The following articles are part of a special investigative reporting package looking at environmental health conditions in Mecca, Calif., one of several small, unincorporated communities in Riverside County's eastern Coachella Valley. The authors, Ivan Delgado, Rogelio Montaño and Aurora Saldivar, are reporters for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth-led community news outlet operated by New America Media and supported by The California Endowment to report on community health issues affecting residents in this environmentally vulnerable area.
THE GUEVARAS: TOXIC ODOR AWAKENS FATHER-SON ACTIVISM
By Ivan Delgado
Eduardo Guevara, Jr., spent many afternoons inside his family's apartment playing video games. While this sounds like normal behavior for an 11-year-old boy, his reason for doing so was anything but normal.
Junior said he preferred to stay indoors, rather than play outside, when the smell he described as “rotten eggs” festered in the air above the community of Mecca.
About a year has passed since mass dumping was halted at the Western Environmental facility in Mecca. Many residents believed that the odor that drifted across Mecca neighborhoods originated from Western, compromising the health of the community.
Although most of the dumping has ceased, the cleanup is not happening quickly enough for Junior and his parents, Claudia and Eduardo, Sr.
Claudia Guevara, 33, has developed severe asthma-related health issues in the four years the family has lived in Mecca. About a year ago, when the odor seemed particularly strong, she was hospitalized.
“I Thought She Would Die”
“I was sad,” said Junior, a sixth-grader at Mecca Elementary School. “I thought she was going to die.”
Her hospitalization propelled Eduardo Guevara, Sr., 34, to become a major player in the movement for a cleaner Mecca. Last April, he took his young son with him to a community meeting held by the South Coast Air Quality Management District at Saul Martinez Elementary School.
During the meeting, Junior wrote a letter and asked his father if he could read it out loud. He delivered his spur-of-the-moment speech to AQMD officials.
“I did not have time to be embarrassed,” said Junior, whose parents describe him as a quiet person.
The letter was submitted to the AQMD, but his father kept a copy. In part, it reads, “I think that the government has to do something about the toxic things they throw in Mecca. I am worried for my mom.”
Since then, the budding environmental activist has developed strong feelings about the presence of Western Environmental and other waste operations in the area.
“How hard is it to clean up?” Junior asked. “Why don't they just pack up their trash and go?”
It is unclear how many Mecca residents have had serious health problems due to air pollutants, but Eduardo Guevara, Sr., said he knows many people in the community who have been affected.
Junior, whose numerous academic achievement certificates cover a living room wall, hopes to be a policeman, fireman or soldier one day. In the meantime, he is focusing on spreading awareness regarding the environmental issues plaguing his hometown.
“Me and my dad are doing something for the community,” he said. “So we both feel good.”
Ivan Delgado’s article first appeared in The Desert Sun.
LILIA REBOLLAR: NURSE FINDS NEW WAY TO SERVE U.S. COMMUNITY
By Rogelio Montaño
When Lilia Rebollar came to the United States from Mexico, the only work the former nurse could find was in the agricultural fields of the Eastern Coachella Valley.
She spent the next several years as a field laborer and focusing on her duties as a wife and mother of three. But her desire to help others remained.
When her children were older, she found the perfect opportunity for community involvement in the newly formed parents’ council at Desert Mirage High School. Now that her children are grown, the Oasis resident has found a new way to help the community.
Rebollar has become a promotora, a community-health promoter, for Clinicas de Salud in Coachella. In this role, it is her duty to learn about important environmental issues, from air pollution to pesticides, and share this knowledge directly with residents. Her current focus is educating herself and the community on arsenic contamination in the local water supply.
“This is the biggest problem we have right now,” Rebollar said, in Spanish.
The other big problem is lack of awareness, which is why Rebollar says the work promotoras do is crucial in the communities of the Eastern Coachella Valley.
Reaching Out Door-to-Door
“There is a need for promotoras, such as myself, because we take the information to the people,” said Rebollar, who often delivers brochures and flyers door-to-door. “Sometimes they know they are ill, but they don’t know the reason why, or where to turn for help.”
Even though her children are out of the house, Rebollar’s community involvement doesn't come without personal sacrifice.
“From my own experience, one of the obstacles we face as promotoras are our husbands,” she said. “They don't accept it. They're the ones who are supposed to be out working, and we're supposed to stay at home.”
Nonetheless, Rebollar said, now that she has the opportunity to follow her passion, she is not going to let it slip away.
“I enjoyed helping people as a nurse, but I had to leave that behind,” she said. “Now that I have this opportunity, I want to do it the best I can.”
CRISTINA MENDEZ: MAKING STEPS TOWARD COMMUNITY JUSTICE
By Aurora Saldivar
Although Cristina Mendez was raised in the Eastern Coachella Valley, she was unaware of the living conditions endured by many in her community.
“I didn’t know about substandard infrastructural problems that exist. I didn’t know about environmental hazards like pesticides,” said Mendez, 33. “I didn’t really think about them, even though my mom was a farm worker.”
Now she thinks about these issues every day and, as a community worker with California Rural Legal Assistance, she is glad to be part of the solution. A large part of her job at CRLA is to raise awareness of environmental concerns in the area by educating residents, community groups, and government agencies.
“We don’t want to be the generation that ignored all the symptoms and all the problems that are going on,” Mendez explained.
Mendez first became interested in community work while working at a Latino bookstore when she was a student at California State University, San Bernardino. Books about social and political issues triggered her realization that she was part of a bigger world and was capable of making an impact.
She stayed in San Bernardino after completing her studies, working for the Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino and Inland Congregation United for Change before returning to Coachella. She jumped at the opportunity to make an impact in her hometown when she found out that CRLA was looking for a community worker.
“It’s interesting to come back as an adult, as a tax-paying member of the community, as a professional,” she said. “It’s a growing opportunity for me as a person.”
Living in Fear of the Outdoors
In the year since she has been back, Mendez said progress has been made toward achieving environmental justice for Eastern Coachella Valley residents, but the fight is far from over.
“Agencies are still not doing enough enforcement and investigation,” she stated.
Even though she has made a career of helping others, Mendez says everyone can do their part.
“People think they have to be super heroes,” she said. “But being an active community member doesn’t mean that you save everybody. Simply asking questions and holding public officials accountable can help.”
A major concern in the community is that something in the air is going to cause cancer and make skin peel and bleed, which Mendez said scares many residents enough to keep them indoors.
“When people are living with these types of concerns and nobody is there providing an answer or an explanation that is provided with respect, you are going to have a community that lives in fear,” she said.
Mendez added that every step forward, no matter how small it may seem, is important to the cause of environmental justice.
“If somebody doesn’t work for it, then we aren’t going to obtain it,” Mendez observed. “The little victories that I get to see are very rewarding and fulfilling.”
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