigrated to Arizona when she was 10 years old. She became “Frances” when her teacher declared that “Francisca“ was too difficult to say. But, despite language and cultural challenges, Frances did well in school. She graduated with her class but found few options in Arizona and decided to move to Napa to be with her sister. Little did she know her life was about to change course dramatically.
“It was 1973, I was living at my sister’s home on Soscol Avenue and I needed work badly,” says Frances. “Everyone kept telling me to just walk two houses down to Aurelio Hurtado’s office. So I did, and that was the beginning of great things for me!”
A leading activist for farmworker rights, Sr. Aurelio Hurtado is the co-founder of California Human Development (CHD), a non-profit dedicated to assisting farmworkers and others of low income. He arranged a full-time job for Frances at the Veterans Hospital In Yountville.
“CHD paid my salary for the first few months and that got me going,” says Frances. “I credit Aurelio and CHD for setting me on a powerful and positive course.”
From the Veterans Hospital, Frances went on work as a Bilingual Instructional Assistant and school secretary with Napa Valley School District—a job Aurelio also helped to arrange. In 2003, she was appointed to the school board of the Napa Valley Union School District and has run unopposed every term since. In 2007, she opened Puertas Abiertas Community Resource Center in Napa and served as center director for six years. Most recently, Frances helped co-found and is the current co-chair of the Napa Valley Latino Heritage Committee.
“Sr. Aurelio was a pioneer; he inspired me to bring the Latino voice to the forefront and to work for social justice in our schools and our community. I’m proud to be able to follow in his footsteps,” she says.
Frances also never gave up her art; she continues to create beautiful and powerful work depicting the Latino experience.