PHOTOS: Fragments, China Alley

Gosia Wozniacka photos

The smell is musty, the wooden floorboards rotten, the original owners long dead. But the century-old Chinese herb shop with its towering armoire of small wooden drawers can still be found nearly intact behind a set of heavy metal doors. Herb bundles sit on dust-coated shelves; wafer-thin paper used by the doctor to wrap the herbs hangs on a rack by a counter, stained with bird droppings. In the back and upstairs, where the herbalist and his family lived, pigeons nest. The last herbalist, Dr. Jack Chow, died in the early 1950’s. With his death disappeared the customers who drank their herbs at the counter, the men who gathered around the stove to gossip, and the translators who assisted English-speaking and Mexican patrons. The herb shop and its interiors endured, undisturbed in this community in the rural central California town of Hanford that traces its roots to 1887. My colleague Jes Therkelsen and I recently filmed a short documentary on Hanford’s China Alley. A local preservation society is working to save the herb shop and other buildings.

To Sand

Gosia Wozniacka Uncategorized

On the 10th anniversary of the American-led invasion of Iraq, I would like to offer a poem. It was written by Brian Turner, a poet who was born in central California and went to Fresno State University. Turner is a U.S. Army veteran who served as an infantry team leader in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. His poems are widely published and this one comes from the collection Here, Bullet.  

To Sand

To sand go tracers and ball ammunition.
To sand the green smoke goes.
Each finned mortar, spinning in light.
Each star cluster, bursting above.
To sand go the skeletons of war, year by year,
To sand go the reticles of the brain,
the minarets and steeple bells, brackish
sludge from the open sewers, trashfires,
the silent cowbirds resting
on the shoulders of a yak. To sand
each head of cabbage unravels its leaves
the way dreams burn in the oilfires of night.

      — Brian Turner


Obama on immigration

Gosia Wozniacka Uncategorized

The media world is abuzz today over President Obama’s speech on immigration. As expected, the president in Las Vegas pushed for comprehensive immigration reform, including strong enforcement, legalization of 11 million who lack legal status, and changes to the legal immigration system. What I found most interesting in Obama’s speech was his sense of history. Below is an excerpt.

“… A lot of folks forget that most of ‘us’ used to be ‘them.’ We forget that. And it’s really important for us to remember our history. You know, unless you’re one of the first Americans, a Native American, you came from someplace else. Somebody brought you. (…)

The Irish, who left behind a land of famine; the Germans, who fled persecution; the Scandinavians, who arrived eager to pioneer out west; the Polish; the Russians; the Italians; the Chinese; the Japanese; the West Indians; the huddled masses who came through Ellis Island on one coast and Angel Island on the other — you know, all those folks, before they were us, they were them.  

And when each new wave of immigrants arrived, they faced resistance from those who were already here. They faced hardship. They faced racism. They faced ridicule. But over time, as they went about their daily lives, as they earned a living, as they raised a family, as they built a community, as their kids went to school here, they did their part to build the nation. They were the Einsteins and the Carnegies, but they were also the millions of women and men whose names history may not remember but whose actions helped make us who we are, who built this country hand by hand, brick by brick.  

They all came here knowing that what makes somebody an American is not just blood or birth, but allegiance to our founding principles and the faith in the idea that anyone from anywhere can write the next great chapter of our story.
And that’s still true today. (…)”

You can find Obama’s full speech here.

AP STORY: Almond investors

Gosia Wozniacka AP STORIES, Uncategorized

If you spend any time driving through the San Joaquin Valley, the vast stretch of fields and orchards between Sacramento and Bakersfield, you will notice the almond trees. Hundreds of thousands of acres of almond trees, to be exact. An ocean of almond, orchards without end. Soon, in February, the trees will bloom into an immeasurable white coverlet. The Valley is where most of the world’s almonds are produced. Almonds also happen to be the state’s most successful crop for the past several years. These little nuts have beaten California’s iconic grapes to become the no. 2 commodity here. (Dairy is no. 1 in terms of revenues, but the dairy industry has had a dismal year.) Almond farmers are making money, and that’s good news in a region struggling to emerge from the recession. But others now want in on this cash cow crop. Outside investors have been buying up California’s farmland, investing into almonds and other nuts. What does it mean for the Valley? Read my story here: AP-Farmland Investors

AP STORY: Rewriting history

Gosia Wozniacka AP STORIES

Here’s a fascinating story I worked on over the holidays. A school board in Salinas, California  – a city with a high crime rate and gang problems – decided to name its new elementary school after Tiburcio Vasquez, an Old West bandido, aka gangster, who was hanged for murder. But there is another aspect to this historical figure: people in the Mexican-American and Chicano communities say the bandido protected Mexicans from white settlers during a time when Mexicans were widely discriminated in the territory that now makes up California.

Several things to consider: Historians do agree that Spanish-speaking people were crushed by white settlers as a result of the Gold Rush. And while historical records, including news reports, have a lot to say about Vasquez, it’s hard to say how accurate those are and how tinged with the anti-Mexican sentiment that was viral at the time. In other words, how you see the bandido all depends on whose version of history you happen to believe.

And here’s another question, which I hardly touched upon in this story: as the U.S. becomes a majority minority nation, will its history be rewritten and revised? Who are our heroes? These questions occupied my mind for days. I recalled a recent visit to a Multiplex, the previews oozing with violence. The films’ heroes killed and were celebrated for the killings. These are our pop culture heroes. What about more serious ones? Military generals, veterans, presidents who owned slaves, etc.

Truth be told, killing or other violent acts do not disqualify a person from heroism and admiration. Our heroes often embody violence with some aspect of their being and actions. It comes down to what you choose to disregard and what you choose to admire in someone — and those things are dictated by where you were born, your culture and ways of seeing. Here’s my AP story about the Tiburcio Vasquez controversy: Bandit School and la version en Espanol

Tiburcio Vasquez, photo courtesy of John Boessenecker

AP STORY: Farmworkers to organic farmers

Gosia Wozniacka AP STORIES

I have been wanting to write about ALBA, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, ever since I moved to central California. The program trains farmworkers to become small scale farmers, offering them a step up on the ladder of agriculture and allowing them to start a self-sustaining business. Plus, the program teaches about organic farming, mindful of the fact that many farmworkers are exposed to numerous pesticides in the fields. This is another story in my series about how farmworkers are trying to climb out of low-wage field hand jobs and take leadership in California’s agricultural system. Read the story here:  AP_FarmworkersToFarmers and version en espanol

AP STORY: Proliferation of food labels

Gosia Wozniacka AP STORIES

Healthy eating has become a big trend in the U.S. in recent years. And companies big and small have been trying to monopolize on it. Eco-labels — describing a dizzying array of sustainable agricultural practices — are increasingly cropping up on farm products, claiming everything from ‘grassfed’ to ‘free-range’ to ‘predator friendly’. Some labels are legitimate, representing a stringent cerficiation process, while others lean towards false advertising. Read my story to find out more: AP-Food Labels

If you would like to access the Consumer Reports rating system for eco-labels, go to:

A killer’s handwriting

Gosia Wozniacka AP STORIES

Many details proved surprising and chilling about the mass shooting at the Fresno chicken processing plant this week. There was the way that the shooter, an employee at the plant, shot his victims execution-style, by placing the handgun against their head or neck and pulling the trigger. There was the fact that the victims, while deboning or grinding mounds of chicken pieces, couldn’t hear the shooter approaching, because they wore earplugs and clanging machinery drowned out any other noise. Police said the shooter carefully chose his victims — he walked around others, sparing their lives, to reach his intended targets. And yet, most of the victims had worked at the plant only a week, or a few months.

Violence and cold calculation are expected from a killer. And we tend to quickly dehumanize the shooter. We at the AP reminded readers in the first sentence of the story that he was an ex-convict, with plenty of prison time to his name. All newspapers and TV stations honed in on this. As if we were hoping that by negating the killer’s humanity, the very fact that he’s human, we would be putting some distance between ‘us’ and ‘him.’ Because we can’t possibly be like him, or have any alliegance or familiarity with this killer. Except that it’s not that easy. One of the men that Lawrence Nathaniel Jones shot execution style was also an ex-convict, another had a violent past in gangs. A violent or difficult past doesn’t lead everyone to kill. What happened in Jones’ mind, then, to lead him to go on a rampage? Who was Jones, really?

One small detail I happened on by coincidence in the course of reporting proved to be most surprising in this story, at least for me. Because Jones had a criminal record and several of his convictions were in Fresno County, I drove to the Fresno county courthouse archive, a small non-descript building on a lightly travelled side street. Armed with case numbers, I requested Jones’ two files. The files contained a series of court papers, most of them filled with boxes to check, lacking any narrative detail. But there was also something else: several letters written by Jones to the judge. In the letters, Jones mostly complained that his court appointed counsel was not attentive enough and that the lawyers kept dropping his case. But the content was secondary. What struck me with force was Jones’ handwriting: elegant cursive, slightly slanted to the right, letters perfectly shaped, ink delicately, neatly set on the page. In addition to handsome penmanship, Jones was also eloquent and had an excellent grasp of structure, orthography and grammar (except for a few minor spelling errors). As a reporter, I’ve received over the years a good share of letters from prisoners. Most exhibit sloppy writing, frequent and serious spelling mistakes, run-on sentences and other writing errors. Not Jones’ letters.

A student of language and writing, I ask myself: how could a man who in cold blood killed his co-workers at close range, how could this man have beautiful handwriting, and use language eloquently? I continue to regularly hand write letters to my friends and family – perhaps this is why the shooter’s letters were especially intriguing to me and made me wonder about his person. This is not to defend him. I believe there have been some studies of serial murderers’ handwriting, and the fact is that people who have been known to kill sometimes also proved very gifted and intelligent.

Still, I wonder: what traces can you glimpse through a person’s handwriting, that disappearing art? A sensibility?  Vulnerability? Hope? And this brings me back to ask: who was Jones and what made him snap?

A sample of Jones’ letter below. Links to my AP stories on the shooting: here and here

AP PHOTOS: Happy cows

Gosia Wozniacka AP PHOTOS

This week, I shot photos for an AP story about food label certification. I visited a beef operation run by the Sierra Foothill Conservancy, a non-profit in the Fresno area. Billy Freeman, the group’s herdsman, drove me in his truck up a long, unpaved, extremely bumpy road to the table-top mountain that’s home to a few dozen cows. It is completely flat up there, with vegetation wild and lush, bathed in afternoon sunlight. In a huge open space, the cows wander freely, as if they were wild. It’s calving time in the foothills, so a few calves ambled in the tall grass. The cows are actually there for a reason: were it not for their grazing abilities, a lot of the vegetation and organisms native to California would die out, swallowed by the non-native grass. I want to write an article about that!