Like most of their neighbors in the sprawling, ramshackle Oasis Mobile Home Park, the Aguilars have no heat, no hot water. On cold nights, the family of eight stays warm by bundling up in layers of sweaters and sleeps packed together in two tiny rooms.
Bathing is a luxury that requires using valuable propane to boil gallons of water. So the farmworker clan spends a lot of time dirty.
Jose Aguilar, a wiry 9-year-old, has found a way around the bath problem. He just waits until dinner. “My mom makes frijoles,” he said, “then I take a bath in that water.”
Jose and his family live in a world few ever see, a vast poverty born in hundreds of trailer parks strung like a shabby necklace across the eastern Coachella Valley.
Out here -- just a few miles from world-class golf resorts, private hunting clubs and polo fields -- half-naked children toddle barefoot through mud and filth while packs of feral dogs prowl piles of garbage nearby.
Thick smoke from mountains of burning trash drifts through broken windows. People -- sometimes 30 or more -- are crammed into trailers with no heat, no air-conditioning, undrinkable water, flickering power and plumbing that breaks down for weeks or months at a time.
“I was speechless,” said Haider Quintero, a Colombian training for the priesthood who recently visited the parks as part of his studies. “I never expected to see this in America.”
Riverside County officials say there are between 100 and 200 illegal trailer parks in the valley, but the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition says the number could be as high as 500.
California Rural Legal Assistance says as few as 20 parks are legal, and they are often as dilapidated as the illegal ones. When county inspectors locate a park without permits, they prefer to let owners bring the place into compliance through loan and grant programs rather than evict the tenants.
Some of the largest and poorest parks are on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation where they are not subject to local zoning laws and the county can’t monitor safety, hygiene and building standards. The reservation is also home to the worst illegal dumps of any tribe in California, Arizona or Nevada, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The federal agency has closed 10 of the 20 most toxic dumps and cited four of the largest trailer parks for health violations.
Despite the conditions, park owners say they are providing a vital service in an area where housing prices have soared.
“Before the parks, they were living in their cars, in the desert and bathing in the canals. Five guys would pay 50 bucks a month to share a camper shell,” said Scott Lawson, a tribal member and co-owner of the Oasis park on the reservation. “Nobody cared when they lived like that, only when they moved into trailers. You can’t expect the poorest to live like the wealthiest. They feel comfortable here; it’s like being back in Mexico. They tell me that.”
Lawson’s 300-trailer park has been cited by the EPA for clean-water violations and was recently ordered to stop pumping raw sewage into the nearby Salton Sea.
“We had some citations about water but it’s because we didn’t know how to test it,” he said. “I’m not ashamed of my place. There are a lot worse places than mine.”
Exactly how many people live in the trailer parks is unknown, but social workers estimate tens of thousands. The biggest park, Desert Mobile Home Park, or “Duroville,” has more than 4,000 residents and can be seen off California 195 near Thermal. Others are on private property and virtually invisible to passing motorists.
The tenants are almost entirely Latino farm or construction workers. Many are in the United States legally, but plenty are not. Their average income, according to county officials, is about $10,000 a year. Many parents rent out their children’s rooms for extra money, leaving kids to sleep on floors or in sheds. Many families keep warm by burning grape stakes, which fill their trailers with toxic fumes.
In one nameless park on the reservation off Avenue 70 in Thermal, trailers with broken windows and unhinged doors sit against piles of trash. Box springs, tires, car parts are stacked 10 feet high. Sewage runs behind the trailers, and wild dogs yap and howl.
“This place has some of the worst conditions I have seen,” said Sister Gabriella Williams, who does community outreach in the parks and is raising money to build a learning center for residents. “And it’s actually gotten worse since I last saw it.”
She picked her way through a yard that doubled as a trash heap.
“The park owners have to look into their own conscience as to why they run these kinds of places with these kind of conditions,” she said. “They wouldn’t want this in their backyard. They wouldn’t tolerate it. We all need to recognize the dignity in each other.”
Former resident Conrrada Valenzuela said she went three months without electricity, living by candlelight.
Maria Renosa, 35, from Guatemala, lives in the park now. She makes $7.25 an hour picking broccoli and shares a battered, sparsely furnished trailer with six other adults and her children, Edith, 2, and Frank, 3.
Renosa’s husband was recently deported for being undocumented. “It would cost him $5,000 to return,” she said. “I am not going back. What am I going to do there? I’d love to live somewhere else, but here it only costs $360 a month.”
The EPA has cited park owner Robin Lawson for clean-water violations; Lawson could not be reached for comment. He is Scott Lawson’s brother. Another brother, Kim, operated a vast, illegal dump for more than a decade that was shut down last year by a federal judge.
The presence of the parks on the reservation has frustrated Torres Martinez Tribal Chairman Raymond Torres.
“The owners started off with good intentions, then I think it overwhelmed them,” he said. “I have a real problem with it. Someone is going to get hurt. I’d like to see the parks gone and the owners start over again.”
But in the complex world of tribal sovereignty, Torres cannot close the parks; only the Bureau of Indian Affairs can. The bureau said last week that parks on the reservation are illegal because they do not issue bureau-approved leases to tenants. They are now threatening legal action against Duroville and said other parks could be next.
Trailer parks began springing up on Indian land largely because of a county crackdown. In 1998, after several fatal accidents caused by faulty wiring, Riverside County began closing parks that did not have permits and threatening to sue others not up to code. Faced with outrage from farmworker advocates and the Roman Catholic Church, who feared thousands could be rendered homeless, officials backed off, but not before many panicked park dwellers had moved onto the reservation.
“We wish we could wave a magic wand and make them go away,” said County Supervisor Roy Wilson. “But we can’t.”
Adding to the misery is Kim Lawson’s dump. Since 1992, it has burned paint cans, car batteries, plastic pipe and treated wood and other waste, throwing so many toxins into the air and soil that EPA said the dump represented an “endangerment [that] can be considered imminent and increasing over time.”
And the dump, its smoke blowing for miles up and down the valley, sits right beside Duroville. A 2003 EPA memo reported some areas of the dump contained levels of dioxin 20 times the national average. Dioxin, a carcinogen, is one of the deadliest manufactured substances.
According to agency documents, soil samples revealed dioxin, PCBs and asbestos in Duroville itself. Citing the risks of cancer and other illnesses, the EPA urged the dump’s immediate closure. The park remained open because the danger to it was not deemed “imminent,” said agency attorney Letitia Moore.
Four years after the EPA recommendation, a federal judge in Riverside closed the dump in August. On Thursday, the judge ordered Lawson to pay $46.9 million to help clean up the mess. Since the facility was padlocked, there have been 20 fires -- most the result of spontaneous combustion, said Ray Paiz, battalion chief with the Riverside County Fire Department. One fire in November nearly forced the evacuation of Duroville and nearby schools.
Smoke in the parks is as common as wild dogs and swirling dust. Health workers report that children suffer high levels of pulmonary illnesses, coughs, infections and skin rashes.
“These are almost Third World conditions,” said Rosa Lucas, a nurse who runs the Oasis Clinic, across the road from a trailer park. “It’s unbearable out there when there is burning. You literally can’t go outside.”
Although poverty is endemic in the parks, nothing rivals Duroville for sheer blight.
The 40-acre park is a grim, colorless warren of dirt roads with more than 300 trailers tightly packed inside. It’s often hard to tell an abandoned scrap heap from a home. There are start-up businesses -- car dealerships, a small taco stand and a restaurant specializing in Michoacan food -- squeezed in amid the clutter. Trash blows here and there. Toddlers, some naked from the waist down, wander around in fetid muck. A wall surrounds part of the place, a thin barrier separating it from the dump.
What began as occupants of a few trailers seeking refuge from the county has turned into a vast slum bearing streets named after members of park owner Harvey Duro’s family. Duro declined to comment for this article.
Efforts by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to close Duroville fizzled in 2003 when the owner agreed to make basic electrical and sewage improvements. Still, officials said, he has failed to provide tenants bureau-approved leases defining minimum living standards.
“He will have to come up with an approved lease or we will shut him down,” said James Fletcher, the bureau’s superintendent for Southern California.
Fletcher said all the parks on Indian land could be closed if they don’t provide leases. “If that happens, where do the people go?” he asked. “I don’t know.”
Duroville is a bastion of poverty divided between the poor and the desperately poor. Among the most destitute are the Purepecha, an indigenous people from the Mexican state of Michoacan who speak neither Spanish nor English but their own language, Purepechan. They are often mocked by other Latinos who consider them backward.
In their culture, girls often marry young and drop out of school to have children.
Anjelica Serrano, a Purepechan, watched her children play in the dirt. “I got married at 15,” she said through an interpreter, “and have five children.”
She is 24.
At night, the dark streets come alive with thumping rap and mariachi music pouring from cars. Ice cream vendors work the narrow streets. Because there are no sidewalks, pedestrians keep a wary eye on traffic. Men gather in front of trailers, some drinking themselves into oblivion. Others have hard stares and watchful eyes. Residents say drug dealing is rife.
Theresa Argueta, 42, would leave if she could afford to. She lives in a two-bedroom trailer with her husband and eight children. The four boys sleep in the living room, the four girls in a tiny bedroom. Inside, the trailer is festooned with rosaries and statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“The smoke has affected my children’s health,” she said. “When the smoke comes, they get bloody noses and have difficulty breathing.”
On the other side of the park, Cesar Rafael, 17, a Purepechan, lives in his parents’ trailer. He and several other students at Desert Mirage High School in Thermal made a short video about their world, “The Contaminated Valley,” which was shown at school.
“I wanted people to see another side of life,” he said. “Everything is poisonous here, even the water is poisonous. And nobody really cares about it. We are invisible.”