A Blaxican’s Journey through Fresno’s Racial Landscape

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In the summer of 1973, DJ Kool Herc tried something new on the turntables: by extending the beat, breaking and scratching the record, he allowed people to dance longer and entertained them with his rhymes as an MC. After that moment, everything changed. The sound that emerged out of the South Bronx in New York City led to a cultural movement that changed the lives of generations around the world.[1] For Phillip Walker, a mixed race kid from Fresno, California, hip-hop not only served as the soundtrack of his youth, but provided a way to understand his neighborhood and build a multiethnic community.

Phillip Ernest Walker Jr. was born on January 28, 1976 in Fresno, California. He is the son of a Black father from Camden, Tennessee and a Mexican mother from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. While coming from different countries, both families had backgrounds in agriculture and both found their way to the Central San Joaquin Valley and eventually Fresno’s west side. The Walkers from Tennessee migrated to California slowly after uncle James Walker completed his service in the United States Navy. He was stationed for a time at Naval Air Station in Lemoore and upon completing his service in 1967, he convinced his brother Phillip Walker Sr. to join him in the Central Valley. There, the two black men found a lifestyle not too different from what they had experienced in Tennessee: wide open spaces, vast acres of farmland, and a slow pace.  The sons of a skilled mechanic, they set down roots in Fresno.

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Meanwhile, the Magdalenos crossed a border and multiple state lines before settling in the Valley. Milagros, Phillip’s mother, was the daughter of Gregoria and Genaro Magdaleno. Genaro was also a mechanic and moved his family across the Southwest in search of work on farm labor camps. The tragic loss of Genaro’s beloved wife led the family to the Central Valley. They arrived in Delano, where Genaro’s brother and sister helped raise his children, and then they moved to Fresno. For a time the Magdalenos settled in the “golden west side,” a place that the Walkers from Tennessee already called home.

Fresno’s Westside is one of the city’s “ghettos”: a typical, low-income California neighborhood made up of mostly Black and Chicano families. An area on the edge of town, bound by highway 99 and railroad to the east and farmland to the west, its origins were based on agriculture and farm labor. These areas developed because of the cheap affordable housing for workers and their families who toiled the fields and farms on the outskirts of town.[2] Today, the Westside is still largely populated by Black and Latino families who work as farm laborers or in the service industry. It was in this poor and working-class multiethnic neighborhood that Milagro and Phillip Sr. met and had one son, Phillip Jr. Even though the Walker and Magdaleno families shared a history of migration and farm labor, much like the Black and Latino families of West Fresno, a young Phillip struggled to find his place.

Phillip’s first encounter with race prejudice and his own identity came as a “rude awakening.” He remembers it like it was yesterday. As a five year old, he enrolled at St. Therese Catholic School in Fresno’s Tower District, and he recalls the tears his mother shed after a meeting with the parish priest. “I had to ask her more than thirty times, ‘mom why you crying?,’” he recalled during a recent oral history. She explained that the priest did not want him to attend the school because his father was black.[3] Phillip was a light-skinned kid with curly hair. He knew it was only a matter of time before someone would approach him and his mother in public and whisper to her “is he black?” This became so common that he began to anticipate strangers’ behavior. “I would see people in public and count down the seconds till they’d ask her and want to touch my hair,” he remembered during our interview. A young Phillip responded to these strangers by hiding behind his mother. These were difficult and dramatic experience for a young child. “I felt like a damn zoo animal,” he remembers. “I hated the fact that people felt the need to stop and question me and my existence. It did make me feel uncomfortable.” Even now, as an adult, Phillip gets emotional as he reflects on growing up multiracial.

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Unfortunately, it was not just society that was unable to accept or understand Phillip’s racial make-up. “People want to categorize you and tell you to ‘check the box’ on ethnicity. If you’re black you can’t be Hispanic,” he recalled. Instead of adhering to these strict racial classifications Phillip would check “other” or simply check both “Black and Hispanic.”[4] Government data collection at the time was not as reflective of people like Phillip in the late 1970s and early 1980s as it is today.

The African-American and Mexican kid found a home in the Central Valley’s growing hip hop scene. “I had a front row seat from day one, at an early age,”[5] he recalled.   He was introduced to hip-hop culture and music by his cousin Toy Walker (the son of his uncle James) and other friends on Fresno’s west side in the early 1980s. On his visits with his “other” side of the family, the Walkers, and out of the reach of the discipline of a strict Mexican mother, the young half-black and half-Mexican kid got an education by cruising the streets “on the handlebars of his cousins bmx bike.” The music and the streets of west Fresno opened up the eyes of a “knuckle-headed kid running around, in and out of the house.”[6]

Phillip felt the message within the music. It resonated with him. The lyrics narrated stories familiar to his own experiences. He related to the MCs who spoke of coming from broken homes and having absentee fathers. As a witness to the impact of the crack epidemic in the 1980s, he got N.W.A.’s “Dope Man.” He compared the drugs impact on the community like seeing “characters” at Disneyland walking the streets; the dealers, addicts, and ladies of the night, the same people who popped up in Hip Hop songs. Phillip appreciated rhymes that cut deep to the heart of the problems of areas like the Fresno’s west side. Artists like Ice Cube, Phillip’s personal favorite, painted the picture with songs like “Once upon a time in the projects.” According to Phillip, “The words and lyrics were real, relevant and you could see everything they spoke of stepping out the house.”

Hip hop didn’t just provide a vocabulary and language to understand the ghetto it also transformed the streets, sidewalks, and parks. B-boys, B-girls, and poppers would all “throw down” in Roeding Park, Phillip recalls. “If you heard some Egyptian Lover or some ‘Planet Rock’ by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force, “you knew someone was about to get blasted.”[7] Ten-year-old Phillip regularly kicked it at Roeding Park. Saturday mornings were especially on point as “200-300 kids gathered to watch dancers battle.” To Phillip the culture, the vibe, the energy was contagious. He had to be front row, but because he was so small there were consequences. He remembers a few kicks to the head from the breakers getting down on the concrete and cardboard. But that didn’t bother Phillip since he found himself in the diverse crowd, one that was mixed, just like him: Black and Latino. By far the best part of it all in his recollection is that kids from all over the city met up at one location to have some fun and enjoy the hip-hop sound that made them move. He was just another face in the crowd. It didn’t matter what his father looked like or where his mother was from.

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However, at his high school being bi-racial was still a topic up for discussion for others. Some “friends” and classmates would ask him “why you hanging with those Mexican kids?” and “Why you hanging with those black kids?” He would have to school them on the spot, “I’m mixed, you didn’t get the memo?” Other times he would tell them off with “don’t question who I choose to hang out with.” His remedy for some of the tension was a good old fashioned house party and hip hop. To convince his mother, he offered the possibility of making rent money—he charged three dollars per person.  Phillip filled the house: “You had your stoners, bangers, hot mommas, dancers who all came to get down.” They all listened to the latest hip-hop jams of the early 1990s: music from Dr. Dre and Snoop on repeat, mixed with Jodeci and Janet Jackson.  When the Fresno PD showed up, Phillip would “send out the little hot mommas to talk to them.” Phillip became known for hosting legit parties.

Hip-hop music and culture arrived on the music scene at a time when a Black and Brown kid from Fresno, California needed it most. It helped him navigate his childhood and adolescence and understand the changing world around him as he grew into a man. It was an escape, an outlet, for expression and frustration. It developed into a passion for a music and culture he could relate to with its diverse origin and background: a passion he has passed on to me, his younger brother, and too his own children.

This post is part of our Straight Outta Fresno series. To learn more about the project, click here

About the Author

Raymond A. Rey is an undergraduate student double majoring in history and Chicano studies at Fresno State. A proud Chicano. The son and grandson of immigrants from Durango, Mexico on his mother’s side and third generation Mexican American migrant workers on his father’s. Knowing his family’s history and understanding his heritage are a passion and the reason for his chosen areas of study. He was born and raised in Fresno, California where he grew up in the working class and working poor neighborhoods of the city’s central and east side. It brings him great joy in sharing the stories of the people and places that shaped him.

References

[1] “Investigations: Birth place of Hip-hop.” http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/investigation/birthplace-of-hip-hop/. Accessed 12/7/16

[2] Ramon D. Chacon.  “A Case Study of the Ghettoization and Segregation: West Fresno’s Black and Chicano Community during the 1970s.” Stanford Center for Chicano Research Stanford University, 1986.

[3] Phillip E. Walker Jr, Oral History Interview, 2016, Fresno State History Department, Valley Public History Initiative: Preserving our Stories

[4] Phillip E. Walker Jr, Oral History Interview, 2016, Fresno State History Department, Valley Public History Initiative: Preserving our Stories

[5] Phillip E. Walker Jr, Oral History Interview, 2016, Fresno State History Department, Valley Public History Initiative: Preserving our Stories

[6] Phillip E. Walker Jr, Oral History Interview, 2016, Fresno State History Department, Valley Public History Initiative: Preserving our Stories

[7] Phillip E. Walker Jr, Oral History Interview, 2016, Fresno State History Department, Valley Public History Initiative: Preserving our Stories

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