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‘The poorest of the poor’

Times Staff Writer

Here in the sprawling, forlorn trailer park called Duroville, hope is as fleeting as the wind and fragile as a butterfly. It can arise suddenly, only to be crushed beneath the daily cares and fears of a people isolated by geography, language and discrimination.

For Leobardo Jimenez, hope came with the recent birth of a son, a boy he prays can live a different life, one unbound from endless toil for a meager salary and a stark horizon of grapevines, lemons and desert.

“I want him to be somebody important,” Jimenez said, sitting inside his stuffy trailer, 3-week-old Estaban peering up from a swing. “I would like my children to become lawyers who can speak directly to people and defend those like us who can’t defend themselves.”

In the Coachella Valley, where the chasm between rich and poor is especially wide, Jimenez occupies the economic ladder’s lowest rung. He is a Purepecha, an indigenous Indian from the Mexican state of Michoacan.

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In the 1970s, Purepechas began leaving the cool volcanic highlands of the Mexican city of Ocumicho for the parched town of Mecca, a few miles from the Salton Sea. They brought little more than strong backs and a powerful Roman Catholic faith. Few could speak Spanish or English. And their lack of education and tendency to marry as young as 13 helped ensure lives of poverty.

As time went on, more and more moved into the notoriously run-down Duroville on the Torres Martinez Reservation in Thermal. The park gradually became a sort of regional capital for the Purepecha.

But its future is in doubt.

The federal government has asked a District Court judge to close the park because of the owner’s repeated violations of health and safety codes. A decision is expected today.

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That troubles Sister Gabriella Williams, a nun who works closely with the indigenous group.

“They are the poorest of the poor,” she said. “But this is the center of Purepecha life, and they like it here.”

The Purepecha are an ancient people with unknown origins and a language unrelated to any other, experts say. They built a highly militarized empire, the only one to fend off the rapacious Aztecs. Like other Mesoamericans, they erected stone temples and worshiped an elaborate pantheon of deities.

The Spaniards crushed their empire around 1530, impoverishing and enslaving them. Yet attempts to extinguish the culture failed.

As a people, they are conservative, intensely religious and wary of authority. Much of their cautious world view comes from experience at the hands of the Spaniards and the Mexican government, experts say.

Leaders of the Duroville community say as many as 2,000 of the estimated 3,000 residents are Purepecha.

“We came here because we could own our own home and be around our own people, which makes us feel more comfortable,” said Jose Clemente Zacarias, 50.

Many tell stories of discrimination and say other Mexicans call them “dirty” or “stupid Indians.”

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Maximiliano Felipe, 16, came to the U.S. from Ocumicho at age 7 and ended up at Oasis Elementary School in Thermal, unable to speak English or Spanish.

“I remember the teacher saying, ‘Bring me the chair,’ and I had no idea what she was talking about,” said Felipe, now a high school honors student. “Some of the other kids called me chaca, which is considered an insult. I know people who are Purepecha who pretend they are not because they remember being called names when they were young.”

The word “chaca” is thought to mock the sound of the Purepecha (pronounced poo-RAY-pecha) language.

Desert Mirage High School Principal Joe Ceja has at least 200 Purepecha students at his Thermal school.

“They often come to us preliterate,” he said. “You have a kid of, say, 14, with no education suddenly show up in high school, who can’t speak a word of English or Spanish.”

Large numbers of Purepechas began arriving in local schools in the 1990s, he said. Ceja remembers trying to reprimand a boy before realizing he couldn’t understand English or Spanish.

Then there was the eighth-grader who dropped out after getting married.

“I told her family the law required her to be in school,” Ceja said. “They said they would ask her husband for permission to let her return.”

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When another student disappeared, her frightened parents turned to Ceja.

“Our first reaction would have been to call the police, but that’s not their reaction,” he said. “They are afraid of authority, so they came to me.” The student was found unharmed.

Warren Anderson, an anthropologist at Southeast Missouri State University, has studied the Purepecha for 25 years. “In Mexico, there is a long prejudice against indigenous groups, especially those that don’t speak Spanish,” he said. “The Purepecha start out poor and put up with things others never would. They have a real appetite for work. Forty hours isn’t enough. I know people who leave 40-hour-a-week jobs because they want 60 hours or more.”

Communities like Duroville, he said, allow the Purepecha to live largely free of harassment.

The park may be squalid and overcrowded, but just below the surface Purepecha culture flourishes. Women embroider the Virgin Mary on vibrantly colored dresses. Men keep costumes and masks in closets for festivals and religious ceremonies.

Traditional healers, or curanderos, dispense charms to attract love or, more often, work.

“If they close this park, it will probably destroy the Purepecha culture here,” said Adolfo Basilio, a curandero whose trailer is crammed with elixirs and well-worn books of handwritten incantations. “Everyone came here with the idea of making money and then going back, but that didn’t happen.”

Basilio, 50, is a leader of the community. He wears a white hat for luck and says he never accepts “donations” unless his cures work. Religious icons and masks adorn his office, separated from the rest of the trailer by a bead curtain.

“I don’t drink this,” he said, displaying a half-filled rum bottle. “I use it only for medicine.”

He recommends artichokes for back pain and peanuts for bronchitis. Supplicants often request a magical escape from dire financial problems and perhaps a spell to keep the park open.

“I tell them that God is with them and they must believe that,” he said. “But now there is no work. I myself am three months behind in rent.”

Last year’s cold snap stunted this year’s crops, leaving much less work. The housing slowdown has sent construction workers into the fields, heightening job competition.

Many Purepechas now work barely four hours a day. Families in which husband and wife work expect to earn about $9,000 this year. Teachers say some Purepecha pupils get their only full meal at school. According to park managers, residents are more than $300,000 behind in rent payments.

Jimenez, 33, said he picked lemons for six hours one day, earning $40. He was lucky. Others made $20. He is two months behind on his $275 rent.

“It’s a very painful time for us now, and the men are worried that they can’t make a living and provide for their families,” he said. “Two times they have cut off my lights, and now they say they will cut off the water.”

Jimenez left Ocumicho in 1992, taking a truck to Mexicali and crossing the mountains near Tecate. The desert was very different from Michoacan’s verdant highlands.

“It wasn’t really difficult to adjust,” he said. “We know it’s more important to be able to eat.”

Jimenez lives with his three children and wife, Elvia, in a neat two-bedroom trailer -- parents in one bedroom, children in the other. He is unaccustomed to revealing his thoughts to strangers, but he’s clearly anxious.

Without Sister Williams, he said, the Purepechas would be cut off from the outside world.

“There is a lot of ignorance about our situation,” he said in Spanish. “We don’t understand a lot of things, and we feel very alone. When we try to tell someone, we are always humiliated because they don’t understand us. Others don’t care because we are just Indians. Wherever I go, and people ask where I am from, I tell them I am Purepecha and I have a language and a culture and a history.”

Father Eliseo Coronel Lucas of Our Lady of Guadalupe Sanctuary in Mecca said his church was helping pay many rent and utility bills. The church holds yard sales every Sunday to raise money.

“We are trying to open our arms and hearts to them and find their needs,” Lucas said. “We want to acculturate them into the larger society.”

On Easter Sunday the Diocese of San Bernardino tried to send that message when Bishop Gerald Barnes came to Duroville to say Mass in Spanish and Purepecha.

News of his impending arrival stunned the park. Women in one trailer hurriedly simmered meat and chilies while others sat around a pot of corn meal, preparing tamales for his dinner. The mood was festive and chaotic, Spanish and Purepecha rising above clanging pots and pans.

In the sweltering kitchen, Esperanza Serrano sauteed shredded pork in spitting oil. She smiled with weary eyes.

“We are only working four hours a day now, four days a week,” she said quietly in Purepecha, her 11-year-old niece translating. “I don’t know what will happen to us.”

She put her head down and kept cooking as laughter echoed off the metal walls around her.

Barnes showed up in a fleet of SUVs and was greeted like royalty. Teenage girls in braided hair and traditional dresses danced on the dirt road. Trombones and trumpets sounded. Confetti rained on the bishop’s head.

Barnes said Mass atop a flatbed truck, speaking in Spanish translated into Purepecha. Hundreds stood rapt under a pitiless sun listening, praying and marveling.

The bishop was moved.

“Their shepherd is here; their church is with them,” he said, blessing residents lining the road. “We are not living the lives they are living, but we understand their struggles. My presence here tells the larger community that these people are important. I want to tell them the way they are is OK and they need not feel ashamed.”

He said whatever the judge decides, the community will endure.

“The Lord’s message to them is ‘Do not be afraid,’ ” he said. “Fear paralyzes a person, and we can’t live in fear. No matter what happens, you have to move forward.”

It was a message that buoyed hard-pressed Duroville and Jimenez.

“The bishop has brought us much hope,” he said. “We are afraid, but we have faith in God that things will get better.”

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david.kelly@latimes.com


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