By Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Department of English
Shanell Marie Contreras, a graduate student in the Master of Arts program in English at Fresno State, passed away Oct. 21 after a long illness. She was 34.
An educator and literary scholar, Contreras earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State in 2013, double majoring in English and sociology. A native of Porterville, she previously attended Porterville College.
Contreras entered the MA English program in 2016 with an emphasis in literature, and she was scheduled to graduate in May 2022. The English Department faculty will pursue a posthumous MA degree and thesis completion, to honor Contreras and her family.
Dr. Melanie Hernandez, chair of the English Department, said Contreras will be remembered as a dear friend and role model to those who worked with her.
“Shanell’s passion brought vitality to our department,” Hernandez said. “She believed in raising up her community. She cared deeply for those around her, and she touched many lives.”
In the department, Contreras worked as a Teaching Associate for first-year writing; she served twice on the organizing committee for UCMLA, the Undergraduate Conference on Multiethnic Literatures of the Americas; she was on the editorial team for the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry book contest; and she was a member of CWAA, the Chicanx Writers and Artists Association.
Her scholarship focused on Latinx detective novels, Chicana feminism, and social justice in the writing classroom. She has an interview with mystery author Carmen Amato forthcoming for publication in spring 2022.
Contreras presented at the 2018 National Council of Teachers of English conference in Houston, Texas, alongside Dr. Reva E. Sias and fellow graduate students Megan Evans and Isabella Lo. Their panel was entitled, “Writing Student Voice and Rhetorical Agency: Strategies for Writing Cultural, Queer, Behaviorally Disturbed, and Community Identities as Social Justice Counter-Narratives.”
She presented the paper “Curriculum, Language, and Behavior: A Rhetorical Approach to Behavioral Expectations Constructed by Curricula” at the inaugural SESA symposium in 2017. She presented the paper “Finding a Familial Space: Queer Identity and Perpetuation of La Familia in Rigoberto Gonzalez’s Butterfly Boy” at the SESA symposium in 2018.
Her work on the UCMLA committee allowed Conteras to mentor English undergraduate students, as she volunteered multiple times as a panel moderator.
Zachary Contreras remembered his big sister’s passion for working with young writers, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In addition to multiple jobs in food service and bartending, Conteras worked with pride as a substitute teacher and as a mentor to at-risk youth, putting what she learned at Fresno State to work immediately in her community.
“Shanell was really passionate about helping kids,” Zachary Contreras said. “She’d come home with their schoolwork and talk about them. Seeing her work, it was just so selfless. She was always trying to encourage others to do something creative for themselves, to see the brighter side of life.”
“She really cared about others,” he said, “always putting others before herself.”
Zachary Conteras also remembered his sister as a shy free-spirit who liked to travel, especially to the beach; as a dedicated daughter, who often helped their mother with housework and seasonal decorating; and, with a laugh, as “pretty hard headed” — or, in other words, someone who, “once she set her mind to something, she would make it happen,” he said.
Contreras also loved dogs, her brother said. She named her first schnauzer Cooper, and her second schnauzer Winnie, both in honor of the character Gwendolyn “Winnie” Cooper on The Wonder Years, a popular TV show they grew up watching together as siblings.
Her father, Jose Contreras, said his daughter — a first-generation college graduate — was intelligent, hardworking, and compassionate. He called her a “passionate activist” for women’s rights and helping those less fortunate.
“Shanell dedicated her life to her students by teaching them life skills to better their livelihoods and to be functional in society,” Jose Contreras said. “For her family, she was a warm, loving, and giving person, always doing for others without expecting anything in return. We will miss her dearly, and with God’s promise we believe that one day we’ll be together with her again.”
Dr. William Arcé, an associate professor of English, said Contreras was first a student in his English 205 research methods course — the theory course that all MA English students are required to take when starting the program — and she remained his student in one way or another until her passing. He served as her thesis adviser.
Arcé said he could tell many stories about Contreras and her accomplishments. But one of his favorite memories of her came during a mentoring session for her thesis manuscript.
Here’s Arcé, in his own words:
It was February of 2020 and Shanell had come to visit during office hours. That day she walked into my office with her umbrella soaking wet; it had been raining, and she walked across the parking lot for our appointment.
In her purse she carried Carmen Amato’s detective novel, “Cliff Diver,” a murder mystery that takes place in Acapulco, Mexico. She was excited about the book, about the kick-ass heroine of the story, Emilia Cruz. Cruz is a special kind of Chicana detective who is not above baking cookies to befriend an informant, but who will also pistol whip him if he does not cooperate. Shanell was intrigued by her, a character whose behavior ranged from tender to violent, who spoke English and Spanish, who lived in both the U.S. and Mexico.
Cruz inhabited multiple worlds, and so did Shanell. I believe Detective Cruz reminded Shanell of her own “in-betweenness” in life. Shanell was a student but also a teacher, a person who studied in English but came from a Spanish-speaking home, a young woman who tenderly supported her students but who also “punched against the patriarchy” of the education system (her phrase).
That day I inquired about the title of the book, “Cliff Diver.” I asked Shanell if she had ever watched cliff divers from Acapulco perform. She said she knew of them, but that she had never watched the Mexican divers take those death-defying plunges into the ocean waters. I found a video of the divers on YouTube and we both watched in silence as one of the divers stood on the edge of a cliff, raised his hands high above his head, and then jumped over the precipice.
Shanell was mesmerized and stared quietly at the screen. She lit up just then, and she explained how Cruz strategically performs her gender to solve the crime, how Cruz’s gender was, in fact, the detective’s greatest asset. She mentioned different gender theorists she could use for her analysis, then she smiled and concentrated on the raindrops streaming down the office window.
I remember her saying, “I think I have an argument for chapter two of my thesis and much better insight about the entire project.” I remember asking her if she could explain further. She said “no,” that she didn’t have the words yet, but that it had something to do with “a tremendous balancing act.”
That was a very good day.
Shanell Marie Contreras is survived by her parents, Cathy and Jose Contreras; sister, Felicia Bomarito; brother, Zachary Contreras; fiancé, Gerardo “Jerry” Cedillo; and nieces, Nicole Taylor Bomarito and Gianna Bomarito.
A prayer of the rosary is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 15 at Myers Funeral Service, 248 N. E Street in Porterville. Mass is scheduled at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 16 at St. Anne’s Church, 378 N. F Street in Porterville, with a reception to follow.