The year 2020 felt like a series of unfortunate events for most people in Fresno and the rest of the country. The COVID-19 pandemic, now in its 10th month, has turned life upside down, changed societal norms and left the health of entire communities vulnerable – both physically and mentally.
On top of that, in the course of this year, Fresno County residents experienced an alarming storm of gun violence, dangerously unhealthy air from California fires, especially the Creek Fire this summer, and a financial crisis that has crippled businesses, employment stability, and in many cases, deprived families of shelter and ability to afford their meals.
Still, there were small rays of light that broke through – community members who, despite their own challenges, went out of their way to give back. Meet five of the Fresno-area folks whose sacrifices brightened this year.
A Huron hero
Dorian “Cuddie” Castro, 34, born in Huron – the small western Fresno County city powered by migrant farm workers – moved to Fresno in 2013 to expand his artistry and network. Castro is a graphic designer, photographer and illustrator who worked as the graphic designer for the Fresno Grizzlies for six years – a job he lost due to the pandemic.
“I needed to keep my creativity going and also pay my bills,” Castro said.
In the summer, the SayBruh team mobilized to support the children of local farm workers who have been severely impacted by coronavirus. Over a span of two weeks, the team collected more than 1,000 school supply items – notebooks, graph paper, calculators, highlighters, white boards and headphones – and raised $2,706, a huge help for students in Huron where schools have traditionally struggled with inadequate resources.
The group also teamed with Fresno Barrios Unidos to purchase and deliver school desks and about 400 school kits to Biola Elementary School, a rural Central Unified campus west of Fresno.
Castro said he hopes to motivate people to become leaders during times of crisis and help provide for their community.
“The impacts of 2020 have been difficult,” Castro said. “During financial hardships, a lot of towns like Huron and others are impacted when the resources they rely on are not available.”
Sisters who give back
Sisters Geeta Dhugga, 35, and Roma Dhugga, 33, originally from Hayward, came to Fresno for love when they married their husbands in 2014.
Following in the footsteps of their parents who own an Indian bridal boutique and threading salon in Hayward, the sisters started their own brow bar business – R & G Threading Bar at 7795 N. First St.
“We realized that Fresno was missing a place that not only made you look good but feel good,” Geeta Dhugga said.
The sisters have kept their word about helping people look and feel good and are also making it a priority to help others by sponsoring community events and donating to local causes that benefit children and families.
“This year was difficult to do charity on a larger scale due to being shut down for several months of the year,” Geeta Dhugga said.
Like many entrepreneurs in Fresno, their business was hit hard by the pandemic, but they pushed through, paying $12,000 in rent during the first shutdown with no income and without a Personal Protection Program loan.
Still, the sisters did a cash giveaway of $150 during the first shutdown in March and another $200 in early December. Additionally, they made a donation to Camp Kesem – a Fresno State summer camp which supports children whose parents have cancer.
The Dhuggas say they are inspired by “Vand Chakna,” a crucial pillar in the Sikh religion that encourages them to share what they have with others and serve their community.
Painting love across the city
Omar “Super” Huerta, mural and tattoo artist, has turned his life around, thanks to art. Originally from Los Angeles, Huerta had a troublesome childhood which resulted in his spending time in juvenile facilities in his early teens.
In early March, before the raging pandemic that would soon change the world, Huerta opened Ink Galleria, a tattoo shop, at 3860 N. Winery Ave. in Fresno. He was intent on using his artistic ways to make a living., despite the pandemic threatening his income.
Outside of the shop, Huerta enjoys painting murals. He has completed murals in communities throughout the city, like the Selena tribute on Ventura Avenue and the Cesar Chavez tribute on C street in downtown Fresno.
This year alone, Huerta completed 40 portraits of popular and inspiring celebrities who passed away, such as Nipsey Hustle, Vanessa Guillen, George Floyd, and Kobe and Gigi Bryant. He also honored local heroes, such as 2-year-old Thaddeus Sran from Madera whose parents were charged for his death and Jose Luis Rivera, the “elotero” (street vendor) and family man who was gunned down in broad daylight.
Huerta also was the lead artist in the Black Lives Matter’s colorful street mural that took place outside of Fresno City Hall in the summer.
Huerta said he has devoted as much as 800 hours to murals this year, most of which he has funded himself; only five received funding from the community.
“I’ve learned that murals have a loud voice that can cover any story, inspire, and unite us as one,” he said.
Huerta said his 2021 goal is to bring to life more murals across the Central Valley, from Sacramento to Bakersfield.
Supporting local vendors and eloteros
While the community mourned the loss of Rivera by voicing anger and anguish on social media, Mario González, known as Roeski, turned to his art and graphic design to honor Rivera and other local vendors who have experienced violence.
González created an art piece depicting a traditional vendor cart with the words “Pray 4 us” written across. He made copies of the art and has sold 20 of them so far, raising $400.
With that money, he purchased four $100 gift cards which he distributed to different street vendors. He says anyone who wants to acquire the art for $20 each to help street vendors can reach him via social media.
“Trying to find an elotero when you need him is kind of hard,” González said. “I’m just trying to help out some families that might be going through it right now.”