Fresno Fa­mous pro­files for­mer ad­dict who now is a pro­fes­sor

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JOSHUA TEHEE jte­hee@fres­nobee.com

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

It hap­pened over years, in 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 mem- bers,” 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.

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.”

MAR­COS DO­RADO Spe­cial to The Bee

Ken­neth Chacón sits for his Fresno Fa­mous por­trait by Mar­cos Do­rado.

MAR­COS DO­RADO Spe­cial to The Bee

The fin­ished por­trait of Ken­neth Chacón for Fresno Fa­mous.

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