Stories From the Real Coachella
Below is an excerpt from “How the P’urhépechas Came to the Coachella Valley,” an oral history of Pedro Gonzalez, one of thousands of P’urhépecha farmworkers living and working in the Coachella Valley of California. In an interview, he recounted the history of the P’urhépecha migration that created the Duros and Chicanitas labor camps located on the Cahuilla Indian Reservation:
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 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 needed to help each other, even when someone just needed 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 exaggerated. That makes me feel bad. We walked two nights and two days crossing the border back then. Now it costs 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. Now it’s much harder and the coyotes charge so much. I used to help people cross for $300, and it was no big deal. I’ve helped others cross and they’ve never paid me. They forget.
I would say we have about three thousand P’urhépecha people in this area now. There are a lot of us. In Riverside alone I think there must be fifteen hundred people. Our hometown in Michoacán 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 eight thousand 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, it’s just over $7. On piece rate you can make about $1,550 every two weeks. If we 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 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 $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 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 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. 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 is as well. We never forget about them, and send them money continuously. 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. 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. I might go back to Mexico to live someday, but I don’t know when. I haven’t been there in years. I don’t even have my voter card. I’ve never voted in my life.
Read more at New America Media
Photos and interview by David Bacon