Dec 10, 2013
On Edge of Paradise, Coachella Workers Live in Grim Conditions
Posted on Nov 2, 2011
By Patricia Leigh Brown
‘It’s just the poor and the rich’
For those growing up in the Eastern Coachella Valley’s mobile home parks, though, there is precious little difference between the kind of environmental crises that bring headlines and TV cameras and the hundreds of dangers and indignities that define everyday life.
Yanet Villicana, now a 20-year-old college student, lives with her farm-worker parents and five younger sisters in a peach-brown metal trailer seemingly held together by will.
She walks the dirt streets of her childhood home, the Lawson Mobile Home Park—a squalid city of about 400 trailers on Torres-Martinez land—to take the county bus to college in Palm Springs. It’s a grueling two-hour journey one way.
“It’s really sad when we go through the wealthy parts,” said Villicana, a psychology major who picks grapes in the fields during the summer to pay for braces and school. “It’s like the bus goes through all the poor sections first, then out of nowhere there are a bunch of huge houses and beautiful sights. It’s sad, because there’s really nothing in between. It’s just the poor and the rich.”
When the bus returns late at night, she is afraid to walk the park’s nameless pitch-black dirt lanes because there are no lights. Electricity charges are determined by the landlord, who reads the meters, so rent during the sweltering swamp-cooler summer can run as high as $700 a month.
“There’s nothing here,” Villicana said. “No community center. No parks.”
What is here, said Cecilia Cote, who works as a health promotora for the nonprofit Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo, are families living 15 to a trailer. Children are exposed to fleas from roaming dogs, open sewers or septic breaches, and overcrowded restrooms. Grape stakes salvaged from abandoned fields are used as kindling for warm baths and cooking.
Dr. Raul Ruiz, an emergency physician at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage and an associate dean at the UC Riverside School of Medicine, launched the Coachella Valley Healthcare Initiative last year. Ruiz, the son of farm workers who holds three degrees from Harvard University, considers the trailer parks “a public health nightmare.”
At the Rancho Garcia Mobile Home Park, Fatima Gutierrez sweeps rat droppings, changes the traps, bleaches the walls with a dish scrubber and climbs a ladder during rainy season to seal the roof with a plastic tarp, usually futilely.
Dr. Kenneth Russ, a physician in Palm Springs who has consulted with mobile home park residents, said the combination of substandard housing, air pollution, exposure to hazardous waste and poor nutrition “can be physically and emotionally traumatic, especially for children.”
Until recently, when the Riverside County Department of Environmental Health stepped in, the Rancho Garcia park had an open fly-infested sewage pit. Raw sewage seeped into streets and yards.
Leonard Garcia, whose father, Miguel, started the park as a labor camp, suggested that residents’ habits were to blame for some of the problems, including the sewage.
“It could be a plugged line, even in their own trailer,” he explained. “Sometimes, it’s a Pamper. Sometimes, it’s a buildup of lard. Or toys. Believe me, you don’t want to know what we’ve seen in these things.”
Conditions at Rancho Garcia are more acute than at many other parks. According to the state’s esoteric mobile home park laws, park owners are responsible for infrastructure and for providing a decent living environment that will protect homeowners’ investments. (Ninety-five percent of area residents own their mobile homes.) If a park closes, those living in rickety hand-me-downs that are too fragile to move are particularly vulnerable.
“Effectively, you lose a piece of property and your shelter,” explained Megan Beaman, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance in Coachella.
Riverside County has 121 unpermitted parks and a few dozen legal ones, said Bob Lyman, regional manager for the county’s Transportation & Land Management Agency. In addition, there are five major parks and more than 100 smaller ones on Torres-Martinez land, all outside the reach of county inspectors.
These tribal mobile home park residents have little legal recourse against punitive practices by owners, such as unlawful evictions or “the electricity being shut off if they are a day behind on rent,” said Arturo Rodriguez, directing attorney for the Coachella California Rural Legal Assistance Migrant Farmworker Project.
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