Fresno Famous

At 15, he sold drugs and was a meth addict. Now, he’s a Fresno City professor and poet

Fresno Famous is an ongoing series from The Fresno Bee, done in collaboration with artist Marcos Dorado.

It is a profile and portrait; mixing modern media (that includes the social kind) with old-world art in a way that is quaint, almost to the point of irony.

How often do you see portraiture anymore, much less in a newspaper or someone’s Facebook feed?

Dorado is a full-time artist who works with live models (some of whom have been nude), rather than photo reference. Which means, the realistic drawings you’ll see come from hours spent with his subjects.

“My inspiration is to celebrate those who are serving our community in a meaningful way and/or those who have unique stories,” Dorado says..

On that front, we’ll need help from our readers and in the upcoming months will be asking for suggestions from the community.

Kenneth Chacón, pencil drawing Marcos Dorado

Kenneth Chacón can’t remember the moment he stopped being a gangster.

It happened over years, in a series of small shifts in priorities that started during his second semester at Fresno City College, where he would eventually end up teaching English as a tenured professor.

“I just really enjoyed getting educated. I enjoyed the process,” Chacón says, which is ironic seeing as moments before he admitted to dropping out his first semester of college because he couldn’t find a parking space.

His car had no air conditioning and he ended up with pit stains from the heat and he was too embarrassed to go to class.

Then, Chacón was always kind of a nerd. He grew up idolizing his brother, novelist Daniel Chacón and always reading something, always trying to make it to school, even when he fell in with the Northside Fresno Bulldogs and started dealing the drugs that would eventually lead him to his addiction to meth.

He was 15.

“I think that’s a pretty common story here in Fresno, especially among gang members,” says Chacón, who’s turned those stories into a collection of poems, “The Cholo Who Said Nothing and other poems” which was released by Turningpoint Books last year.

That second semester at Fresno City was a turning point, Chacón says. He discovered the Chicano-centric Puente Program, which helped students like him transfer to four-year universities. He also found instructors there who believed in his talents, regardless of his circumstances. They urged him to pursue higher education, which he did.

Outline sketch Marcos Dorado

Portrait of Kenneth Chacón in progress. Marcos Dorado

Chacón eventually left Fresno for UC Davis.

He expected things to be like they were back home. They were not.

He found himself in awe, for example, walking around a campus where students could leave their bicycles without padlocks.

“That was really good for my spirits,” he says.

He returned to Fresno and joined the MFA program at Fresno State, earned a master’s of fine arts in poetry in 2004 and eventually found his was back to Fresno City College, this time as a teacher.

He wasn’t in the gang anymore at that point, but he wasn’t quite out of the life, either. He still had a bit of that “short-man syndrome” and had trouble going into a room without being on guard, or watching out for enemies.

After work, heading home to his wife and children, he often found himself making a detour into the neighborhood where his old friend lived.

“I had been so lost in that mindset,” he says.

But the detours got fewer and fewer and eventually, they stopped.

“I just drove straight, instead of turning left,” he says.

That’s when he knew things had really changed.

In his poem and his teaching, Chacón doesn’t shy away from his past. He doesn’t cover his tattoo and kind of likes the idea of being the “cholo instructor.”

“I hope that people will be moved by my story,” he says.

“Not because it’s mine, but because it’s theirs in a way.”

That’s what Alex Banda thought when he first met Chacón during orientation for the Puente Program in 2014. Chacón was an instructor in the program and immediately stood out.

“You don’t see too many people coming from my lifestyle being professors,” Banda says.

At 46, Banda has spent time in prison – 15 years, in places like Corcoran, Wasco, New Folsom, Soledad and Mule Creek. He got out of his last stint just in time to see his sister graduate from Fresno Pacific University.

That was the inspiration he needed.

Chacón – along with fellow Fresno City instructor Matt Watson – was the support. Banda made the dean’s list seven times, graduated with a degree in psychology and 3.8 GPA and is currently at Fresno State and in the Pathways to Law School program.

Banda has been able to share his redemption story with other student and parolees. He and Chacón were recently invited to talk at Turning Point, a federal halfway house in Fresno.

That is thanks to Chacón, Banda says.

“He continues to be an inspiration in helping me find my path way beyond the classroom.”

Joshua Tehee: 559-441-6479, @joshuatehee