Photo Essay by David Bacon

This photo essay was originally published by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main. 

In Fresno’s barrio, the taco trucks stay open past midnight.  Young women from the neighborhood, out for fun and not ready to sleep, stand in line with a worker leaving her shift at the huge Amazon warehouse on Orange Avenue, hungry on her way home..  Inside the truck  masked cooks and servers bend and stretch to fill orders, working as hard as their customers who labor all day in fields and factories.

Masks in the taco truck are just one indication of Fresno County’s alarming COVID rate, with 27,560 cases and 355 deaths reported so far.  For months the novel coronavirus has concentrated in the Latinx agricultural counties of the Central Valley.  Urban Alameda County, for instance, with a much larger population, has a significantly lower rate – 20,579 cases and 374 deaths.

Fresno, crisscrossed by irrigation canals and railroad tracks, is the working-class capital of California’s San Joaquin Valley, a city where people speak Spanish as readily as English. On Fresno’s main drag, Blackstone Avenue, the glowing neon names of restaurants don’t bother much with English, and signs like “Central Valley’s cerveza” need no translation.

If weren’t for Mexicans, Fresno would never have become a city.  In the wake of the violence that engulfed Mexico during its 1910-1920 revolution, tens of thousands fled north across the border.  In Fresno they found work in the fields and homes in segregated barrios.  Then countless families were pulled off the streets as the Depression deepened, loaded into boxcars and deported.  Even U.S. citizens who looked Mexican were picked up and sent down to the border.  

Racism and anti-immigrant hysteria were only part of the reason.  Fresno in the early ’30s was a city of class upheaval.  Thirty-two years before the 1965 grape strike in Delano, Mexicans rose up in an earlier vineyard rebellion –  the 1933 Fresno grape strike opened a labor war that shook California.  Strikers lost the battle in Fresno, but their union and its Communist organizers then moved 60 miles south and launched the largest farm labor strike in U.S. history.  Forty thousand cotton pickers defied grower vigilantes, despite the murder of three strikers, and won wage raises even in the heart of the Depression. 

Today the street in front of the Azteca Theater is hauntingly empty at night during the pandemic.  But the oldest residents of Fresno’s barrios undoubtedly remembered those earlier conflicts when Cesar Chavez, Larry Itliong, Dolores Huerta and a column of grape strikers stopped in front of the Azteca Theater on F Street in 1966.  The strikers were marching from Delano to Sacramento, and hundreds of local farmworkers turned out to hear Chavez speak in the street outside the theater.  

The city administration, no friend of strikers or Mexicans in those years, nevertheless feared a barrio uprising if they tried to prohibit the rally.  At their request, the Azteca’s owner, Arturo Tirado, planned the march’s route through the city.

The Azteca Theater was more than a convenient place to hold a rally.  It was the heart of Fresno’s Mexican community.  From the time when growers first brought bracero contract workers from Mexico in 1942, the theater became their way to remember the life they’d left behind.  It showed films with Cantinflas and Dolores Del Rio and hosted singers like Agustin Lara.

Fresno Japanese-American poet, Lawson Fusao, writes:  When Teatro Azteca opened up /Right there on “F” Street /In the heart of “Chinatown,”/All us kids–“Hispanic”/And otherwise–got excited–/Because with a few coins/You could go in there/With the Wongs and the Washingtons/…/ In advanced or at least elementary Spanish,/”Hoy Cantinflas” on the marquee/meant just what it said: Laughs!”

Because Fresno is midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, California’s radicals often met there.  In the mid-fifties it hosted the meetings of the California Democratic Council, a network of grassroots clubs that fought to end the death penalty.  The CDC took the state from the Republican Party in its seminal campaign, Sweep the State in [19]58.  The United Farm Workers holds its conventions in the city’s halls.  The Communist Party held statewide meetings at the campground of the red Finns on the San Joaquin River, a few miles south of downtown.

For local leftists, however, the city was anything but welcoming.  In the early 1900s its gambling dens ran wide open.  City police chiefs used payoffs to become growers, and the Klan had a chapter inside the police department.  In 1950 Chief Ray Wallace went to prison for tax evasion, after he’d accumulated 1700 acres.  Corruption accompanied attacks on the left.  In 2003 Aaron Kilner, an activist in Peace Fresno, was exposed as a Sheriff’s Department undercover spy,  Nevertheless, county sheriff Richard Pierce said in a prepared statement that the department would continue surveillance as part of its “anti-terrorism” activity.

Despite official hostility, generations of radicals have called Fresno home. Rufino Dominguez, a Oaxacan migrant with roots in Mexico’s leftwing social movements, started the Organization of Exploited and Oppressed People and led strikes when he arrived in Fresno in the 1980s.  The Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations succeeded OPEO, organizing indigenous Mexican migrants from an office in an old building on Tulare Street in the heart of Fresno’s scruffy downtown.

Dominguez, before his untimely death, trained a Zapotec immigrant, Sarait Martinez, chosen this past week to head the binational center.  Martinez, an indigenous cultural activist, put her training to work helping Mixtec and Triqui migrant strikers form a new union for farmworkers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia.   Myrna Martinez, from a storied family of Mexican leftists, joins community struggles of Southeast Asian and indigenous Mexican migrants at the Pan Valley Institute.

Dominguez and radical Argentinian journalist Eduardo Stanley organized migrants through radio broadcasts at the community station, KFCF, which shares Fresno as home base with Radio Bilingue, a network of Spanish-language community stations across the U.S.  Stanley edits Community Alliance, one of the longest-lived community newspapers in California.  

Mike Rhodes, who, with other Fresno activists, co-founded Community Alliance, one of California’s longest-lived community newspapers in California, spent 18 years writing articles denouncing the city for its abuse of homeless people, winning a $2.3 million class action suit in an effort to stop it. 

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in 2019 Fresno had a larger percentage of “unsheltered” homeless people than any other city in the country – that is, people sleeping on sidewalks, in cars or in places the government calls “not suitable for human habitation.”  Last April Rhodes interviewed Dez Martinez of the Homeless in Fresno advocacy group, who accused police of routinely destroying homeless encampments.  “They do this daily,” she told him. 

Rhodes accuses current Fresno mayor and former police chief Jerry Dyer of seeking “the legal authority and enough officers to make homeless people’s lives a living hell.”  Yet in spite of obstacles, political change may be coming.  Mike Rhodes Day was declared by the city council in August, 2018, and a new Latino majority was elected that November.

Nevertheless, anger over Fresno’s long history of discrimination, not unlike that which sparked the upsurges of 1933 and 1966, inspired Super_Tatt2’s mural remembering Vanessa Guillen, the soldier murdered at her Texas base in April.  The city’s radical artists in the Barrio Art Collective charge, “Many people in the Valley do not want new jails or more cops, they do not want more oppression or more destitution, they do not want to see homeless people in the streets struggling every day … They want art, music and freedom.”

Today the city’s forlorn iron gate, which welcomed visitors when Highway 99 was a two-lane road, rises above an anonymous rail crossing, warehouses on one side and the freeway frontage road on the other.  Just down the street from this relic of old Fresno hundreds of people sleep on sidewalks and in vacant lots.  

Further out, along the Mill Ditch canal, one homeless man, Adam, has built his shelter next to a fence along the levee.  There Steve, another unhoused individual, pulls his cart loaded with blankets to the place he’ll sleep at night.  Red and brown Fresno is still a bare-knuckle, hardscrabble city.