And Then, a Hero Comes Along Fresno’s Not-So-Lone Rangers Unmasked as Heroes of the City

Mar 16, 2019 | 2019 Articles, Arts & Entertainment, Community, Tom Sims

by Tom Sims

So, what is a hero?

Jake A. Soberal cofounder of Bitwise and Enrique Meza, photographer and videographer have been friends for a decade. They were asking the same question.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a hero is a person who is admired for having done something very brave or having achieved something great.

According to the Urban Dictionary, it is someone “who does not recognize such declarations bestowed upon them by others and accomplishes an act or acts which are deemed extraordinary and exceeds the call of duty.”

But Fred Rogers said, “Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.”

The word hero comes from the Greek, “hero” (literally “protector” or “defender”).

Jake and Enrique concluded that, “Not all heroes can leap tall buildings in a single bound, or even wear masks and capes. Many use their powers and talents, their time and energy making the city they call home a little bit better.”

Jake said online that, “We thought, well, how fun would it be to use our voice and platform to celebrate folks doing really awesome, hard, sometimes messy work in our community that does not come with a lot of fanfare!”

Unmasked, a Portrait Series opened on Arthop on February 7 at Bitwise South Stadium. February 12, for ArtHop, there was a huge reception with hundreds of guests. Enrique Meza and Jake Soberal collaborated to feature portraits of twenty-six local hop

“Unmasked” was the result.

“Unmasked,” according to Soberal, “is one, small, beautiful, honest attempt to celebrate heroes in our city.”

Fresnans from across the demographic spectrum were asked to nominate people who are making a difference in the city. Out of 100 nominees, twenty-six were chosen.

Bitwise’s public announcement said, “Meza positioned many of them in his studio with classical-style furniture, adding a timeless and regal feel to the images.” That sense of elegance and class impressed more than one honoree. The event featured local food vendors like Taste Kitchen and Pretty Good Cookie. It also showcased local musicians, Patrick-Garcia and Patrick hop

“I am fated to journey hand in hand with my strange heroes and to survey the surging immensity of life, to survey it through the laughter that all can see and through the tears unseen and unknown by anyone.”
–Nikolai Gogol

We are on a relentless journey with our heroes past, present, and in the imagined future. We are reaching for the hero within and surging toward challenges that, like monsters of mythology, must be conquered for us to move on.

The monsters of Fresno are no match for its heroes. Take, for instance, the honoree, Amparo Cid of Cid & Macedo, Inc. They are attorneys specializing in social justice. According to their own press release, their philosophy is “to live and work within the communities we serve. As the daughters of strong immigrant parents, we believe everyday people are the key to transforming their own communities.”art

Consider Sam Hansen whose business ventures and work with the Fresno Grizzlies has helped enliven the city with fun. One of his co-honorees said of him that Sam has been adding value, through business, to downtown Fresno for year and he has helped make it cool to go downtown again.

Tamela Ryatt teaches at Sunnyside High School, but that is only part of the story. Over the phone, her enthusiasm grabs you by the collar and draws you in. She inspires students with digital photography and marketing at Fresno Unified as well as Fresno City College. She has worked with two after-school programs including the Mural Project. Her Sports Photography program actually has students getting paid by the Grizzlies. She plans to take the Mural Project to every High School. The philosophy is that creative collaborative thinking, which is required for such artistry, prepares students for many levels of civic engagement. The walls engage many people. They are up for a while, recorded, and then replaced. Ryatt recently received the FUSD Educator of the Year award!

Like many, she diverted praise to Jake Soberal and Enrique Meza for their vision and presentation. “I am so honored to be included in an exhibition at Bitwise, photographed by the incredible Enrique Meza. Thank you, Beth Lederach and Lori Lori D Clanton for such a beautiful gesture of thinking I am worthy of this recognition among so many AMAZING folks in Fresno. Angelica Cano is a rock star writer, but my favorite aspect of her part in this project was how easy she made being interviewed. It was so cool to finally get to meet Jake A. Soberal and thank him for being a hero in Fresno, bringing BITWISE to life, and enriching our city with creativity and technology. Hope Patrick-Garcia and Patrick Contreras were on fire last night, making the evening so memorable. Thank you to all that showed up and I am sorry if I missed some of you, the crowd was immense as well as the love!”

That was the spirit of the event and of the participants. It was about community, a community of heroes.

“But no man’s a hero to himself.”
–Ray Bradbury,
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Teachers are always heroes to those whose lives are changed and enriched by their work. Janene Marsella, a teacher at Hamilton K-8 School has a fascinating quote on Instagram. “I don’t like to think before I speak. I like to be just as surprised as everyone else about what comes out of my mouth.” That is the sort of spontaneity and zest for living and learning that must inspire her students. She has been called “an eighth grade teacher with superpowers.”


Reza Nekumanesh and Cherella Nicholson

Cherella Nicholson, directs Saint Rest Community Economic Development Corporation SRCEDC, is new and is already impacting West Fresno as an outgrowth of Saint Rest Baptist Church. Cherella has served as Training Organizer at Fresno Building Neighborhood Capacity Program. She told me, “I was in awe of the event. I had a good time with colleagues and families and met new people. The write ups lifted the work each of us are doing. The power are in the words, the photos are for fun.”

Eddie Valero, currently a member of the Board of Supervisors in Tulare County has been active in the Valley for a number of years. It is said that he lights up every room he enters. His response to me was, “A huge shout out to Carlos Huerta (Fresno Pacific University, Center for Community Transformation) for surprising me with this nomination – I wasn’t expecting it! There are so many Unmasked Heroes in the Central Valley, and I’m excited to share the love with so many of them today. I always let people know that the Harvest is Plentiful, but the Harvesters are Few! And, I’m constantly pushing to raise up the next generation of harvesters to re/build our region. Thank you to Enrique Meza, Jake A. Soberal, and the entire team for developing this vision and seeing it through. It was a great event! Thank you to my friends and family who made the drive to attend. Much love!”

“What makes a hero? Courage, strength, morality, withstanding adversity? Are these the traits that truly show and create a hero? Is the light truly the source of darkness or vice versa? Is the soul a source of hope or despair? Who are these so called heroes and where do they come from? Are their origins in obscurity or in plain sight?”
–Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, White Nights, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, and Selections from The House of the Dead

Armando Valdez started Community Center for the Arts & Technology in 1998, and it has been a grassroots and volunteer organization for all these years. It has also been mostly self-supporting. In March, they will move into new quarters at 267 N. Fulton Street, in downtown Fresno. “CCAT is a grassroots community based-center. It’s the only one of its kind in the valley offering FREE classes for children, youth, and adults in Digital Media & the Performing Arts. Please come and visit our facility and you will be amazed of the efforts made by community individuals.”

Not only the arts are featured, but kids get life-skills and some are marketable. Recently, the first of many earned a license to fly drones. This center is supported by individuals and community groups.

Chris Sorensen of Chris Sorensen Studios has been called “man of steel” for his artistic landmarks placed around Fresno. He developed his artistry at midlife and has been planting his mark around the city for decades. Artists are remembered for the visible boy of work they create in their lifetimes that remains long after they are gone.

Whitney Bunker is founder of City Without Orphans. She remarked, “Bitwise Industries with Enrique Meza did an incredible job tonight highlighting all that is praise worthy in Fresno! Congrats to all who were nominated for their work! Good things come from “Nazareth towns” like Fresno! Some think our city has nothing to offer, but we say we don’t accept that narrative. God is moving in our city and this is proof!”


Whitney and Ryan

“CWO exists to improve the lives of children in foster care through advocacy, education, recruitment & support, and mobilization that bridges the gap between the needs of the foster/adoptive community and the tangible resources within our city.”

Erin Goldfarb is one of the driving forces behind Dress for Success. Their mission is “to empower women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire, and the development tools to help women thrive in work and in life.

Richard Burrell founded Live Again Fresno after he came out of a life of crime, gang activity, and prison. His mission is to help the children of Parkway Drive. Live Again Fresno works in fifteen motel properties. Burrell says, “I really appreciate the opportunity to speak about the incredibly resilient children. The children are the driving force behind the change already happening on parkway drive.”


Richard and Roxanne Burrell

“It’s the truth. For too long the terms ” at risk/high risk” have been used to label children. Children who did not choose to be where they are. We choose to call them HIGH OPPORTUNITY youth. On any day there are so many opportunities to serve these children, choose one! Words have power. Words have meaning!”

“As you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.”
–Ernest Hemingway

Coke Hallowell, San Joaquin River Parkway & Conservation Trust, is a founding member of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, and served as President of the Board of Directors for 20 years. Her list of accomplishments and awards is long and impressive. The centerpiece of the SJRP and CT is named for her, “The Coke Hallowell Center.”

Lorenzo Rios is Chief Executive Officer of Clovis Veterans Memorial District and a U.S. Army Veteran. Their mission “is to provide a permanent living memorial honoring U.S. Military and Veterans; provide facilities and support programs to promote a legacy of service for preserving our community’s and country’s foundational ideal.”

Joe White, Neighborhood Church, wanted the exhibit to highlight the work and the opportunity more than his role. The church is three years old and centered just outside of downtown Fresno near Huntington Boulevard. He pointed out that “we partnered with twenty-two churches, seven non-profits, and four schools this last year in the Jackson Neighborhood. Collaboration is at the heart of what we do and our mantra is “Do Nothing Alone.” We can get more done on eight blocks by twelve blocks and 923 homes when we work with others.”

“We aim to mobilize you to love your neighborhood and seek its renewal. Neighborhood Church is a small business employing neighbors with barriers to employment, a non-profit that meets our neighborhood’s specific needs with specialized care, and a weekly Sunday gathering of neighbors at Jackson Elementary. Neighborhood Church is a church for people who love-it-local and who want to be mobilized to see their neighborhood flourish.”

Dr. Kizzy Lopez is a graduate of Fresno Pacific University. The life mission of Dr. Kizzy Lopez is to improve educational outcomes for Fresno’s foster care youth. Inspired by her own experience as a foster child, she was responsible for Fresno State’s Renaissance Scholars Program to support college-bound individuals who had emerged from foster care.


Dr. Kizzy Lopez

In “AN OPEN LETTER TO: Kids/youth from hard places,” she said, “… As a child, I prayed for death. I was exhausted by the pain of life. All I longed for peace, joy, and stability. Once I was a young adult, I made up my mind to pursue peace, joy, and stability with relentless pursuit. I made lots of mistakes and I also did a lot of things well. Life is a mixed bag like that. But, nonetheless, I pursued the life I so desperately wanted. Along the way, I do my best to do good in the world…”

Out of gratitude for those who helped her, she is helping others. Recently, she gave a TED talk about her experiences and insights. She has some advice for potential heroes:

—Believe that things will get better. It will!
—Pursue your dreams —relentlessly!
—Do good and help others whenever you can.
—Know that you deserve to have JOY and happiness.
—Be the HERO in your own story!

Justin Kamimoto was the powerhouse behind COMMON SPACE. It is a co-working space where people can work and build community at the same time. With over 400 participants a month and numerous events, COMMON SPACE is making a mark on downtown Fresno. Justin’s take on Unmasked was, “They did an amazing job on my biography that it really summed up everything .” Justin is another humble young hero who is not that interested in talking about his own heroism.

“I am of certain convinced that the greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind of domestic affairs whilst the world whirls as a maddening dreidel.”
–Florence Nightingale

Reza Nekumanesh, of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, is one of the honorees who is also a personal friend. His short version assessment of the exhibit and the night was, “It was such a cool event. I got to meet people and her their stories. So much beauty in last night.”


Reza Nekumanesh and wife Sukaina Hussain

Then, we talked about one of his specialties: Super Heroes. “What is it in the human psyche that gravitates toward super heroes? The genre represents something inside of us that we struggle with. We connect with that.” Since he has an entire workshop on the subject, anticipate another story. About the portraits, he observed, “Enrique made the pictures look really elegant.” There truly was a flair and elegance to them.

Mai Thao is Civic Engagement Director of Hmong Innovating Politics. The organization sang her praises online. “We are so proud to celebrate Mai Thao who was recognized as one of the twenty-six unsung heroes in Fresno. Thank you for your love, passion, and commitment to making Fresno a better place for our community.”

HIP focuses on “building power among historically disenfranchised communities. We work towards creating a more just democracy by elevating the voices of young people, tearing down barriers for our elders and smashing patriarchy and other forms of inequity.”

“You were the one who taught me,” he said. “I never looked at you without seeing the sweetness of the way the world goes together, or without sorrow for its spoiling. I became a hero to serve you, and all that is like you.”
–Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

Who are the teachers and who are the students? Maybe everyone is both. David Menendian teaches AP English at Clovis High School. His teaching has inspired and equipped a number of success stories. Heather Demetrios, a 2001 graduate, lists David as one of her major influences. She was so inspired by him that she dedicated her book, “Something Real” to him in 2014. “Something Real” is the winner of the Susan P. Bloom PEN New England Discovery Award.

He also influencd local television journalist Sontaya Rose. She reports that her passion for journalism began at Clovis High School in Mr. Menendian’s English class.

Javier Guerrero is the Youth advocacy and leadership porgram manager at Fresno Barrios Unidos. “Fresno Barrios Unidos transforms communities by empowering youth and families through advocacy, education, and wellness. We are inclusive, respectful, and appreciative of the youth and families we serve.” Javier is a graduate of Fresno City Community College and California State University Fresno. He has worked with Fresno Barrios Unidos for the past three years.

Elijah John Smith was nominated for his work with Break the Barriers. Break the Barrieds celebrates “awareness and victories of all abilities, ethnicities, and ages through exceptional programs, outreach, and inclusion education.” They “continually maintain and improve inclusive programs through ability awareness, outreach, and education. With performances, assemblies, conferences workshops, and clinics, Break the Barriers will promote integrated sports, health and fitness, performing arts, and aquatics programs.”

Wayne Hurley was honored for his leadership of D.A.N.C.E. Empowerment Inc.. The official biography says, “Through dance, he gives youth an alternative to a life of drugs or violence, while promoting the power of learning.” Wayne said, “I am so overwhelmed with the blessing I have received. I wake up every morning thanking the Lord for another opportunity to change lives and for that I am thankful. I’m really not a hero just someone who wants to make a difference in the lives of our community. Thanks to Bitwise our hard work is paying off for the world to see.”

“But heroes, at times, had to be fools.”
–Steve Berry, The Venetian Betrayal

Heroes do what other people say cannot be done. They imagine futures that are yet to be. They might be deemed as foolish visionaries of the ilk of Don Quixote de la Mancha who dreamed the impossible dream.

Anthony “A.P.” Armour founded Neighborhood Thrift with two friends almost a decade ago and currently leads Neighborhood Industries. I interviewed him for KRL in the early days of the work and have watched the community benefit business grow beyond anyone’s expectations. “We are a Non Profit thrift store in Fresno, California located in the Tower District. We seek to grow a successful business so we can help people succeed economically and promote an atmosphere of community.”

Addie Carr, from Neighborhood Industries, was also honored. She is a driving force behind their employment and mentoring program. “We hope this nomination is a reflection of our co-workers and neighbors who are heroes to their families everyday as they navigate broken and unjust systems, fight addiction, pursue healing, work hard, and give generously to those around them.”

Ryan Townsend is Executive Director of Central Valley Justice Coalition. He reflected that “we were honored to be highlighted at the ArtHop: Unmasked event, and I hope that more people look into the work that we do because we need our whole community to be united in preventing people from being exploited. We definitely don’t work to prevent exploitation and human trafficking to have a giant portrait of ourselves but we sure appreciate it! Thanks Enrique Meza and Jake A. Soberal and all of the other inspiring heroes who were highlighted on Friday night.”

Jessica Pittman, Founder/Associate Director of Central Valley Justice Coalition, wanted me to know that Central Valley Justice Coalition’s mission is to partner with the church and community to prevent human trafficking. She shared this first hand account from a junior high student who had recently taken one of the classes offered by CVJC.

“The story I told you today about the guy who wanted to pick me up … I kinda thought about waiting to get in the car, but then I thought that it was wrong and something could happen to me. But I also thought about what would happen then if I got in, and I thought about what happened to the girls … And I did not want that happening to me. So I thank you for being here and sharing your stories and stuff. I don’t know what I would do without this group.” – Teen program participant.

“Unconsciously we all have a standard by which we measure other men, and if we examine closely we find that this standard is a very simple one, and is this: we admire them, we envy them, for great qualities we ourselves lack. Hero worship consists in just that. Our heroes are men who do things which we recognize, with regret, and sometimes with a secret shame, that we cannot do. We find not much in ourselves to admire, we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else. If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes.”
–Mark Twain

What Twain wrote was mostly true, but he had not met Fresno’s heroes. They measure their success in outcomes that manifest themselves in the lives of people whose lives they touch. Their portraits are imprints of what we can be. Their legacies in-the-making are fluid templates for encouraging the greatness in others. They are willing unmasked to be put on display so that others will be inspired to be heroes themselves. Individually and collectively, they are:

Faster than a speeding bullet,
More powerful than a locomotive,
Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
They are Fresno’s heroes unmasked.

Listen Valley Public Radio’s interview with Jake Soberal: Unmasked: Local Heroes Get Some Limelight.

Tom Sims is a local pastor (and Grandpa!), writer, and blogger. His congregation, “The Fellowship of Joy,” is part of a larger collaborative called “4141 Ministries,” of which he is Executive Director & he is an active Toastmaster. You can also find him on Facebook.



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