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Amid California’s toxic dumps, local activists go it alone

They call themselves promotores, and they’re starting to see results.

One warm spring day a year ago, Griselda Barrera, a Mexican-born mother of three, went to a middle school auditorium in Thermal, California, an unincorporated community in the desert east of Los Angeles, to square off against a panel of regulators. Barrera, who is just 5 feet tall, wore a black pencil skirt and platform pumps, the kind of shoes she favors now that she no longer works in the fields. She was flanked by mothers like herself, there to give public comment to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

At issue was persistent air pollution. Since 2010, the agency had responded to over 215 complaints about unpleasant odors in the nearby community of Mecca — smells that at times were so sickening that teachers and students called paramedics. Barrera waited patiently, microphone in hand, as regulators laid out their plans to help the school districts replace their old diesel school buses and install air filtration systems in the classrooms. When her turn came, she addressed the panel confidently in Spanish through an interpreter.

 

“There are so many needs in this community, it’s hard to know where to even begin,” she said. “Kids out here have to play on the street because there aren’t enough playgrounds. We have working-class families paying as much as $650 a month for water, gas and garbage pickup because we have no municipal services.” Instead of investing in cleaner school buses, said Barrera, the county and state regulators should be doing more for local communities right where they live, too.

Riverside County Supervisor John J. Benoit replied that he was invested in cleaning up air pollution for the entire Eastern Coachella Valley, as well as protecting the local economy and jobs. “It is not always the county’s fault,” he said, expecting the kind of criticism he had gotten at public hearings before.

Barrera then passed her microphone to Noemí Castellanos, who was evicted from her trailer after she complained about living conditions; to Emma García, who described her granddaughter’s first asthma attack and how she had to drive for 30 minutes to get to the nearest hospital; and to Rita Galindo, who told the room: “The agricultural companies out here act like they own the place. They don’t tell us anything about the impact of their pesticides.”

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After the two-hour meeting ended, Barrera was visibly frustrated by the lack of concrete action. She strode across the room, shaking hands and making plans with the other women, all Mexican former farmworkers in their 30s and 40s. “I’m tired of the agencies that come here asking us to bring people from the community as an audience for their presentations,” Barrera told me as she made her way out of the auditorium. “We have no idea what they do with the information we give them. Nothing changes.”

In 1994, Barrera came to the U.S. from Mexico with her family and moved into one of the most derelict mobile home parks in the Eastern Coachella Valley, a collection of unincorporated towns amid desert and agricultural fields. Like most migrants, Barrera got her first job picking grapes. Then she graduated to harvesting chiles and doing temporary seasonal farm work up and down the state.

[RELATED:http://www.hcn.org/articles/letter-from-california-agriculture-the-women-confronting-californias-farm-conditions]

Even as she worked long days in the field, Barrera hoped to one day become a promotora in the Mexican tradition: A self-taught community advocate who goes door-to-door to dish out basic health and environmental education — and a good dose of activist know-how — to her neighbors.

Eastern Coachella Valley migrants like Barrera power a highly profitable agricultural region, but they live at the center of environmental ruin. Workers deal with an unrelenting list of health threats, from substandard housing to pesticide pollution, hazardous waste and water contamination. Promotoras have become increasingly involved in dealing with urgent local issues on this side of the border — the unending problems that endanger migrant communities. But in the Coachella Valley, the promotoras and their allies are starting to see their efforts bear fruit.

A Mexican flag waves in front of a home at the Rancho García Mobile Home Park in Thermal, California. In 2012, residents of the park sued the owner for neglecting sewage and electrical problems for years — and won. In the Eastern Coachella Valley, there are some 400 unregistered mobile home parks, mostly inhabited by low-income, often undocumented, laborers working in agriculture and construction. (2016)
Roberto Guerra

The most notorious monument to the valley’s environmental injustices is still visible: Lawson Dump, once a 50-foot-high man-made mesa, the size of a five-story building, considered “the largest toxic dump in California.” The illegal dump is a 30-minute drive from Palm Springs and a short walk from the middle school in Thermal. I’ve been reporting on it since 2010, when I made my first trip out there, to meet another promotor named Eduardo Guevara. At that time, a federal judge had already ordered the dump’s closure, alongside a pending cleanup with a huge $42.8 million price tag to be paid by the dump operators.

Guevara and I headed out there on a spring afternoon, under a punishing desert sun. We parked a short walk away, hoping to avoid drawing attention. The dump, which sits on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation, was supposed to be off-limits. “STAY OUT,” proclaimed a handwritten sign in bold red letters. “Call 397-6318 if you smell odor.” When I dialed, my call was forwarded to the answering machine at the reservation office.

The stench was overwhelming, coating our nostrils and throats and making it difficult to breathe. Feeling nauseated, I could almost taste each particle in the toxic mix: Wood ash, incinerated household trash, and otherwise-recyclable cans, plastics and electronic waste — spread across a massive dump site that had been building up since sometime in the 1990s, when the tribe began to lease land to waste companies eager to cut down on disposal costs. Since tribal lands are exempt from county code enforcement, the problem grew — grew, literally, upwards and aboveground — and went undetected for years. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the site contained dangerous amounts of arsenic, PCBs, asbestos, dioxin and other toxic materials. It sits only three miles from the middle school in Thermal; in fact, Lawson Dump and its harmful emissions were among the myriad environmental problems that prompted the meeting Barrera and other worried mothers attended last year.

A hand-written sign warns Duroville mobile home park residents in Thermal, California, to stay away from a waste pond on the neighboring property. On the far side of the pond is Lawson Dump, now closed by the EPA because it contained dangerous amounts of arsenic, PCBs, asbestos, dioxin and other toxic materials. (2010)
Roberto Guerra

As we walked along the “ground” — fill dirt covering the trash — smoke rose out of long cracks, as if from the smoldering flanks of a volcano. The dump, though, was a man-made disaster, and a stubborn one. The site was shut in 2006, and it is still technically closed, though it has remained for years a major source of air pollution. Since its closure, more than 20 fires have spontaneously ignited, and nine firefighters have been injured putting them out. We stood there in the heat, gazing across the massive earthen and garbage mesa, noxious smoke rising from below. Then we felt the dirt shift and start to give under our feet, and we got out of there.

For two years, Guevara had little choice but to live next door to the dump. When he came to the U.S. from northern Mexico, he and his family shared a trailer in Duroville, a mobile home park also located on Torres Martinez land. Like many others before them, they moved to California’s Eastern Coachella Valley in search of seasonal work. They heard about Duroville by word of mouth: Housing there was available and cheap, $200 a month, and close to the fields.

Without paved roads or garbage pickup, the trailer park was in a deplorable state. And it was overcrowded — at one point, up to 4,000 people occupied some 500 trailers across the 40-acre site. The residents knew little of the health risks the dump presented. “This is where nearby farms disposed of grape stakes covered in pesticides — where people discarded their old cellphones and computers,” Guevara told me as we drove away from the dump. “We knew people burned trash here, but we didn’t know it was that bad.”

Guevara was a church-going family man, stocky, with a wary smile. He worked two administrative jobs to support his wife and teenage boy. When the sun went down, he drove to the nearby College of the Desert to attend classes toward a bachelor’s degree in business. Once he learned about the environmental conditions in the mobile park and beyond, Guevara did what most people in his situation would do. First, he reached out to the tribal members running the trailer park office, but there was no response. Then he tried to join a local group demanding better conditions. (He ended up having to create his own, Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto.) Finally, he contacted a couple of county officials, who told him they were “working on it.” Before long, he realized that not only had there been no research on the possible health impacts of Lawson Dump and the living conditions at Duroville; there seemed to be little interest in remediating the problems — no outrage beyond his own.

Over the years, local activists like Guevara have tried to draw attention to their plight. They knew they weren’t the only low-income Latino farmworking community in California that suffered disproportionately from environmental hazards. North of Coachella, in the San Joaquin Valley town of Kettleman City, people began noticing an unusual number of birth defects among babies born to local women. Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, surveyed about 200 residents and found a high incidence of abnormalities that they linked to emissions from Chemical Waste Management Inc., a nearby industrial hazardous waste facility. Years would pass before qualified medical experts and state agencies addressed Kettleman City. Even then, they couldn’t pin down the culprit: The evidence collected in the town of 1,500 people wasn’t extensive enough to support epidemiological statistics, and there was no reliable scientific method that enabled researchers to identify the health impacts of a particular mix of substances. In other words, there simply wasn’t enough evidence to blame the waste facility for the birth defects; the afflictions could have been caused by a complicated combination of factors.

“We were surrounded by people with respiratory problems,” Guevara told me. His wife had suffered from severe asthma since their arrival at Duroville. “Maybe researchers couldn’t link the asthma directly to the dumps, but it’s a big coincidence for a community that has been living next to a burning open-air dump for years, don’t you think?”

The investigation of disease clusters — such as the higher incidence of respiratory problems found throughout much of the Eastern Coachella Valley — remains controversial in public health circles. Up until now, very little basic research has been done in these communities, and there is no scientific evidence to link the plant to the area’s health problems.

Consequently, remote places like Duroville, two hours from the nearest city, and the wider unincorporated region of the Eastern Coachella Valley suffer greatly from poor policy and general neglect. And that means people like Guevara and Barrera have had to learn how to advocate for their communities. In doing this, they have followed and improved upon a long tradition in California and other states along the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands.

Activist Eduardo Guevara takes a picture inside Lawson Dump as smoke rises from a fire smoldering belowground. Although it was ordered closed in 2006, underground fires continued to burn for years afterward, and residents of nearby mobile home parks continued to complain about noxious odors and possible contamination. (2010)
Roberto Guerra

It was not by chance that local residents like Guevara, who mostly came from Mexico and Central America, put down roots in the Eastern Coachella Valley. After all, this was an area where they could find steady work. But their decision to stay and raise children here meant that they would have to take on a uniquely long fight for environmental justice.

The work these men and women do powers the agricultural industry, but the industry pays meager wages in return. Philip Martin, a labor economist at the University of California at Davis, estimates about 30 percent of the money Americans pay for produce goes to the grower, while 10 percent goes to the farmworker. In other words, for every $1 you spend at the market, a worker is likely to take home 10 cents. That adds up to about $15,000 to $17,000 per year, per worker.

That’s why so many farmworkers endure substandard, environmentally unsafe living conditions in mobile home parks like Duroville. Or why, at the height of the harvest, four men sometimes share a single room for months, or, worse still, live out of their cars.

Low wages also take a toll on the health of migrants. In 2010, county health records indicate only one primary care physician per every 8,400 residents in the Eastern Coachella Valley, coupled with a 30 percent uninsured rate among patients. Local clinics report higher rates of diabetes and asthma, particularly among young children. Guevara’s own family epitomizes this, with his sister’s kidney disease, his wife’s asthma and his own diabetes.

“Be angry about injustice!” activist Dolores Huerta famously said. Huerta, a major role model for U.S. farmworkers, grew up poor in California’s San Joaquín Valley. She became an activist during the civil rights era, setting up voter registration drives and lobbying politicians to improve the economic conditions of farmworkers. As the founders of the United Farm Workers, Huerta and César Chávez organized a successful strike of Coachella Valley grape growers in 1965, with Huerta negotiating the contracts. Within five years, the United Farm Workers would sign a historic agreement with 26 area farms that reduced pesticide exposure and introduced basic unemployment and health benefits for workers.

But now, more than half a century later, Huerta’s work has faltered. Wage theft and child labor are illegal, yet common: Nine in 10 farmworkers report not being paid for overtime, and an estimated 400,000 children under 18 work in the fields. And farming has become one of the deadliest jobs in America: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, farmworkers die on the job twice as often as police officers.

Eduardo Guevara stands at the entrance to the Duroville mobile home park in 2010. He and his family lived in a dilapidated trailer here for about a year, leading him to become an activist and environmental justice advocate, and founder of Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto. (2010)
Roberto Guerra

As a former laborer no longer afraid to speak up, Griselda Barrera chose to follow in Huerta’s footsteps. After the meeting at Toro Canyon Middle School in Thermal, I asked her if I could speak with her family. Barrera feels a strong sense of responsibility for her community and its problems. “First, please promise me one thing,” she said. “Please tell me you won’t write a story about how poor we are, how we can’t help ourselves.” The last time she saw the Eastern Coachella Valley featured on the TV news, it carried the headline “The Face of Poverty,” she said. People were upset by the label and vowed not to speak to journalists again.

We agreed to meet at 9 a.m. in Mecca, where, on May Day, it was already 105 degrees outside. I climbed in her car, and Barrera drove us past light-green lettuce fields, where workers had been hunched over since 4 that morning, and past the Coachella Canal, which brings water from the Colorado River to irrigate the desert.

“I’m taking you to the new Duroville,” Barrera told me. We pulled into a brand-new housing development only six miles away from the old ramshackle mobile park. Mountain View Estates had brand-new homes and an athletic field, green spaces, paved roads, a community center, and basic water and electricity infrastructure. In 2009, Duroville was ordered shut down by a U.S. district judge. As a result of resident complaints and promotora activism, the county created the new mobile home development, a $28 million public-private development, as a refuge for the hundreds of people pushed out of the old, crowded site.

Barrera took me inside one of the new homes, this one belonging to her former husband, Samuel. From the outside, the mobile trailer looked like any other single-family home — a white picket fence, a small front yard, a carport over on the side. Samuel was out working in the lettuce fields, but his daughter-in-law, Mary Marroquín, sat on the couch holding her newborn child, Sammary, and keeping an eye on 1-year-old Sofia, who ran around the living room, trying to get her attention.

“I was 15 when my dad brought our family here from El Salvador, and I found Duroville so depressing,” Marroquín, who looks barely older than 20, told me. “What we have here is totally different. We don’t have to deal with raw sewage or burning trash.” But rent is high: A two-bedroom trailer rents for $800 in an area where the average family income is just over $25,000 a year.

Maria Garcia has been living in the same trailer home in San Antonio del Desierto since 1968. With the help of Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation, or PUCDC, she’s applying for a government grant to fix her leaky roof. (2016)
Roberto Guerra

Marroquín had married Samuel Jr., Barrera’s son, in 2015. Now, the couple and their two kids shared a room in the trailer. They pay $250 a month, and they hope to save enough money to eventually get a trailer of their own. Samuel works in construction, and until she had Sammary, Marroquín worked in housekeeping or harvesting chiles.

That’s the easiest job you can get out here, she said. It’s typical for young people to finish high school and head straight to the fields. “The first time I worked in a farm, I cried all night,” she said. “By the third day, I’d gotten the hang of it. People can only last so long, because the work is horrible: You’re constantly running around and crouching over in the suffocating heat. I suffered from blurry eyes and diarrhea all the time.”

For young people like her, there are few options in the Coachella Valley beyond informal labor. Barrera’s 20-year-old son, Miguel, who sat with us in the trailer, was a sophomore in a nearby community college. He’d recently taken a part-time job at a fast food restaurant and had told his mother he was considering dropping out. Barrera, wearing a wine-colored sleeveless shirt and her signature high heels, listened stoically on the other side of the living room. “My mom had told us not to do the same thing as she did,” Miguel said, avoiding her gaze. “She told us to go to college. But here we are. We did the same thing she did.”

Her children did not seem to realize that Barrera had moved on from her past in more ways than just the obvious ones — going back to school and ending her marriage. “The reason I got divorced was because I stopped thinking of myself only as a mother,” she told me later, back in her car. “I left the house more and got out of the fields. I wanted to learn, so I talked to as many people as I could, asking them questions about what they were experiencing in our community.” The more Barrera uncovered about the environmental and health conditions in the Coachella Valley — the high rates of asthma, hunger and diabetes — the more she realized that her family suffered from similar burdens, too. She couldn’t be complacent, she said, and she knew she couldn’t just stay at home with her kids. “Now I am conscious of what goes on around me,” she said, her voice a mixture of self-assurance and regret.

As a promotora, Barrera often goes door-to-door on behalf of researchers at one of the handful of academic institutions working in the area. The research work doesn’t pay much, around minimum wage, but it brings her into family homes where she gets to discuss everything from immigrants’ mental health to how local moms deliver their babies. Ultimately, the experience motivated Barrera to start her own community health nonprofit — the first such promotora-led and staffed effort in the Eastern Coachella Valley. It would allow her to raise money directly from foundations, and she has already started to recruit a board of directors.

“I’d like it to be made up entirely of other promotoras, like myself,” she said, “by women who are out there already, signing up their neighbors for Medicaid, or volunteering during get-out-the-vote drives.” The Coachella region has long depended on outside organizations to try to solve local problems, but Barrera would like to change this. “Now is as good a time as any other for people to start owning up to this place.”

 

Roberto Méndez is San Antonio del Desierto’s handyman. He and his family moved here in 1988, back when he harvested grapes and paid only $85 a month for his trailer. (2016)
Roberto Guerra

Real change, of course, takes time. And when it comes to environmental injustice, it requires credible data, typically gathered by government agencies or academic institutions. An hour away at Loma Linda University, Ryan Sinclair, an assistant professor at the School of Public Health, has helped lead that effort, supporting the promotoras with data collection.

A tall and slender man, Sinclair can often be seen wearing his signature white lab coat. He grew up in nearby Desert Hot Springs, where he occasionally heard about the farmworker communities a few miles east of his home. His mom’s job as a foreclosure inspector took her to properties where she sometimes met the people who were being evicted from them. The towns of Thermal and Mecca, in particular, she told Sinclair, were “not a place you’d want to go.” Thinking back, Sinclair said he believes this was due to the fact that whites feared the largely misunderstood, working-class Mexican farmworking towns a short drive away. “I remember playing outside in the heat and having a swamp cooler and a septic tank,” he said. “It turns out we lived a lot like them. But we didn’t visit those communities; we had no clue that’s where all our food came from.”

Alongside promotoras, including Barrera, Sinclair has contributed data to an ongoing assessment of the quality-of-life issues affecting farmworkers — from air quality to electrical infrastructure, waste disposal and water management.

“There’s so much going out there,” he told me. “How is the local population supposed to prioritize? The odors, the particulates in the air, or the arsenic in the water? Or should it be the organic smell from the electric generation plant? The heat?”

Sinclair believes there is one under-reported issue that needs to be first on the list: sewage. The extent of the problem is not fully known, but Sinclair said every single one of the seven major mobile home parks he has visited deals with wastewater contamination.

“Wastewater flowing in open trenches of the Eastern Coachella Valley is equivalent to a public health standard common in the early 1900s,” Sinclair wrote in a recent paper, referring to a time when poor sanitation made typhoid and cholera relatively common. There have been no recent outbreaks in the Coachella area, Sinclair told me, but that doesn’t mean the conditions for disease don’t exist.

Duroville had notoriously bad sewage problems. Just down the road in Thermal, at the Rancho García Mobile Home Park, sewage contamination was a common occurrence, too. Sinclair agreed to take me on a research trip there, so in September last year we headed out to tour a few of the mobile parks he has been visiting over the past few years.

Guard dogs look out from within the fence that stands between Duroville mobile park and Lawson Dump, both now closed. (2010)
Roberto Guerra

Guard dogs barked incessantly from behind fences as we made our way into the compound, home to around 50 people. A couple of trailers sat abandoned, and between them, Sinclair found a spot where the previous tenants had built a makeshift cesspool, now covered by a moldy plank of wood. The dirt around it had turned into mud since the last time it overflowed, he said, as he put on surgical gloves to take a sample for the lab.

“Typically, mobile park residents will build their own cesspools, like this one, going down 8 feet into the ground,” he said. “But no one ever takes the sewage out, so it is bound to overflow.” And when it does, it is of course a major health hazard for the residents, their neighbors and the underground water that ends up in nearby irrigation systems and beyond.

A couple of trailers down, María Beltrán stood outside her trailer with a toddler propped on her hip. She invited us in, showing us the tank next to her home and the system her husband rigged, with pipes coming out from an opening on the floor and snaking around the back of her house.

“I spray it with fresh water every day and then take the extra sewage out with the pump. I can’t afford to let the cesspool fill up — there are five of us living here.” The sewage that Beltrán pumps out from under her trailer ends up on the edge of a large agricultural field next door, or on the dirt road in front of the complex. “What else are we supposed to do?” she said. “We have no municipal services here.” It would cost Rancho García $2.75 million to connect the mobile homes to county sewage and water lines.

In an ideal world, Riverside County or the Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians would maintain the water management infrastructure on the residents’ homes. Since 2010, I have tried, unsuccessfully, to speak to tribal leaders regarding these allegations — running unregulated housing or waste disposal businesses on their reservation. But the story is complicated: Unlike other, wealthier Southern California tribes, the Torres Martinez have no shopping outlets or luxury hotels to profit from. But they do have land — 24,000 acres. As the area’s need for housing and industry has grown, some tribal members saw economic opportunity in managing mobile home and trash disposal ventures. According to the EPA’s Office of Inspector General, there were 600 illegal dumps across California, Nevada and Arizona in 1994. Now there are an estimated 1,000.

“Illegal waste dumping is bigger than the tribe; we need to get this monster under control,” Torres Martinez Tribal Chairman Raymond Torres told the EPA, which in 2003 sued the tribe and ordered it to pay for the cleanup of Lawson Dump. Since the EPA lawsuit, the tribe has made an effort to close other smaller dumps on its land and conducted public education programs on the impacts of dumping.

The county of Riverside and the state of California finally turned their attention to housing conditions in 2000, recommending an infusion of money to upgrade the unlicensed mobile home parks. But $40 million in public funding managed to cover only half of the cost of getting the trailer parks up to code. In 2012, California’s Redevelopment Program was terminated, leaving the county without the money it needed to rehabilitate farmworker housing across the Valley.

Rather than wait for the county, the tribes or the employing farms to respond, Barrera, Sinclair and others have championed homegrown answers, such as the Eastern Coachella Valley Environmental Justice Taskforce. The task force is made up of community-based groups, including Guevara’s Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto, alongside academic partners and government representatives, like Cal/EPA and the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. It meets on the third Wednesday of each month, welcoming questions or complaints in an effort to generate a lot of the missing data they will ultimately need to find solutions.

As a first step, the group is crowdsourcing citizen science by training local high school students to use smartphones to document and map their communities’ environmental health risks. The reports — on everything from illegal dump fires to sewage spills and odor alerts — appear online almost in real time. “Illegal dumping of tires in Mecca: Avenue 64 and Dale Kiler, about 100-200 tires,” reads one eyewitness report. These reports, which are shared with the promotoras, are a topic of discussion and action at the monthly community meetings held at a couple of the trailer parks. “We are trusted in our communities because we are from here and we are always educating ourselves on what people need and want,” Barrera said, addressing the need for more tech-savvy advocates. “Promotoras want to change the system.”

 

An old billboard stands at the edge of the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation, discouraging people from dumping trash there. The surrounding Southern California desert is a patchwork of tribal, private agricultural and public lands. (2010)
Roberto Guerra

The promotoras are slowly doing just that. But with so many challenges to tackle and so little outside help, improvements come in increments. One small success story is the San Antonio del Desierto mobile home park on Grapefruit Boulevard in Mecca, next door to the lettuce fields where most of its residents work. From the outside, the trailer park looks like all the others: Chain-link fences demarcate the edge, a few citrus trees provide much-needed shade. What isn’t immediately noticeable is its reverse osmosis water filtration system, designed to lower arsenic levels in drinking water, or the new sewer-lift station, which can handle 4,600 gallons of wastewater per day.

It would have cost the mobile home park $3 million to connect to a pipeline for sewage and another $2.5 million to hook up to the main water pipeline from the municipal system. Instead, the park’s current manager, Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation, or PUCDC, raised $300,000 from foundations and state grants to drill its own well and develop a pilot filtration system.

“It makes sense to invest in projects to beautify — I’m all for that, and we do it when we can,” says Sergio Carranza, PUCDC’s executive director. Carranza is a Salvadoran immigrant with a background in community organizing in his native country. “But you also can’t forget about these kinds of projects that the eye can’t see.” Two decades ago, Carranza fled the gang violence that followed El Salvador’s civil war and landed in Indio, a city near Mecca. During the day, he worked in manufacturing, while on weekends, he attended Mass with other Spanish-speakers in the Eastern Coachella Valley. That’s how he became something of a promotor: going door to door on behalf of his church, trying to get people to vote or organizing for better working conditions in the fields.

Two decades ago, Sergio Carranza fled gang violence in El Salvador and landed in the Eastern Coachella Valley. Now he directs Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation, and works to improve rural infrastructure where farmworkers live, increase their access to clean water, and organize them to take action against negligent mobile home park owners. (2016)
Roberto Guerra

An outsider to daily life in the trailer parks, Carranza soon realized that the residents themselves had to become fully invested in their living conditions, despite working numerous low-paying jobs and having little time or energy to volunteer for the collective good. “We needed to build capacity among the members of these communities,” he told me as we drove into San Antonio del Desierto, waving hello to residents gathered on their stoops. “The government agencies don’t care about people being involved or not; they’re not there to organize.”

Since taking over management of the trailer park in 2012, PUCDC has made community organizing an important part of life inside San Antonio del Desierto. Once a week, residents and promotoras are given technical assistance on basic infrastructure: sewage treatment, water filtration, domestic water distribution and electricity. Everyone is encouraged to speak up on environmental issues beyond conditions at home, and they are asked to pitch in with labor and knowhow in other projects, too. Working alongside Sinclair and his team of student researchers, PUCDC is also collecting data related to their infrastructure improvements, which, in turn, has proven useful when trying to engage their residents.

“We’re not organizers,” Carranza said. “But we can help the community figure out what it needs so we find ways to implement the necessary changes. The difference is that now some of the residents are becoming watchdogs.”

Roberto Méndez, San Antonio del Desierto’s handyman, is one of those unsung watchdogs. Wearing a sweaty T-shirt and a wide-brimmed straw hat, he’d spent the morning on the roof of the mobile park office, helping technicians with a solar installation. He has also helped install the water filtration system and taught himself — and many of his neighbors —how to hook up to the new sewer-lift station. “I was interested in this job because it allowed me to become more involved in the place I call home,” he said. He and his family moved here in 1988, back when he harvested grapes and paid only $85 a month for his trailer. In those days, the mobile home park functioned precariously: Sewage overflowed constantly; the lights would go out throughout the day; the water was a cloudy brown color straight out of the faucet.

The Coachella Canal, an offshoot of the All-American Canal, is a concrete-lined irrigation channel bringing water for agriculture to the entire Coachella Valley. (2016)
Roberto Guerra

Conditions were so bad that the county threatened to shut down the park. Almost 100 residents faced a fate similar to Duroville’s back in 2009. Back then, amid the slum-like conditions at home and the unaddressed reports of toxic emissions beyond, Méndez thought there wasn’t much he could do, other than complain. So he did, time and time again, to no avail.

But then, perhaps five or six years ago, Méndez noticed a shift. He saw how his neighbor, Guadalupe Rosales, formed a homegrown residents’ association she called “La Unión Hace la Fuerza” (Unity Is Strength), a group that would later join the Eastern Coachella Valley Environmental Justice Taskforce. At the nearby Rancho García trailer park, he heard that 34 current and former residents had sued the private park manager in 2012 over poor infrastructure and maintenance — and won. Méndez himself got more involved, evangelizing to his fellow residents about the importance of pitching in to labor for San Antonio del Desierto’s small, and often invisible, water and sewage infrastructure projects.

Most recently, he has seen something people thought would never happen even though they’d fought for it for many years: paved roads, connecting a total 39 local trailer parks. In their Duroville years, residents like Guevara and Barrera had to breathe in clouds of dust when cars drove by. On rainy days, their own vehicles got stuck in the mud, and their children played outside near overflowing cesspools. The $5 million infrastructure project finally materialized earlier this year by way of air-quality mitigation fees from a nearby natural gas-powered electricity generation plant — funds that the residents demanded be used to that end. “You wouldn’t think that a newly paved road is good for health,” Méndez said, chuckling. “But now I see my neighbors walking and exercising outside like I’d never seen them before.”

As a maintenance man, Méndez is always fielding calls from residents, though not as often as he did a decade ago. “Some people may still complain about life here because they want things to happen from one day to another,” he says, as he makes his way to a neighbor’s trailer to help her fix her swamp cooler. “Maybe they don’t realize how far we’ve come — that we’re just at the beginning of a long process.”

Contributing Editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Los Angeles, California.

Reporting for this story was supported by the HCN/PLAYA Diverse Western Voices Award.