The ongoing debate over school names took a deep dive last month into Fresno’s past. Mark Arax, a former Los Angeles Times writer and the author of four books on this city and region, bothered by the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) board’s casual dismissal of the proposal to name a new school planned for southeast Fresno after Roger Tatarian, took a closer look. He was joined by novelist Aris Jarnigian. What the men found was darker than anyone imagined.
Their in-depth article, “Just beneath the dirt: Where the racism of Fresno began,” ran in the Fresno Bee on June 11. The pair reveal that J.C. Forkner Elementary School in northwest Fresno is named for the original author of the city’s restrictive deeds denying land and homes to Armenians in Fresno’s northern neighborhoods, a move motivated by revenge for Armenian farmers’ refusal to join the nascent Sun-Maid Raisin co-op a century ago. Violent raids by night riders and the burning of crosses were directed at those who resisted.
“In the days before the meeting, we went to the county assessor’s office and found examples of the exclusionary real estate codes that for a half century had kept people of color from living beyond the ghetto,” they wrote. “This restriction, which stayed in effect until the early 1960s, was everyday business for the developer, a man who platted his tracts across Fresno.
“He was the same boomer who in the middle 1910s began carving out the 12,000 acres of Fig Garden. His full-page ads boasted: ‘Fresno’s choicest suburban property will be sold under rigid restrictions—this is a point we cannot emphasize too strongly. Those who buy [here] will be fully protected from resale of property to undesirables.’”
In a YouTube video titled “Social Justice School Board Fails Social Justice Exam,” Arax describes to the school board how when Forkner wanted to plant those fig trees he had to go to “the Fig King himself—Henry Markarian, an Armenian. In other words, our fig trees were allowed into Fig Garden, but our flesh and blood was not.”
At the board’s June 16 meeting, Arax called on the board to remove the name Forkner from the school and replace it with Tatarian, a Fresno native born to parents who had fled the Turks’ genocidal campaign. He was refused work at the Fresno Bee of the 1960s but rose to the top of his profession as editor of United Press International in New York. He later returned to his hometown and taught a generation of journalists at Fresno State, Arax included.
The school board’s 5-2 vote, with Trustees Veva Islas and Terry Slatic voting no, to ignore this history in favor of individual trustees’ political interests was a stark reminder to all that institutional racism is perpetuated when those in charge are unwilling to look at their role in it.
To this day, not a single one of the FUSD’s more than 110 schools and facilities is named for an Armenian. And Trustees Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas, Valerie Davis, Claudia Cazares, Keshia Thomas and Carol Mills appear to be intent on keeping that unique piece of Fresno’s racist history—of American history—alive.
Politics trumped best practices in the recent push by Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas to name a new school after philanthropists Murray and Francine Farber. In a 5-2 vote to approve despite impassioned community opposition, with Trustees Veva Islas and Terry Slatic dissenting, the majority backed Jonasson’s move to block further public inclusion in the naming process in late May.
Speaking through an interpreter, Juana Mesas was one of more than 20 people from the Latino, Black and Armenian communities who called on Jonasson to table her motion: “As a mother within the district I have the right to ask you to reopen the survey to select the name of the new installations. I also see this as an opportunity for us to let the district know that this is a constant problem that has been happening over the years.
“The communication from the district to our families has been really bad, and it has to change. Our voices need to be heard.”
From the dais, Islas called on the board twice to reopen the process. “As we heard tonight, in particular from the Spanish-speaking community, we missed the mark in creating an inclusive process,” she said.
“Latinos represent 68% of our student body. If non-English-speaking parents did not know of this survey, we failed. We are hearing from the Spanish-speaking parents tonight that they were disenfranchised.”
“The same issues that have disenfranchised the Latino community have been experienced by the Armenian community. They’ve been experienced by the African-American community. We’re asking for solidarity,” Islas said.
“They’re simply asking to be included. If you listen to the words you heard—ignored, deceived, disenfranchised and years of the same thing—this is not the first time the Latino community has stood up here to say that they have been excluded. Again, my motion is that we postpone the decision tonight and that we reopen the survey process in a more inclusive way.”
Following Islas’s motion to reopen the process, board president Valerie Davis failed to call for a second—she herself had seconded Jonasson’s motion—and for the only time that evening correctly pronounced Trustee Claudia Cazares’s surname. Davis has long utilized Republicans’ racist habit of intentionally mispronouncing Latino surnames, misplacing the accent on the first syllable in this case.
Rather than addressing the motion to table, Cazares dismissed the Spanish-speaking parents’ concerns, saying of the district’s Internet and telephone outreach, “Nobody’s perfect.” She explained that she and her husband both had received the district’s Internet and telephone communications, demonstrating in real time that old definition of privilege of: If it’s not a problem for me, then it’s not a problem.
As for the Armenian and African-American parents at the May 19 school board meeting, Cazares went to even greater lengths to criticize their concerns. Despite her inexperience in local politics, Cazares confidently—and incorrectly—told the audience, “This board is one of the most open boards that you have ever seen.”
Politics had completely taken over the meeting by this point. Cazares, a former employee of developer Darius Assemi of Granville Homes, then employed a line of logic usually deployed by former FUSD employee Miguel Arias, who was present in the back of the room coaching his political allies on the board, Cazares among them—no small irony given Arias’s history of workplace abuse of women of color while employed at the school district, as reported by Mark Arax (www.mark-arax.com).
Cazares struggled to justify her position by claiming, “There have been many other boards that have also had the opportunity to name buildings after Roger Tatarian or Dolphas Trotter or however many other people have come to the board, and yet you’re pointing at this Brown and Black board as the ones that are going to do wrong. Regardless, we’re going to do wrong, right? Whoever we pick we’re going to do wrong? But there have been many other boards that did not look like this, that nobody questioned.”
In other words, Cazares was saying that by virtue of its racial composition the school board could not be accused of racist intent or acts. Then the board committed an act of institutionalized racism with the 5-2 vote to move ahead with the Farber moniker, the distinction between acts of individual and systemic racism lost on them.
Jonasson, who hopes to succeed hubby Luis Chavez on Fresno City Council in 2024 just as she followed him into his school board seat, instigated the community crisis through what boils down to snobbery.
The daughter of a former Mexican consul, Jonasson explained to the audience that she could have lived in Mexico, Canada or anywhere else in the world but she chose Fresno in 2006, her personal act of noblesse oblige. Her prepared speech was a mix of shaming, scolding and self-justification for perpetuating the systemic exclusion of people she clearly regards as less than worthy of full consideration.
The politically ambitious couple are conservatives, Democrats on some social issues only. Her mother, Martha Rosas, founded the Koch-backed front group for the Westlands Water District, El Agua es Asunto de Todos (Water is Everyone’s Business), as reported by Stan Santos in the September 2014Community Alliance.
In 2020, Chavez joined the campaign staff of billionaire Republican turned Democratic Party presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg; he has endorsed right-wing extremists Steve Brandau and Margaret Mims. While an FUSD trustee he skipped three meetings to avoid controversial votes involving Harris Construction and the district’s lease-leaseback scandal; Arias at the time was the self-proclaimed “fixer” at the district.
In short, Chavez, Jonasson and Arias serve the status quo power structure and it rewards them.
The Farbers’ volunteer efforts and distributions of a late son’s fortune through a private foundation to Fresno educational efforts motivated Jonasson and Chavez, moths to the money flame, to launch the school naming campaign in their honor.
The Farbers have neither sought to decline the honor in the interest of community harmony or an act of humility, nor have they suggested it be named for their late son. They feel they deserve it and those who seek power by serving the White moneyed class agree.
Metaphorically speaking, Highway 168 is the fuse that lit the Creek Fire, an immense warning flare from our 21st century, rapidly warming world.
The fire’s destruction is civilization’s potential future, and the road represents transportation’s role in the climate emergency. On and off road “mobile sources” produce more greenhouse gases than any other sector. Fresno’s on-road emissions are 25% greater than the statewide average.
Nearly 380,000 acres of Sierra Nevada foothills and mountains were scorched, burned, and in places incinerated; hundreds of homes were lost, thousands of lives disrupted. The blaze ravaged the San Joaquin River gorge, tracing the source of our lifeblood into the backcountry, finally burning out at its headwaters where, fittingly, 168 also ends.
There’s no denying the urgent need to protect all life by preserving and restoring natural landscapes and eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. Nature could not have sent us a clearer demand to act; one we ignore at our own peril.
State and national leaders are certainly responding. Transportation electrification is happening now, beginning with significant infrastructure investments in renewable power generation, transmission and storage. Public fleets of every kind are to be changed over — garbage trucks, transit buses, vans and cars — but the electricity must be there to power them.
Let’s expand our definition of transportation infrastructure, evolve it faster than our weather patterns destabilize.
Where once we built freeways through cities, we must now build our way out of deep carbon deficits. We need solar-powered charging stations integrated with microgrids serving entire communities; transit hubs expanded to become climate resiliency centers.
And we must act to prevent needless death. Hundreds of people, two-thirds of them seniors, perished in the Pacific Northwest and Canada from the record-shattering heat. We can protect people when temperatures soar and summer fires cause blackouts. Solar-powered buildings can provide temperature-controlled rooms, fresh water, communications, and transportation during emergencies.
This takes significant public investment. Fortunately, we have a funding opportunity. The Measure C half-cent retail sales tax for transportation expires in 2026 and renewal efforts are underway. It currently raises more than $80 million annually.
If approved by voters, bonds could be issued now against future revenue for infrastructure projects, a hedge against inflation to ensure lower costs while leveraging state and federal matching dollars. And those matching funds are rapidly shifting away from outdated plans for freeway-based autopias.
Unfortunately, the Fresno County Transportation Authority and Fresno Council of Governments, chaired respectively by County Supervisor Buddy Mendes and Fowler Mayor David Cardenas, are mired in the past.
They’re intent on building more fuses.
The signature project of the Measure C renewal effort is Highway 180 East, the “Sequoia-Kings Canyon Freeway.” Like 168, it would extend our urban sprawl into the wildlands interface, placing lives and property directly in the path of future firestorms.
Climate change denial runs so deep that at a June meeting of the Measure C Technical Working Group, staff actually described the 180 extension as beneficial to the environment, citing a projected reduction in greenhouse gas emissions due to reduced congestion along the rural route.
Mendes, Cardenas and their respective boards, which include three county supervisors and all 15 Fresno County mayors, are so committed to uninterrupted freeway construction they want to remove the sales tax’s 20-year sunset clause and lock-in outdated 20th century plans for sprawl.
Yes, they want to make Measure C permanent — a forever tax — and are now rushing to prematurely place it on the June 2022 ballot while ignoring the greatest threat to humankind in history.
What kind of signal will it take to stop them in time?