The Chavez Family
Tibo Chavez was many things to many people — a lawyer and a lawmaker, a herbalist and a historian, an author and an agriculturalist, a politician and a public servant.
But to those who knew him best, he was, more than anything, a family man and someone who fought for the little guy.
The true legacy of the formidable Chavez isn’t only found in the books he wrote, in the laws he introduced or even in the decisions he made as a district court judge. His heritage remains with his family and in his four sons, who remember their father as someone who taught them to work hard and to do the best they could in whatever they attempted.
“He was a father first, supporting us in school, Boy Scouts, farming and our families, later in his life,” said Tibo’s oldest son, Chris. “With his pragmatic approach to life, he made a prestigious career for himself.”
Tibo was a self-made man who made his way from working at the Becker-Dalies Co. in the summers and after school from age 12 to his senior year in high school to becoming an attorney and serving in all three branches of state government as a senator, lieutenant governor and a district court judge.
In his younger days, Tibo earned the achievement and distinction of being the first Eagle Scout in Belen and was a Golden Gloves champion. He even worked to pay for his own violin lessons.
His sons grew up knowing their father valued being a public servant, wanting to make a difference in his community — El Rio Abajo, the same name of the book he co-authored with Gilberto Espinosa about the area’s history. Tibo also wrote “New Mexican Folklore of the Rio Abajo,” a book, his second-born son, Reggie, illustrated, about medicinal herbs and dichos, or Spanish proverbs.
His namesake, Tibo Jr., said one of his father’s favorite dichos was, “Haz bien y no mires a quien,” or “Do good and don’t worry about who may benefit.”
Tibo’s desire to serve may have been influenced by his own father, Ignacio Chavez, a farmer, bar owner and an early Valencia County commissioner; and his mother, Emilia Chavez, who walked to church every morning to attend Mass.
After earning an undergraduate degree from the University of New Mexico, Tibo went on to attend law school at Georgetown University. There, he worked in the U.S. General Accounting Office and sold shoes by day, studying law at night.
Reggie, said his grandfather was very proud of Tibo when he returned home in 1939 as an attorney. After establishing his own law practice in Belen, Tibo was appointed city attorney and, at the same time, was appointed assistant district attorney in the Second Judicial District in Albuquerque.
It was at that time that Tibo began his quest to become a public servant, putting his hat into the ring to become district attorney. Reggie remembers his father telling him the story of when a member of a prominent Becker family said “No Mexican can run for district attorney.”
While the comment didn’t deter Tibo from his mission, it made his protective father furious — so outraged, Reggie said, that Ignacio stormed into a public function with a handgun, ready to avenge his son’s good name and heritage. Needless to say, several men knew of Igancio’s intentions and stopped him before he could do what he had set out to do.
Tibo didn’t win that election, and soon afterward, during World War II, he traveled to Santiago. Chile, and worked as a State Department attache in the Economic Welfare Program. Reggie said Tibo, who was an extremely private person, never talked about what happened in South America.
“He had a very public persona, yet was a very private person,” Reggie said.
After the war, Tibo once again returned home, continued with his law practice and decided to take another stab at politics. This time, he was elected state senator in 1948.
Reggie said as a freshman legislator, his father introduced and passed the Fair Employment Practice Bill, which banned companies from hiring or promoting on the basis of race, color or creed — a landmark in state politics.
The bill, Reggie said, emanated from charges in the Belen area as to the discrimination practices by the Santa Fe Railroad.
“He was motivated by a sense of social injustice. With the coming of the railroad in the 1880s, a new language and culture was superimposed on the Hispanic culture,” Reggie said. “Along with assimilation, came losses in land and social status. Exposure to technology and material goods, such as cars, banks and electricity, created rising expectations among native New Mexicans. People began to realize that education was the key to economic prosperity and addressing social injustice.”
Tibo, a Democrat, served two years in the state Senate before being elected lieutenant governor in 1950 with Republican Gov. Edwin Mechem. Two years after his four-year term in the executive branch, Tibo returned to the Senate, where he served for 20 years, the last eight of which he was majority leader.
Chris was just a toddler when his father was elected lieutenant governor, but both Chris and Tibo’s youngest son, David, remembers being pages in the old Senate chambers before the Roundhouse was built.
“I remember my dad’s friends in the Senate, which included Fabian Chavez, Ike (Isaac) Smalley from Deming, and Bruce King, who became our governor,” Chris said. “I remember going with him to Washington, D.C., many times because he was on the President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission for the Aged.”
Tibo’s beloved wife, Betty, was by his side through thick and thin, always supporting his political ambitions, David remembers. She supported Tibo so much, that when she was in labor with David, she insisted that he not come home from delivering a speech.
“The day I was born, he was delivering a commencement address in Grants,” David said. “He got word that my mom was in labor, but my mom encouraged him to deliver the graduation speech because it was very important that he could reach out to the students to give them direction and encouragement.”
Betty, her sons say, was a great influence not only on Tibo, but to the entire family. She was the nurturer of the family, David remembers.
“She kept everything going at home when Dad was working at his law practice or involved in politics,” David said. “She was so supportive and committed to him. They were committed to each other.”
All four sons say their parents encouraged each one of them to be aware and educated not only about politics, but about religion and everyday events. They also encouraged their children to have minds of their owns, prompting them to express their own views, even though they might not always coincide with those of their father’s.
Tibo Jr. remembers sitting at the dinner table with his three brothers and their parents, discussing the most interesting topics of the day. He says his parents were always very engaging in their conversations.
“We would have discussions about world politics, state and local politics, and they asked us for our opinions,” Tibo Jr. said. “They invited us to participate in discussions, and a lot of times, they would get very lively.
“A lot of times we weren’t on the same page,” he said. “That was a very healthy experience to have early on.”
“We learned how to agree to disagree,” David said of those discussions. “(My parents) were able to discuss any topic with anyone and develop great friendships, even though they disagreed with someone on some very fundamental issues.”
Tibo Jr. said growing up in the Chavez household was a lot of fun and very busy. They family had a small, 14-acre farm on South Main Street in Belen.
“We always had a lot of activities we were involved with, whether it was farming activities, school related or Boy Scouts — we were involved in all kinds of things,” he remembers. “We did a lot of things with our folks, like traveling.”
Reggie says his father, who was a firm believer in hard work, didn’t coddle his children and rarely complimented their work. The four boys were expected to do a good job, no matter what.
“During the summers when we were growing up, Dad would give us jobs to do before he went to work,” Reggie remembers. “He had us chopping weeds, digging ditches, hauling hay and building fences, but he was also building our character. I respected him for that.”
Along with encouraging his children to educate themselves on issues, Tibo would also take them with him to various political events and participate in his campaigns.
“When he was out in public, we were always with him,” David said. “He took us with him to the different political and public events. Whether he was talking about herbs or history or meeting with people, he always had us with him. He loved having his family with him.”
During the different campaigns, Tibo would also take him door to door, talking with people, asking about their concerns and issues. Reggie remembers his father did that for a reason.
“Dad took us frequently to visit the homes of his friends of modest means in Belen,” Reggie said. “He wanted to keep us grounded, humbled a bit. The size of your house or checkbook didn’t matter, respect and friendship did.”
“He always semi-jokingly threatened us, if we did not show up for occasions, he would send the sheriff out to get us,” Chris said.
Tibo Jr. said his father always told them that being a public servant meant knowing what the people wanted, what they needed and making sure they knew he was always there for them.
While Tibo and Betty always inspired their boys to do the best they could in whatever they attempted, the brothers said their parents left it up to them to decide what they wanted to do in life. Although Chris jokes that his mother and father have his three choices: become a doctor, a lawyer or an optometrist.
“I chose construction,” Chris said.
Reggie, who earned an undergraduate degree in art, said he didn’t think his painting would get him far in life, so decided to go to law school.
Tibo Jr. said while his father’s law career inspired him to become an attorney, it was a question his father posed to him when he was a teenager that guided him to a career in law.
“My dad asked me what I wanted to do and, at that time, I didn’t know,” he said. “He told me — reminded me really — that I liked helping people. It was something I did feel strongly about and it helped give me direction.”
David said his father was influential in his decision to become a lawyer. But he remembers his father always telling him that whatever he did, do the best he could.
“My dad would say, ‘If you’re going to be a janitor, be the best janitor. If you’re going to be a cook, be the best cook.’ It didn’t matter what we did in life, he just wanted us to do it the best of our ability.”
Tibo Chavez served in the state Senate until 1974, when he ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor — one of the only two elections he ever lost. He went back into private practice until he was appointed by Gov. Bruce King to a newly created judgeship in the 13th Judicial District in June 1979. In 1980, he was elected to the position for a four-year term, and retained his seat until 1991.
“When my dad was a judge, I remember him bringing both sides into his chambers,” Chris said. “He served them yerba buena tea, expounding on the calming effects and health benefits of the tea, and then telling the two parties, ‘the pie is only so big, once we go out to the courtroom, your share will only get smaller.’ In this way, he encouraged people to settle their differences before he had to step in with a judgment.”
Tibo J. Chavez died of heart failure at the age of 79 at the Lovelace Medical Center on Monday, Nov. 25, 1991. A huge funeral was held at Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church, the same parish he had grown up in and where he had been an altar boy from as far back as the 1920s.
It wasn’t until after their father’s death that two of his sons, David and Tibo Jr., decided to follow in Tibo’s political footsteps. Tibo Jr. served on the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus Advisory Board for seven years in the 1990s. He also ran for Belen mayor four years ago, losing by only 70 votes.
David, who served on the UNM-VC Advisory Board from 1999 to 2011, was a state representative from 2010 to 2012. He also ran two unsuccessful bids for state Senate.
Both said they haven’t yet finished serving the public and will one day run for election again.
The legacy of the Chavez family, David says, always starts with his father, because people remembered him.
“The legacy is the public service and the dedication to improve our state,” David said. “My parents gave us a great appreciation of our heritage and a love of our country.”
Chris said his father’s legacy is that he was able to bring people and ideas together, whether at a matanza, his house, in his law office or at the Legislature.
“Despite all his successes in life he never forgot his humble beginnings,” Chris said. “Por la gente de Nuevo Mexico tenia mucho compasion.”
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