Janay E. Conley, center, stands with mural artist Eric Olage, left, and Danielle Carlson, right, in front of the new mural honoring Monique Contreraz and her dog Lucky in the Tower District Tuesday, July 26, 2022 in Fresno. Contreraz was killed after being dragged 8 miles by a motorist earlier this year. The mural, created by Eric Olage, stands near Pine and Maroa avenues. Credit: Eric Paul Zamora

Why it matters?

“Whether you are someone that makes multi-millions … or you’re someone that sweeps the streets, all lives matter. We don’t get to say who’s of value and who’s not.”

Monique Contreraz was a kind and generous woman with a warm smile, a loving partner, a mother, and a friend – and that’s how she will be remembered in a new Fresno mural.

In May, the 29-year-old Contreraz was struck and killed in a hit-and-run collision. Contreraz, who was crossing an intersection with her dog, was dragged behind the vehicle for about eight miles, police have said. Her dog was also struck and died.

Two months after her tragic death, family and friends commissioned the mural in Fresno’s arts and culture neighborhood, the Tower District.

“To have something like this is a statement that we haven’t forgotten (Monique),” Janay E. Conley, the sister-in-law of Contreraz, said in an interview with The Bee at the site of the mural. “It’ll be a place for us to all come and remember.”

Contreraz’s loved ones have been vocal to make sure her name is remembered. A few weeks after her death, her family partnered with homeless advocacy nonprofit, We Are Not Invisible, to host a candlelight vigil at the location of the crash in north Fresno in an event that attracted over 70 people.

With this mural, Conley said the community remembers the “injustice” and “tragedy” of her death. “I don’t think there’s anything like it on record, a hit-and-run where someone was dragged and ripped apart for eight miles,” Conley said.

“It’s a daily nightmare for us,” she said.

But it’s also meant to show that Contreraz was more than just an unhoused person, she was a woman full of life that was well-loved, said Conley.

“That is someone’s loved one. Somebody loved them.”

Tower community comes together through the mural

Danielle Carlson, a close friend of Conley’s and bartender at Livingstone’s Restaurant and Pub, said she initiated the idea to commission the mural soon after learning Contreras was a relative of Conley, her good friend and Tower resident.

She said she was disturbed by the widespread news coverage of Contreraz’s death and how it focused on her identity as a “homeless woman.”

“And then to find out that it’s our family and our Tower family – it was infuriating,” she said, referring to the fact that Conley is a Tower resident. “Something had to be done.”

Carlson said people from all walks of life and political backgrounds discussed the death at Livingstone’s, where she collected cash donations to help pay for the mural. “It was the same feeling of ‘this is horrible,’” she said. “It broke our hearts.”

Carlson then contacted muralist Eric “Drane” Olage, who has been painting murals in Fresno’s Tower District and beyond for decades.

Drane accepted the offer and said the mural was the first time he had memorialized a slain community member. He said he paid “extra attention” to get it right, given the tragedy of the situation. “When you do a portrait, it’s gotta look like the person, it can’t ‘kinda look like the person,” he said.

The mural features a black and white image of Contreraz, who is holding her dog, Lucky, a white Cocker Spaniel mix. She and Lucky are surrounded by a mosaic of blue, orange and red colors.

“Even though it’s tragic, I felt it needed to be bright, uplifting … to celebrate who she was,” Drane said.

A call for more compassion for unhoused, justice for Contreraz

Conley said her family wants justice for Monique’s death and are awaiting information as to whether charges will be filed against Shawn Ginder, the man accused of striking and killing Contreraz.

During the arrest, Ginder jumped out of a window of a three-story apartment complex. As of Friday, Ginder is still in critical condition and receiving medical care, but was no longer at Community Regional Medical Center, Bill Dooley, spokesperson for Fresno PD, said in a statement to The Bee.

Dooley could not immediately confirm whether charges had been filed against Ginder.

Conley also criticized how the city handled the death, from how they rounded up Contreraz’s things to how Lucky’s remains were sent to SPCA without alerting the family.

“I had to pick up her stuff in a dumpster,” she said, adding that she “would have liked to bury Lucky in a pet cemetery.”

She said she feels because Contreraz was unhoused, the city didn’t treat her death with the respect it deserved.

“Whether you are someone that makes multi-millions … or you’re someone that sweeps the streets,” said Conley. “All lives matter. We don’t get to say who’s of value and who’s not.”

Conley said there needs to be more emphasis from Fresno city and county leaders on treatment programs and healing, especially at a time when the city’s homeless population is growing. An official count of homelessness in Fresno and Madera released in early July showed the homeless population grew by 15% during the pandemic.

“Addiction is a real thing,” said Conley. “Monique did battle with mental illness and addiction.” But homelessness could happen to anyone, said Conley, who explained that Contreraz her partner, Dennis, were only unhoused for about four months before the tragedy.

Ultimately, the family wants the community to remember Contreraz as a woman full of life when they see the mural, which is located at the intersection of Pine and Maroa Avenues. They also call for people to re-frame how they think about people experiencing homelessness.

“That’s Monique and Lucky,” Carlson said. “It’s not a ‘homeless woman.’”

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.