By Richard Stone
Cecilia (CeCe) Vega and I are long-time neighbors, residents of the Lowell District north of Divisadero and south of Belmont, between Highways 180 and 41. I call it “a not-yet-gentrified area,” devoid of most commercial amenities and home to too many apartments owned by Fresno’s preeminent slumlord. Yet many of the single-family houses are of historical vintage and have been lovingly tended by proud owners. Moreover, although we have more than our share of gang activity and police calls, the neighborhood has gotten better over the years, in no small part due to the activism of citizens such as CeCe and an infusion of redevelopment money from the City.
CeCe on a fine early March day to interview her. Not, however, about her community work, but because she is now a published author. I find her in typical Vega attire: black tights and over shirt both with “distressed” holes, blue scarf artistically knotted, short black boots that she herself has studded with rhinestones and tied with pink laces “for breast cancer awareness.”
The book is called Quick on the Draw: Memoirs of a Go-Go Dancer. It tells the tale of a life guided by spirit and ingenuity, a tale of pitfalls avoided and integrity maintained. While lacking literary finesse, it is distinctively written in CeC’s own voice, with her idiosyncratic syntax, pronunciation, and spelling intact. And, as she intended, the story stands as an example of how a young single mother of Hispanic descent can become a known and respected community leader.
CeCe’s book begins with a desperate escape from a well-to-do but abusive family that threatens to engulf her in misery. Ending up in Fresno, through the good graces of a helpful aunt, she is presented with an opportunity to become a dancer. In her young and inexperienced mind, the dancer she wants to emulate is the ballerina on a broken music box she had, as a girl, rescued from the dumpster. The reality is being a dancer/drink server in a neighborhood “nite club.” But grasping her opportunity to, at last, express herself to music and, as important, support her children, CeCe transforms herself into the club’s star attraction, one C.C. Rydrr, decked out in outfits of her own design and utilizing her own choreography. “I could bust some lethal moves,” she proudly says, adding, “and I still can.”
Working in an atmosphere of alcohol, sexploitation and gangsterism, CeCe was able to hold on to her independence and self-esteem. “There was no stripping or topless stuff in Fresno back then, and I kept my work life very separate from my home life as a mother. I just did my job and left. Many of the other girls were uneducated and easily taken advantage of. I helped at least some of them find a way to establish a home and safety for their kids.”
CeCe’s adventures continue with unexpected twists and turns, hardship and dangers. “I always packed my Baretta in my boot,” she says, “and once had to use it.” She was married to a millionaire club owner (and mafioso), but when things went wrong she divorced him renouncing completely her share of his fortune in order to maintain her independence. Later, working in Fresno’s elite hotel, she acquired a range of skills and discovered talents that—after a career-ending injury—enabled her to become an invaluable volunteer for a succession of nonprofits. Most recently, as Bob Dittmar’s right-hand for F.U.N.D. (Fresno Urban Neighborhood Development), she has assisted in the renovation of dozens of homes and buildings in low-income areas.
In our neighborhood, CeCe has become a real personage, known for her generosity and civic concern. Along with her unique combination of bravado, dedication and fearless advocacy for what she believes in, she has an unshakeable commitment to establishing relations with everyone in her milieu, from the homeless folk on the street to the department heads at City Hall. As she says, “Everyone likes cookies.”