In 1977, Alfonso Hernandez, an idealistic social work graduate student at Fresno State, founded Trabajadores de la Raza San Joaquin Valley, or “Workers of the People.” Trabajadores established a multiservice model that would become known as the Chicano Youth Center (CYC), initially located in a converted three-bedroom house on Tulare Street near 7th Street in east Fresno.
Hernandez spoke proudly at the 2014 Chicano History Revisited event at the Sal Mosqueda Center of the period during his graduate studies in the 1970s. He recalled numerous walkouts and protests:
- 800 kids walked out of Madera High School due to the alleged battery of a student by two white administrators.
- 500 students walked out of Lincoln Elementary in Selma after a hyperactive kindergartener, Marcos Barrera, was placed in a padlocked cage at the back of the classroom. Soon, 2,300 kids would leave their classrooms to join the picket lines.
- In Coalinga, the children of farmworkers, mostly from Huron, protested the cancellation of ethnic studies classes. They set out on a trek from Coalinga to Huron, almost 20 miles, and gathered hundreds of supporters along the way.
It was the height of the movement for Chicano cultural and political consciousness, and Hernandez and Trabajadores were at the head or in the mix, encouraging new leaders.
He was also good at gang prevention and recalled that “the gang kids believed in me. I remember in ’73 or ’74 I took about 300 gang kids to the Fresno City Council. The chief of police said there are no gangs in Fresno. I said, ‘Yes there are, you just don’t want to admit it.’ At that time, [future Fresno police chief Jerry] Dyer was a sergeant. He was just looking.”
One evening, CYC staff was alarmed when an armed gang member went to talk to Hernandez. But he wasn’t there to do any harm; he said he wanted to get out of the gang and he came to us “because I knew they wouldn’t shoot me at the Chicano Youth Center.”
Trabajadores and the CYC increased their outreach, and the basketball tournaments and conferences drew thousands of youths from throughout Fresno County and the San Joaquin Valley. During that time, they planted the seeds and nurtured the growth of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan), which spread to more than 50 Valley schools. They had more than 22 walkouts and inspired many future academicians, professionals and leaders from poor communities.
In 1994, California voters passed the racist Proposition 187, which barred non-citizens from receiving any form of publicly funded social services, including healthcare. In reaction, about 12 high schools walked out on their own. “And where did they come?,” noted Hernandez. “They came to the Chicano Youth Center, because they knew that they could come there, that it was theirs, to have a voice.”
The CYC outgrew its small home and eventually moved to Dickey Playground on a 1.98-acre lot at Blackstone Avenue and Calaveras Street, with a wooden building referred to as the “barracks.” The CYC had up to 3,000 kids participating in their sports programs from 30–40 high schools and the yearly Chicano Youth Leadership Conference. Hernandez noted that 80% of the leadership and the driving force were girls and young women, realizing their own leadership potential.
According to a 1997 United Way study, the neighborhood surrounding Dickey Playground, also known as Lowell Jefferson, had the lowest per capita and median household incomes of Fresno County, below West Fresno (Chandler Airport) and rural communities such as Huron and Orange Cove.
The primary service area had the highest dropout and juvenile crime rates, as well as teen pregnancies and persons in need of mental health services. These were the most underserved families of Fresno, a short distance from downtown and the centers of power for the city and county governments.
On March 11, 1999, Hernandez submitted an 87-page project application to the State of California, with data studies, project narratives, construction designs and appendices. On July 16, 1999, Hernandez signed a standard agreement with the State under which “the Department of the Youth Authority…enters into a contract with Chicano Youth Center…to work jointly on a project identified as Chicano Youth Center.”
The grant of $1.725 million was combined with a separate grant from State Parks and Recreation for a total of $3.65 million. This would fund Hernandez’s dream to combat poverty and despair with a 20,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility.
Manuel Hernandez, another passionate community advocate, established a youth science program that has become a nationally recognized model for the development of future engineers and explorers of nature and the universe.
Hernandez never deviated from his mission, which was to empower inner-city and rural families and youth to overcome the challenges of poverty and their disenfranchised status and to pursue education and professional careers. His vision was based on a nontraditional, multicultural, multiracial service model, blending traditional youth sports activities with a powerful philosophy of coexistence, justice and nonviolence.
The new CYC facility opened its doors in August 2009. It housed conference and recreation rooms, a professional recording studio, a library and a technology lab with Mac computers. But, more important, it was a safe place for neighborhood children to play, read, receive counseling and dream of their futures.
However, for Hernandez, and the families served by the CYC, the realization of their dreams would be short-lived. What was once a cooperative partnership with the City of Fresno became one of contention, discord and dispossession.
In 2009, the national economy was in deep crisis with a $6 trillion national debt due to funding for the Middle East wars, Republican tax cuts and the Great Recession. The Obama administration cut federal community development block grants, which were funds that could be applied creatively to attack the root causes of poverty. The CYC lost City support and staffing, and Hernandez was threatened with termination.
From 2009 to 2013, Hernandez began to suffer from poor health. In 2015, he passed away at the age of 64. Without a budget or commitment for support from the City of Fresno, the CYC fell into revocation of its nonprofit status.
Chicano Youth Center Today
Today, a new CYC Board of Directors is working to reinstate the nonprofit status and has a renewed commitment to serving the surrounding neighborhoods. There is a tenuous arrangement for occupancy of three cubicles, with access to the conference and recreation rooms based on typical rental agreements, like “any other member of the public.”
In a recent meeting to negotiate a renewed partnership with the Board of Trabajadores de la Raza/Chicano Youth Center, City Manager Georgeanne White declared abruptly, “The building is ours!” If it had not been for the intervention of City Council Member Miguel Arias, it would have been a fait accompli.
In 2014, Hernandez said that “there might be 5,000 Bulldog gang members in Fresno, and their extended families reach 25,000. In the next 10 years it’s probably going to be 50,000, because the City isn’t doing anything.”
Last year, Police Chief Paco Balderama held a press conference and acknowledged that Fresno had 20 or more active street gangs with an estimated 22,000–25,000 members.
Meanwhile, at the CYC, the Mac computers have been removed, the professional recording studio is an administrative office and the spirit of Alfonso Hernandez has left the building.