On loving and understanding our communities: Journalist Melissa Montalvo in Fresno, California

Downtown Fresno with the snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance. 5%4 of Fresno County's population is of Latino descent. Photo by Chewbacca2101 via Wikimedia Commons.

This article is part of a series by J. Nathan Matias for a 500+ mile bicycle ride in June 2023 that is raising funds for Rising Voices, Global Voices’ endangered/Indigenous language program, and the Central California Environmental Justice Network. Donate to the initiative here

What does it mean to fall in love with a place while also seeing it clearly for what it is? Sitting across from Melissa Montalvo, a journalist for the Fresno Bee, I think I may have found the answer.

When I met Melissa, I was on the third day of a bicycle journey with Ivan Sigal through California's Central Valley in the footsteps of the 1966 Farmworkers march.

Journalist Melissa Montalvo in Fresno, California. Photo by Ivan Sigal (CC BY 4.0)

To reach Fresno, we descended six thousand feet from the Sierra Nevada Mountains through the Yokuts Valley, where Fresno County is trying to reverse the state's January 2023 decision to change Yokuts Valley’s racist name (it was formerly known as Squaw Valley; “squaw” is a derogatory term used for Native American women). I knew that because Melissa wrote a story about it, one of many articles I read while planning our bicycle tour. Back in March, when I was deciding whether to postpone the ride due to flooding in the region, Melissa’s article about evacuation plans was an important source of information. And when trying to understand the legacy of Cesar Chavez and the farmworker movement in Fresno, I turned to Melissa's article about the county's opposition to a $1m city initiative to invest in local business and rename a street after the famous labor organizer.

We met up with Melissa at Campus Pointe, a shopping complex and street market across from Cal State Fresno. On the sidewalk, Black and brown families queued to eat ice cream and watch the newest Spider-man movie, which features the Afro-Latino superhero Miles Morales.

As a bilingual journalist, Melissa co-edits “La Abeja,” the weekly Latino issues newsletter at the Fresno Bee “written for Latinos by Latinos.” When I asked her about La Abeja, I could swear the coffeeshop lit up with the glow of her enthusiastic smile. The Fresno Bee's daily email updates are often filled with breaking news that often involve violence, danger, and corruption, but the slower-pace La Abeja had offered me a window into the culture of the Central Valley and its longer-term debates.

Melissa explained that La Abeja (which means “The Bee” in Spanish), is the Fresno Bee's most recent attempt to reach a wider Latino community in the Fresno area. According to the U.S. census, 54% of Fresno County is Hispanic or Latino, although most reporting in the region has been by White journalists writing for English-speaking audiences. As a bilingual newsletter, La Abeja is knitting together community across language and parallel heritages.

Melissa moved from Los Angeles to Fresno two years ago as a journalist with Report For America, a program that co-sponsors emerging journalists to report on under-covered communities and issues. She enjoyed her work so much she decided to stay—the week we met, in fact, was her first under the new arrangement.

Over iced drinks, Melissa told us about the stories she loved.  About Joseph Rios, the City of Fresno's new Poet Laureate who won the American Book Award in 2018. About big corruption investigations and Mexican pop singers who were coming to town. About the work of David “Mas” Masumoto, who leads a family farm that's re-imagining sustainable farming in the valley and folding it into a beautiful memoir about the valley's history of exclusion and discrimination toward Japanese Americans.

While local journalism is declining in the Central Valley like everywhere else, Melissa told us about the network of journalists up and down the valley that she's come to rely on when working on stories. She describes the Merced Sun-Star's team's depth, the Modesto Bee's finance team, and the San Luis Obispo Tribune's excellent TikTok game. She also tells us about the Fresno State program for Journalists of Color, which pays students for up to five years to learn journalism by writing stories for Fresno's youth media outlet The Know. Melissa also reports for the Central Valley News Collaborative, a nonprofit initiative started during the COVID-19 pandemic that coordinates four print, digital, and radio outlets to report on communities of color.

Hearing Melissa talk, I'm reminded of debates about the function of journalism in democracies. In the book “Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press,” Michael Schudson argues that journalism is more than information and investigation—it provides social empathy, telling people “about others in their society and their world so that they can come to appreciate the viewpoints and lives of other people, especially those less advantaged.” While Schudson isn't wrong, his idea of journalistic empathy assumes that journalism is written by and for whoever holds the most power.

But journalism is also a mirror. In the hands of Melissa Montalvo and the other journalists at La Abeja, it's a mirror for a community that makes up the majority of Fresno's population but holds a minority of its power, a community struggling to be seen and seeking to see itself clearly. And the view in the mirror is beautiful.

Read more background about the ride, including its goals and Nathan and Ivan's itinerary, at our special coverage page.


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