The Coachella Valley is a 45 mile-long and 15 mile-wide depression surrounded by the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains to the west and southwest, respectively, and the San Bernardino Mountains to the north. The foul-smelling Salton Sea, an accidental man-made lake, silently asserts its acrid presence southeast of the valley.
The valley itself is dry and often scorching hot. Last summer, for example, the thermostat registered 125 degrees Fahrenheit before the air conditioner rattled hollowly, sputtered and died in my family’s then-home in La Quinta, a town situated almost mid-valley. There are no seasons in this desert, just long periods of unbearable heat with shorter periods of enjoyable warmth. The only visual indicators of seasonal change are the Santa Ana winds sweeping dunes and fire across the basin in October and the purposeful death of golf course grass in preparation for winter’s reseeding.
This is where I was born, where the majority of my family lives, and the place I consider home. The rocky peaks surrounding La Quinta were my safe havens in adolescence. I would hide among the coyote caves and creosote, chase jackrabbits and families of quails, stare down majestic bighorn sheep, and embark on twilight journeys with friends to seek out rumored rock mazes in remote areas of the desolate landscape.
Much of my family’s lore is set in Indio, the town northeast of La Quinta. Here are the streets where my 18-year-old father, a recent Mexican arrival still reeking of cow dung, courted my mother, a sophomore at Indio High School, in 1989.
Indio is home to the carnicerias and panaderias I’ve patronized for decades, the laundromats where my family washed, and the swap meet whose name I misspelled as s-w-a-m-i for three-quarters of my life due to my parents’ elision. Decades ago, my grandmother reigned over the house on King Street, the first residence of the ornery Reyes clan.
Indio is where my mother roasted hot dogs on forks over naked flames for lunch when I was four. The pool into which my father tossed me at age five to teach me how to swim exists somewhere behind a low-slung porch on Miles Avenue. There’s the melancholic Indio Fashion Mall where I licked ice cream cones from Bette’s Ice Cream Parlor, and the street names and architecture inspired by “Arabia” that would make Edward Said roll over in his grave.
In the heart of Indio, you’ll find the Riverside County Fair Grounds where the National Date Festival takes place every February, a tribute to the thriving date industry that is Indio’s raison d’etre: the area produces more than 95% of dates grown in the U.S. Like most county fairs, it’s kitschy, complete with ostrich races, camel rides, and a Queen Scheherazade pageant culling the region’s beauties for a shot at a scholarship and a photograph in belly-dancing garb. There’s a nightly Arabian Nights Musical Pageant in which Ali Baba and the Den of Thieves “explores the true source of happiness – love or money,” leaving everyone wondering if those are the only two options for bliss. The eastern Coachella Valley’s foundational, offhand Orientalism is only just starting to rub people the wrong way. Growing up, I thought nothing of it.
Down the street, more or less, is the site of another festival, this one internationally known and attended. The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, a two-weekend event in April commonly known as “Coachella Fest” or simply “Coachella,” has made April the cruelest month to be a desert rat for as long as I can remember. During my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I lived across the street from the Empire Polo Club, the festival venue. My neighborhood endured hordes of sweaty tourists descending on a usually sleepy, barren part of town to drink and drug themselves into an uninhibited state conducive to non-stop partying. I attended once on a friend’s generously proffered free ticket and immensely enjoyed the acts I pointedly went to see. The years when I could not afford to attend, which was every year, I sat in the flatbed of my dad’s pickup listening to the headliners from half a mile away.
For reasons I don’t entirely understand, I refuse to buy a ticket and go through the whole Coachella ordeal. It may have something to do with the fact that, once the festival attendees leave, the cities of Indio and Coachella seem to be no better off. There is no evidence of the purported $250 million worth of economic impact that local residents can point to as proof that catering to the concert was worth the effort. Perhaps I just don’t like the line-ups.
For tourists, it may be difficult to imagine that a place as calm and pleasant as the Coachella Valley could be complicated, but it is precisely that unexpected complexity that elicits so many emotions.
My feelings for the Coachella Valley extend from its easternmost agricultural end, where the City of Coachella and surrounding unincorporated areas produced $543.7 million worth of crops in 2012, to glitzy Palm Springs, whose celebrity homes are nestled among windmills at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains in the west. They extend from the City of Coachella, whose 42,784 residents have average household incomes of $45,413 and jobs in the agricultural, hospitality and service industries, to Indian Wells, whose 5,081 residents have average household incomes of $140,238 and a world-class tennis stadium.
The Coachella Valley as a whole is about 55.4% percent Hispanic, with 27.9% of the valley’s population between the ages of zero and 19 years old and 29.9% of its population falling into the 55 years and above category. In 2011, of those adults aged 25 and older, only 23.5% had a Bachelor’s or higher degree. The Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, a regional economic development organization for which I interned, has good intentions to attract businesses from industry clusters as varied as arts and entertainment, advanced technology, and healthcare. These efforts, however, are undermined by the desert’s demographic realities: when 46.6% of the valley’s adults stop their education at high school or less, there is no workforce sufficiently skilled to fill the positions CVEP’s business developers envision. And though the region is making significant progress in increasing the quality of human capital through its Regional Plan for College and Career Readiness, CVEP is the first to admit that even as the number of degree holders increases, the number of residents aged 18 to 54 attending school is declining. Most efforts for improvement, additionally, seem to be concentrated in the western Coachella Valley.
In almost every case where the eastern Coachella Valley vies for consideration, it is overshadowed by its glamorous western half, whose praises are sung explicitly and with gusto. One notable media exception is Coachella Unincorporated, a youth journalism platform in the East Coachella Valley that performs an admirable job of giving voice to the chronically voiceless denizens of the region’s unincorporated areas.
Elsewhere, the approach is more distorted. For example, in the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership’s annual Vision collaboration with Palm Springs Life, a lifestyle magazine, the City of Coachella is framed as a small town with “big-city advantages.”
These “big-city advantages” are a ploy to entice investors to the area. Realistically speaking, the City of Coachella has no “big-city advantages,” unless you consider the city’s low-income, Hispanic, largely immigrant population a “big-city advantage.” This designation would sort of make sense, as low-wage immigrant labor historically flocked to urban centers, ready to be exploited by moneyed businessmen. Perhaps the implication is that this exploitation could happen in the desert as well — as if that wasn’t already the case.
Exploitation is certainly the case in the communities and towns that Palm Springs Life does not profile. The Duros and Chicanitas trailer camps, located in the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Reservation, were home to between 2,000 and 5,000 indigenous migrant P’urhépecha in 2011. To say that this community lives in poverty is an understatement: for these residents, wages are as low as $7 an hour. This indigenous community remains largely unassimilated, with most residents speaking neither English nor Spanish but Tarasco, a language from the highlands of Michoacan, Mexico. My aunts, who are nurses at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Indio, have on more than one occasion served as inadequate translators for uninsured P’urhépecha seeking emergency medical attention, using the little Tarasco my P’urhépecha great grandmother taught them as children in Michoacan. The majority of Coachella Valley residents are unaware of this migrant indigenous community’s existence at the peripheries of the region.
Thermal and Mecca are two other unincorporated villages chronically underrepresented in local media. These towns’ designation within the now defunct Coachella Valley Enterprise Zone granted the towns’ marginalized residents little benefit in terms of improved living conditions. For instance, a short drive from where Coachella-goers willingly imbibe dangerous amounts of phencyclidine so that my aunts have to wrestle them into submission and prevent overdose-related death, poverty-stricken residents imbibe arsenic-laced water and are flooded by lakes of their own sewage.
“The County of Riverside has responded, trying to do the best we can to make living conditions acceptable in that area,” said John J. Benoit, a Supervisor for the Country of Riverside. “Now, they are shocking conditions and they are conditions that we’re certainly not proud of. Government can’t change it overnight.” Benoit’s signature has graced government documents since 2002, when he served on the California State Assembly. Government certainly can’t change conditions overnight, but Benoit has had 12 years to make a change, and it’s doubtful that the conditions are any less shameful than they were in 2002.
But even though the Coachella Valley is deeply unequal and rife with poverty, the desert occupies a tender spot in my heart that I nurture through the stressful months of university life.
When my great grandfather first picked crops in Brawley and El Centro as a bracero in the 1950’s, he could never have imagined that, three decades later, his children and grandchildren would travel from Michoacan, Mexico to the Coachella Valley, 80 miles northwest of El Centro, to labor in the fields as he did. I grant sentimental space to members of my extended family who, over 50 years after the patriarch first arrived to pick beets, make their livelihoods by picking produce still. Others work on golf courses, in hotels and country clubs, as servers, retail employees, health care providers, air-conditioning repairmen, and self-employed carpet cleaners.
The Coachella valley is home to rich golf-playing retirees and the poorest of the poor. It is the winter playground of the Hollywood elite and year-long residence of those who cannot afford to leave and can barely afford to stay. Somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, and 500 miles away, there’s me.