Like many students, John Chavez Jr. took a speech class during his time at Merced College.
But the 18-year-old Chavez could never have predicted just how important one college course would be to him at age 56.
Now mayor of Chowchilla, Chavez speaks in public all the time.
“Being able to stand up there and feel comfortable is a big deal,” he said.
The Atwater native would have rather taken a zero than give a speech back at Hilmar High School. He needed practice and support to feel capable of speaking to crowds.
Chavez found that while studying at Merced College, and that learning has informed his professional life ever since.
“The instructor was great,” he said. “He made all of us feel comfortable enough to go up there and make mistakes. We knew we weren’t being judged or criticized. That experience gave me confidence. And that has allowed me to do what I do now.”
Chavez has served four terms on the Chowchilla City Council, including three two-year terms as mayor. Council members vote for a mayor from within their ranks every two years.
His first council term felt like hiking straight uphill. Chowchilla, facing bankruptcy in 2009, had to consider shuttering both their police department and their animal control department. Council meetings lasted into the wee hours while they looked at every option to fix their financial issues. Everyone involved was scared and stressed.
Chavez, a professional baker, often attended meetings for 7-8 hours before hustling over to the family business, Cornaggia’s Bakery, to start baking at 2 a.m.
Eventually the city decided the city council would give up its pay and municipal workers would take a 20% pay cut via a weekly furlough day.
“I’ve always tried to be the voice of calm and the voice for the working people,” Chavez said. “It was so difficult. Nearly 13 years later, we’re finally making things right. But I still think about the cost-of-living allowances employees lost and the pay freezes everyone took. We’re finally getting around to making everyone whole.”
Chavez developed that patience and vigilance through baking. He, his wife Rosli and her sister owned a bakery in Gustine for nine years, and then he worked as a bakery manager at Costco and Albertsons.
Rosli Chavez, neé Cornaggia, is a Chowchilla native, so the family eventually moved home to raise three children and run Cornaggia Bakery. The family bakery, which features one of three hearth ovens remaining in California, was founded by the Cornaggias in 1925.
“We’re a close-knit family,” Chavez said. “We were able to teach our kids how to work hard, and work with the public, and how you don’t get paid if you don’t work.”
Hard work is no cliché for Chavez, who built his public service resume by taking an interest in issues.
It started in 2000 when he joined a group of local business people—called Vision 2002—that wanted to revitalize downtown Chowchilla. While his children were hip-deep in sports, Chavez volunteered to coach for Chowchilla’s Parks and Recreation Commission. He was eventually named commissioner.
Wanting more responsibility, Chavez applied for an appointment on the planning commission. He was not chosen, but then-acting mayor Ron Harris visited the bakery to encourage Chavez to run for City Council in 2006.
The older guard was on the way out, and Harris saw it as Chavez’s chance to grow as a public servant. Chavez told Harris he didn’t feel ready; he wanted to work with the planning commission first.
Harris said, “No.” Chavez said, “But I can’t.” Then Harris left and came back with the paperwork Chavez needed to declare himself a candidate.
“He pushed me, and I ran,” Chavez said. “Then I didn’t even know I’d won. I was in the bakery [when the results came in]. People were calling me at midnight yelling that I was the first Mexican city council member. They were more excited than me. I didn’t even really campaign. I figured if I was supposed to be there, I would be.”
Chavez wants to eventually serve with the Madera County Board of Supervisors. He ran for a seat in June, but was not elected.
Chavez comes up for city council reelection in 2024, but remains eager for more responsibility.
“I want to do more for the city and the county,” he said. “I’d have more influence with a bigger budget [on the board of supervisors]. Right now I don’t think Chowchilla has enough communication with its county supervisor. If cities, schools and the county partner up where we can, we can get more done.”