THERMAL, CA - Stretching from the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains to the north shore of the Salton Sea, the Coachella Valley is one of the oldest and most fertile agricultural areas in California. It was in this valley's grape fields in 1965 where Filipino farm workers walked out on strike, leading eventually to the formation of the United Farm Workers. Yet today, hardly any Filipinos are left in these fields, and much of the work they did half a century ago - picking grapes and lemons and cutting lettuce - is now performed by indigenous migrants, like the P’urhépecha from Michoacan, Mexico.
Many of the valley’s P’urhépecha live in Duros and Chicanitas, two trailer camps situated on a small reservation that is also home to several hundred members of the Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian tribe, who refer to themselves as Mau-Wal-Mah Su-Kutt Menyil, or Deer Moon Among the Palms. But the reservation is now home to a far larger number of P’urhépecha, where over 2,000 now live in the two camps, and the number of migrants on the reservation rises to over 5,000 during the peak of harvest season.
Most residents of Duros and Chicanitas don't speak English or Spanish, but a language that was already centuries old when Columbus arrived in the Americas. Every December, P'urhépechas begin practicing the Danza de los Ancianos, the Dance of the Old People. Like the language, it too is a central part of their cultural identity. Late at night at Chicanitas, long lines of young people shuffle around the trailers to the music of guitars and horns, in a stylized imitation of the halting gait of the very old. They're getting ready for the procession they'll eventually make to the church in Mecca, a few miles away. As the lines snake and shuffle, wood smoke rises into the dark sky from a fire warming a galvanized tub of cinnamon-flavored coffee, which everyone shares when the practice ends.
People don't make much money picking lemons or grapes. Jobs only last a harvesting season, and many have to leave the valley for at least part of the year as they follow the crops elsewhere. But dancing together in the desert is part of the glue that holds the P'urhépecha community together in these two trailer camps. It is something to come back for.
Pedro Gonzalez was one of the first P'urhépechas to leave his home state to travel to the U.S., looking for work. Over the three decades that followed, he was joined by thousands of others. He was the community's first president, before Ortiz. Today he's 60 years old, and lives in a trailer at Duros with his wife Dorotea Gonzalez Fosar. In an interview, he recounted the history of the P'urhépecha migration that created the Duros and Chicanitas camps:
I grew up in Ocomichu, Michoacán, which is a P'urhépecha town. When I was growing up, nobody knew how to speak Spanish. When you asked them something in Spanish while they were working in the fields they would run, because they didn't understand what you were saying. You suffer when you don't know the language. My father wasn't P'urhépecha, though, just my mother, so he taught us Spanish when we were young.
I first came to the U.S. in 1979. When I first arrived in Riverside I didn't get a paycheck for two weeks. We survived off tortillas and oranges. We were working in the orange fields, and ate them for every meal. Someone lent us a couple of dollars and we would buy a package of tortillas. We need to help each other, even when someone just needs a dollar. I just felt like crying back then, not knowing what to do.
Today in Duros or Mecca you can practically go anywhere and speak P'urhépecha with anyone. It wasn't like that when I got here. I didn't have anyone to talk to. I lived with an African American man in Palm Springs for two months, and felt very lonely. Nowadays the younger generation says our memories of what we suffered are not real and exaggerated. That makes me feel bad.
We walked two nights and two days crossing the border back then. Now it costs about $1,500, even as much as $3,000 to cross the line. You have to work for more than two or three months to earn that much. It used to be that you didn't have to pay another person to help you cross.
I would say we have about 3,000 P'urhépecha people in this area now. Our hometown in Michoacan has also grown a lot. It used to be a small town, but it's now a lot bigger. A few years back they conducted a census in Mexico and determined there were about 8,000 indigenous people living in the hills of that area of Michoacán. I would say most are still there, but there are many of us now all over the U.S. We're spread out in Palm Springs, Coachella, Indio, and Riverside.
Here in the Duros trailer park there were only four trailers when I came in 1999. Slowly people started arriving and everything started growing. Now I think there must be hundreds of people in these two parks, Duros and Chicanitas.
Most of us here work picking lemons and grapes, depending on the time of year. I like working the lemon harvest the most, because it pays piece rate and not by the hour. If you work by the hour, (you earn) just over $7. On piece rate you can make about $1,550 every two weeks. If you do odd jobs here and there it's enough for us to live on. But piece rate makes you work fast, and some people don't like it because they don't like to work hard. For example today I finished nine rows while some others only did five.
The owner of the park here is a good man, a Native American. He even helped me fill out the immigration paperwork for my family, and only charged $500 when others would have charged me $2,000.
But we used to have a lot of problems [before the state took control of the park]. A big one was the lack of security. Once my wife heard a knocking right after we'd left for work. She thought we'd come back, so she opened the door. It was an intruder. She yelled and he ran off, but the security guards wouldn't do anything to protect us.
Rent on the trailer here costs us about $250, and with garbage, water and security it goes up to $300 a month. If you're getting paid $7 or $8 an hour, that's hard. Gas prices keep going up and our wages don't. Food prices are high. I spend more than $300 every time I go buy food. If people got together and decided not to work for one day it would have a tremendous impact on the economy, but people don't do that because they are in need of money. We participated in a strike once. But there were other people who really needed work. They went into the fields to work even though we told them not to.
My kids are here legally now and I'm in the process of obtaining legal residency for my last child. They all speak P'urhépecha, which is what we speak in the house. My wife doesn't speak Spanish too well. She refused to learn it in the beginning because she said she wouldn't need it. But now look at how necessary it is to speak English in this country.
When my kids were young we had such a humble life in Mexico. They used to run around with holes all over their clothes. But our life has changed. Now if they have a little tear they want to throw the clothes away. They even waste a lot of food. They don't know how to value things.
My family still has land in the ejido (farming cooperative). My brother sold his plot when the land reform law changed, but I still have mine. My father died but my mother is still alive, and my wife's mother as well. We never forget about them and send them money continuously.
I might go back to Mexico to live someday, but I don't know when. I haven't been over there in years. I don't even have my voter card. I've never voted in my life. I don't think my kids will return to Michoacán to live, though. Even though some were born over there, when we go to visit they always want to come back (to the U.S.).
But I don't think they will lose their language and culture living here. We hold onto the P'urhépecha traditions with dances, weddings, baptisms, and quinceañeras. We all help each other out. There are many P'urhépechas here so everyone feels at home.