Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Meet the Sablans, still doctoring in Firebaugh

Wednesday’s front page of the Los Angeles Times brought a familiar story of the Sablans, the husband-wife doctor team that serves Firebaugh. Read Anna Gorman’s profile of Drs. Oscar and Marcia Sablan here.

It’s always nice to see other media write about the central San Joaquin Valley. The Times’ story brought back memories of a profile of Marcia Sablan, written by Doug Hoagland for The Bee in 1999. Sablan was also the mayor of Firebaugh back then (she’s still a City Council member). Doug’s story was part of The Bee’s “Eye on the Valley” series profiling the region’s communities as we rolled toward the millennium.  We though we’d share Doug’s story with readers again:

Fresno Bee staff photographer John Walker’s 1999 photo of Dr. Marcia Sablan with one of her collages of photos of children she’s delivered to local patients.

Golden, late afternoon sunshine softens this town’s rough edges as Marcia Sablan, doctor and mayor, returns to her clinic on O Street after lingering along the river. That would be the San Joaquin. On the edge of town. Where there’s actually more than a dribble of water in the usually dry riverbed. Sablan has been to the San Joaquin to show off how Firebaugh carves pedestrian pathways and vista points — elements of a tranquil riverside park — out of the dirt and brush. The project beats back the small-minded notion that nothing ever changes here. Here being the northwestern lip of Fresno County, where the winter wind can blow hard. But not as hard as the big, billowy idealism that has carried Marcia Sablan across 53 years of life.

That idealism propelled her from the Peace Corps to the urban core to the rural poor of Firebaugh. Sablan serves as one of this city’s two full-time doctors and its only mayor.

She practices a brand of medicinal politics that lets her knit together this community’s private and public moments. Moments that catch people at their most vulnerable, frustrated, appreciative, petty, confused. Times when they’re most human.

For example:

  • Sablan does the ultrasound and delivers the stunning news to city hall secretary Martha Castaneda that she and husband, Santiago, will be the very happy and tired parents of triplets. Sablan feels her own toes tingle with excitement, but then fear knots her stomach. Triplets can lead to medical complications. Happily, mom and babies do just fine.
  • Sablan sits through a City Council hearing where an irate and dramatic citizen says she’ll seek relief from a proposed water rate increase by relieving herself in a jar at home. That way she won’t have to flush her toilet. Questionable logic, Sablan thinks, but she doesn’t argue. Sometimes, people in politics just need to listen, she says later.
  • Sablan visits a bedridden Sara Gonzales, 97, who sometimes confuses Sablan’s husband — the other doctor in town — for the pope. But Gonzales never forgets to press her palms together in prayer-like reverence to bless Dr. Marcia — as some people call her. She feels honored.
  • Sablan casts her City Council vote and ends a simmering controversy that has split the council into two factions. The quarrelsome issue: what to name two new city streets. “An embarrassment, ” Sablan says succinctly.

Through the petty and the profound, Marcia Sablan projects a presence that’s both looming and laid back. She’s 5-foot-10 and stands for even bigger convictions. One of the biggest: helping Firebaugh’s Hispanic majority merge into the middle-class mainstream. In a California culture where new faces seek equality and power, some people feel uncomfortable, even threatened by this white doctor’s brand of politics, says Craig Harrison, a Catholic priest and friend. It’s one of the subtexts of a culture caught in change.

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