Self-Help Shares

Documenting Two Remarkable Credit Unions

By Jeannine Esposito
  | Dec 17, 2018

Picture of Keene Cafe building

I first met our editor and videographer, Joseph Hernandez, at the Keene Café in Keene, California. It was a convenient meeting spot on the way to the Cesar Chavez Monument and Villa La Paz, both nearby. There we laid the foundation for what was to become “Kern Central Credit Union: A Legacy of Serving Workers in the Fields.” In creating this video we knew we wanted to cover not only the history of Kern Central Credit Union, but also the Farm Workers Credit Union that merged with Kern in 1995.

Kern Central Credit Union was formed in 1974 for the employees of the Kern County Refinery and employer groups within a 25-mile radius.  Not long after, it expanded its field of membership to serve individuals working and living in Kern County, California. In the early 1990s, Kern Central launched a membership drive which attracted many agricultural companies, farm labor groups and small non-profits to join the credit union. 

One of the groups that joined during this period was the United Farm Workers (UFW), founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.  In 1995 their credit union, the Farm Workers Credit Union, fully merged with Kern Central. 

The Farm Workers Credit Union was established in 1963 in Delano, California as a part of the larger movement led by Chavez and Huerta. Both strongly believed that financial services were a critical component of helping farmworkers better their lives and communities. In order to start the credit union, Cesar convinced his brother, Richard, to put his house up for collateral for a $3,700 loan. Initially, Cesar ran the credit union, then his wife, Helen, took the helm full-time for nearly 25 years.

Cesar Chavez and Helen Fabela Chavez family

Helen Fabela Chavez and Cesar Chavez

The credit union provided financial services to the farm workers and their families, including financial education, income tax assistance and death-benefit insurance. After Cesar’s passing, the UFW chose to merge the Farm Workers Credit Union with Kern Central so they could devote more time to other aspects of their mission.

The 1990s were a period of great growth for Kern Central. Not only did they merge with the UFW’s credit union, but Grimmway Farms, the largest carrot producer in the world, decided to have their employees bank with Kern Central. This decision greatly increased membership and was part of the reason that Kern Central opened a branch in Lamont in 1997.

Kern staff at an outreach table

Kern Central staff at a community event

Talking with staff and credit union members for this project, I was able to get a sense of what the credit union has meant to them over the years. For Glenda Fay Lacy-Williams it was a place to set aside savings, which she then had readily available to help her daughter purchase books for college. Frank Baca Salcido calls the credit union “a family affair” and appreciates the welcoming service he receives from staff, especially Vicki Harris. Vicki, who has been with the credit union for over 18 years, takes pride in her people skills and treating all members equally.

This video also gave me the opportunity to interview Dolores Huerta, a labor activist, civil rights icon and personal hero. Her passion for credit unions and the rights of farm workers shone through in her comments. A co-founder of the Farm Workers Credit Union with Cesar Chavez, her memories and stories of the credit union’s early days were a privilege to hear. We couldn’t include all the stories in the film; for example, people may not know that the first branch of the credit union was Cesar Chavez’s house!

Emilio Huerta shared his unique perspectives as a former board member of Farm Workers, Kern Central, and Self-Help Federal Credit Unions. He eloquently describes what the credit union meant to farmworkers in the early 1960s and how it continues to make a difference in their lives today.

Kern Central joined with Self-Help Federal Credit Union in 2010 and, as one institution, we are working to bring ownership and economic opportunity to our members. We are humbled to carry forward the work of the Farm Workers Credit Union and Kern Central Credit Union. We hope you enjoy the video which highlights this legacy.

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