By Kevin Hall
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 2014 Community 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.
Kevin Hall hosts Climate Politics on KFCF 88.1 FM every second and fourth Friday, 5 p.m.–6 p.m. He tweets as @airfrezno and @sjvalleyclimate, coordinates an informal network of climate activists at www.valleyclimate.org and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for presentations and information.
Authors Reveal Forkner’s Racism
By Kevin Hall
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.