Nish Housepian said goodbye to Fresno in the 1990s. He was part of that early wave of kids born and raised in the valley who left for college and never found a way back. As his plane flew over the summer flatland one last time – the precise rectangles appearing as nearly perfect patches of green, the farmworkers tucked away in the canopy growing smaller and smaller until they became nothing but isolated dots, and then a figment – he told himself he would never return. Both his parents were dead.
His older brother, a grape farmer, and his sister, the wife of a wealthy lawyer who was buying pistachio land as an investment, were stuck here. Not Nish.
He could write. He could tell a story. He would find the world somewhere else, somewhere less cruel and hidebound, a place that had a capacity to see itself for what it was, because it was only in that seeing that a better life could be made.
As the protagonist in a novel I am trying to write, Nish is a fictional character blessed with a mostly clear eye and sure voice. Some readers bruised by his observations might detect a swell of hubris in him, but Nish would call it something else. As life would have it, or the writer would write it, he returns some 20 years later, up and over the Grapevine, California's Mason-Dixon line, into a valley that has not changed, except that it has grown, of course, and become less forgiving and more partitioned. In Fresno, those who can have moved north to the river and beyond. Those who can't are stuck behind in a land of meth and misery. The one does not see the other. The one who has fled pretends the other under its nose does not exist.
If not for this delusion of place, how else could one live here and breathe its foul air, ignore its shared poverty, abide its corruptions, blot out its history, think to repeat in boom time the same sins that had brought the bust, as if it never took place, and then leave it all behind in the rearview mirror, if only for a few days, driving two hours straight west – to the coast where all things are better.
Nish isn't sure how to reinvent himself. His newspaper career is no longer available to him. His wife is no longer his wife. He returns because his old high school football buddy, now a state senator, needs him in his quest to become the first Latino governor of the Golden State. And so he finds himself roaming the hinterlands of the valley, scratching to locate the issues that might grab headlines for his boss, meeting and talking with forgotten tribes of people and then alone again with his ghosts. One set of questions keeps haunting him: Why is this place so poor? What explains its abject poverty? What explains its refusal to even ask the question of its poverty, a refusal that becomes a poverty of the mind?
A different kind of poverty
There is more than one trick, I have learned, when a writer of literary journalism tries to turn a real place and its events into fiction. One of these tricks is to steer clear of the didactic. This is not always easy. A novel, after all, is a canvas not simply to paint a place but to populate it with characters who brim and spill over with ideas, the more provocative the better. These ideas, though, come with the caveat of restraint, a realization that few things are more wearying to a reader than slogging through the pontifications of a gassy protagonist.
So Nish never really answers the questions that grow out of the paradox of the valley he left and comes back to – the abundance that creates so much poverty.
As the writer of Nish's journey who cares deeply about this place, who loves it and hates it together, my own paradox, I cannot so easily sidestep the interrogation. So I ask myself, "How is it that this town, this valley, has given rise to a singular kind of American poverty?"
Our poverty is not simply rural. It is not simply urban. It is not simply suburban. We are not Appalachia. We are not Detroit. We are not Pacoima. We are a slice of all three materializing at once just a short jaunt from the walled-off compounds along the San Joaquin River where the escapees are sure they can live with a lie.
When the Brookings Institution discovered in 2005 that Fresno had the highest concentrated poverty of any city in the U.S. – New Orleans was No. 2 – it should have been a call to action. Instead, like so much else broken here, it was met with a collective shrug. Maybe the roots of the problem sank too deep, and the imagination needed to reach it could not dig deep enough.
In my own puzzling out of this place, I have come up with a list of reasons that help explain the stubbornness of our poverty – the forces behind it, the inertia that allows it to be. My list is by no means definitive, but I offer it here as a framework for a larger discussion.
Where are the rungs up?
First is what I call "the ladder that's missing its middle rungs." We've designed an economy that provides no real competition to the farm. Each generation of farmer reaches deeper into the peasant heart of Mexico for his labor. Once here, the picker, pruner and irrigator occupy a firm but bottom rung on our economic ladder. No people work harder. But what happens to their children and grandchildren? If they reject the fields, as so many of them understandably do, what becomes of their lives? There is no real industry here to realize their labor, no middle rungs to compete with the fields. The hammer-and-nail jobs offered by the building industry are just another bottom rung.
Whether the gaps in our ladder are by design or simply a failure of spirit, I have heard it explained both ways. What is clear is that we are telling children who come from homes where English is not spoken, where education has for generations been a proposition that ended in the fifth grade, that they must excel and go to college. They must take a leap from the bottom rung to the top rung with no station in between. Some make that leap exceedingly well, but many others grow frustrated with the want of another option and drop out of school, join gangs, raise children out of wedlock.
Second, our school districts such as Fresno Unified have repeatedly failed to provide the career technical education that might capture the imagination of teens in danger of dropping out. This failure stems from a certain liberal orthodoxy, as painful as that is for me, a liberal, to say.
If you talk to Hugo Morales, a Harvard grad who launched Radio Bilingue and won a MacArthur Fellowship, he will tell you a story repeated by countless successful Chicanos, so much so that it has the feel of myth, though we know it happened again and again. He will tell you that his counselors in high school kept steering him in the direction of wood shop, metal shop, auto shop. What if he had listened to them? Thank goodness he didn't because he knew himself better than they did.
But these were the racist practices of decades past. Surely the staggering percentage of dropouts in Fresno Unified today suggests the need for two approaches. One size, college, does not fit all. In fact, it fails to capture fully half our kids. And yet we continue to misread their skills and passions – we don't listen to them about their desire to be taught a good-paying trade. Instead, we allow political correctness to each year consign thousands of them to a place in the dropout line.
Third, agriculture has failed to teach upward mobility to its workers. Where are the apprentice programs sponsored by industry, government and universities that reach into the labor pool, pluck out the talented and help them become farmers? Let's not be fooled that a helping hand isn't needed. It took my grandfather, Aram, three seasons working in the fields alongside his family to pool enough money to farm their first vineyard in the 1920s. No amount of communal labor, no degree of penny pinching, can ever turn a field hand into a farmer today without a benefactor.
Fourth, many poor families in the valley have not done enough to teach upward mobility to their children. I have spent years documenting the lives of migrant farmworkers, witnessing firsthand how some parents are mystified by bookish children, fearful that such interests might land them in a faraway college – and forever from home. They value more the loyalty of remaining close to the hearth, even if it means a diminished life.
If you listen to the narratives of Latinos rising up from blue-collar roots to reach the highest levels of medicine, law, government and education, there is usually a hard-driving parent at the helm. State Sen. Ricardo Lara, for one, credits his guilt-wielding mom, Dolores, a "Tiger Mother" before anyone ever called it that. But if you go looking for her example in the neighborhoods of south Fresno, too often you'll find indulgence instead. A mother's inclination to spoil – "It's not my mijo's fault" – is easy to fathom. It's one way of trying to buffer a child from poverty's despair. But the trap of poverty gives way to other pathologies. These same neighborhoods now find themselves in the wholesale clutches of meth, a scourge that has laid waste to entire swaths of our city.
Last, and most damning, is the complicity of silence. Like a mining town, we understandably look upon the crater carved into our core with shame. We set up our lives at a certain distance from it. We operate under the illusion that the crater will not follow our path of sprawl if we just move a little farther north, to the hills themselves, if need be. If we must drive by it at all, we try not to look.
But in our avoidance of it, the crater surrounds our psychology. As much as we pretend not to see it, the crater is the first thing the outside world sees. It defines us. You can build a wall of social media as barrier and rail against the crater in your blog posts, but your anger is your guilt. You can move to Clovis and even buy a second house along the coast to gain further distance from it. And your children, like Nish, can leave for college and vow never to return. But the crater remains. The crater grows. The crater is us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Arax, a native of Fresno, is the author of several books, including "In My Father's Name" and "King of California," co-authored with Rick Wartzman. Joel Pickford, who contributed photographs for this essay, is a Fresno photographer whose latest book, "Soul Calling," documents the lives of Hmong families from Laos to the San Joaquin Valley.