Stripped down to their underwear and standing knee-deep in algae-covered water, a dozen men hurriedly bathed and washed their laundry before "the oil and chemicals" turned the swiftly moving current of a downtown stretch of the Los Angeles River an iridescent blue.
A few minutes later, ribbons of bluish film began swirling around the legs of the men, most of whom waded out of the water and onto concrete banks strewn with rotting garbage and broken glass.
"The chemicals don't bother me," said a 26-year-old unemployed carpenter from Juarez, Mexico, rinsing suds from his hair with water scooped from the river with a rusty can. "I use soap."
Less than a mile from the heart of one of the world's most affluent cities, undocumented immigrants spend their days in conditions that rival the poorest of those in the Third World nations they left behind. On a river bank often heaped with junk and garbage, an estimated 150 day laborers bathe, cook, camp, wash clothes and defecate in treated waste water occasionally polluted with chemicals illegally dumped in storm drains and gutters that empty into the channel.
The river people of Los Angeles say the concrete-lined flood-control channel is a quiet refuge from Immigration and Naturalization Service authorities, police and the spontaneous violence of downtown Skid Row streets.
With little money and no Social Security numbers, proof of residence or birth certificates, these men and women from Mexico and Central America find few public services available to them. So they gravitate to the river in search of people who speak the same language and are willing to share some beans and tortillas and whatever else they have cooked by the river's edge.
"For these immigrants, the Los Angeles River has become the village well," said Alice Callaghan, director of a Skid Row homeless agency, Las Familias del Pueblo. "It is a place where 150 immigrants a day share friendship, food, news from their homelands and information about jobs."
Health officials, homeless advocates and custodians of the river, including railroad police, the Army Corps of Engineers and the county Flood Control District, say the number of river people is increasing. That has raised fears about the health and safety of those who live in a place never intended for human habitation.
"We have to do something to stop this," said Dr. Shirley Fannin, associate deputy director of the county disease-control programs. "These people are deluding themselves into thinking this is a healthy, safe place to live, but they are not thinking about the impact they may have on other people."
Although most of the water in the Los Angeles River is harmless, treated waste water, more than 60,000 gutter catch basins in the city and thousands more across the county also funnel pollutants into the stream ranging from motor oil to insecticides. Late each afternoon, the bluish chemical stream makes its appearance--its exact source unknown by the river people or those who oversee the flood-control channel.
It is an environment fraught with risk, Fannin said. "They do not stay on the river; they go out to day jobs and come in contact with other people," she said. "Why do you think Third World countries have tremendous disease levels? Because they do not understand the connection between defecating in the water and everybody there getting sick."
Callaghan suggests that it be viewed another way: "We deny people health care and decent living conditions, then we are aghast when they pick up diseases and bring them to us."
Transients have visited the river for years, but it is only in recent months that authorities have become aware of its widespread use by homeless immigrants. Keeping them out is all but impossible because the channel is guarded only by chain-link fence, guardrails and occasional security patrols.
Although some have created makeshift shelters along the flood-control channel, most who use the riverbed say they sleep in the rescue missions, service centers and streets of downtown Skid Row, which is home to an estimated 11,000 men and women. There are at least 35,000 long-term homeless people throughout Los Angeles, studies have shown.
Mike Neely, a spokesman for the Homeless Outreach Program of Los Angeles, said that these immigrants migrate to the river because they "have found that they are not welcome in town."
"If you've left your native society for another one that doesn't embrace you--that in fact kicks you," Neely said, "the only thing you can do is find others just like you with whom you can share your hope and misery."
He could have been talking about Jose, a 33-year-old former government worker from El Salvador who arrived here last May. His goal is to find a job and an apartment and send for his wife and four children.
Last Wednesday, he spent the day crouched beneath a bridge on the Los Angeles River with two unemployed Mexican immigrants--all of them waiting for their hand-scrubbed clothes to dry in the sun.
"I'm embarrassed to tell my family I'm down here. . . . I tell them I'm sick and haven't been able to find a job in three months," he said, clutching a brown paper sack containing a stale burrito offered by one of his river comrades. "It hurts being here."
Vince Sato, supervising attorney of the environmental protection division of the city attorney's office, said his major concern for the people using the river is the dumping of hazardous wastes and unpredictable flooding that occurs during rainstorms.
"We receive a lot of complaints from people who have seen, heard or smelled things in there," Sato said. "Unless you catch (illegal dumpers) in the act, and catch samples before they are diluted in the river, it is difficult to prosecute them."
The county Flood Control District analyzes the composition of the water once a month at five stations between the San Fernando Valley and Long Beach. But county officials contend that it is all but impossible to trace the source of potentially toxic substances that occasionally run down the river.
"The water is variable from minute to minute," said Don Nichols, an assistant deputy director with the county Flood Control District. "People tend to wash things down those catch basins that probably shouldn't go down them.
"We find anything that will fit down a storm drain system down there--from dead bodies to countless types of chemicals. . . . It doesn't happen every day, but sooner or later it all shows up."
None of that seems to have deterred Jose Sanchez, 22.
"At about 4 or 5 o'clock every day, oil and chemicals come down the river," said Sanchez, a day laborer who has been living under a downtown river bridge for two months. "We don't bathe in it when the chemicals come."
Sanchez and his five companions live on wooden pallets and mattresses in a trash-strewn alcove of the bridge. He sleeps on a fold-up bed perched on a 10-foot-wide bridge support about 50 feet above the concrete river bottom.
"The life I left in Mexico was no better than this," Sanchez said, running a hand through a head of hair speckled with white paint picked up at a recent day job. "What you see here is the life of immigrants who have been in this country only a few months.
"But here, we are all united because we are all Latinos."
A few hundred yards away, four men fried chopped steak, carrots and onions over a fire fueled with cardboard and pieces of wood. Their "grill" was a rusty metal coil.
After breakfast, they planned to disperse to street corners across the city where they hoped to be hired by employers needing day laborers at construction sites. At nightfall, they would regroup on the river, one of them said, to "talk about how the day went, who found work and how we can get work too."
"Here, nobody gets arrested, beat up; nobody sells drugs or begs for money," the man said. "The people here are peaceful."
As he spoke, an air-conditioned Amtrak train rumbled by with office workers hurrying home for dinner. The presence of the bathers is a well-known curiosity among commuters.