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Farmworkers' new home is near Duroville, yet a world away

Los Angeles Times

THERMAL, Calif. — Maria Mendez watched from the front stoop as her 2-year-old daughter toddled back from the ice cream truck down the street, clutching a brightly wrapped treat in her tiny fist.

It was a simple, joyful moment for a young mother who rarely let her little girl out of the house just a few months ago.

That's when they lived in Duroville, a ramshackle mobile home park choking with dust, the stench of busted sewer lines and noxious smoke billowing from the neighboring dump. Her daughter, also named Maria, was plagued by a hacking cough soothed only by a mist of medicine from an asthma machine.

That machine has been stowed away in the closet since November, when the family left Duroville and moved into Mountain View Estates, a neighborhood of 181 new, government-subsidized homes carved out of a field of date palms. It was built as a refuge solely for the hundreds of families living in Duroville, which a federal judge three years ago ordered shut down.

The new community is just a 10-minute drive from Duroville, but the true distance can't be measured in mere miles. The air-conditioned, three-bedroom modular homes still smell of fresh paint and clean carpets. They have laundry rooms, modern kitchens and plumbing that works. The neighborhood includes a freshly mowed soccer field, shaded playground and a community center with a gym and computer lab — accommodations unfamiliar to many of the immigrant farmworkers moving in.

"I am so relieved to be here," said Mendez, 25, who, like her husband, picks table grapes, lemons and other crops grown on the abundant farmland of the Coachella Valley. "They have streets here, not just dirt roads. It's quiet. It's nice."

She had lived in Duroville since she was 15, when her parents moved to the U.S. from Mexico. Like many of the other 4,000 people wedged into the desert slum, Mendez and her family were hoveled in a broken-down trailer without heat or air conditioning. Toilets backed up often, the tap water was suspect, and feral dogs roamed freely. To give her daughter a hot bath, she plopped a pot of water on a propane burner outside and then hauled it in.

More than 70 families already have moved from Duroville to Mountain View Estates, and 38 more are approved and just waiting until their new, modular homes are finished. Once a family moves, a demolition crew working for Riverside County comes in and flattens its old home in Duroville. The decrepit trailers often crumble with just a nudge from a bulldozer.

"John F. Kennedy was in the White House when many of these trailers were built," said Tom Flynn, the court-appointed receiver for Duroville. "Every time one of them disappears, it's a victory."

Duroville sprang up in the late 1990s after the county began closing hundreds of illegal trailer parks throughout the eastern Coachella Valley. Latino farmworkers along with thousands of Purepechas, a people indigenous to the Mexican state of Michoacan, hauled their trailers onto Indian land, which was exempt from county code enforcement.

Duroville, also known as Desert Mobile Home Park, was the most notorious — with raw sewage in the streets, a tangled web of electrical wires and a huge toxic-waste dump next door. The land belonged to Harvey Duro Sr., allotted to him by the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian tribe, of which Duro is a member. Duro could not be reached for comment.

U.S. District Judge Stephen G. Larson in 2009 ordered Duroville shut down, but only after residents were given the time and opportunity to find adequate alternative housing. Evicting the 4,000 residents immediately, he said, would lead to a "major humanitarian crisis" and the greatest migration in this state's history since the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

As court executor, Flynn has been charged with keeping the park safe and secure for the last three years, calling in crews to replace the entire electrical system, repair constant sewer and water pipe breaks and alleviate foot-high flooding during the rainy season. Riverside County animal control officers rounded up dozens of strays, some left behind and others dumped there.

"The first six months I was here, six homes burned to the ground. They're gone in minutes," Flynn said.

More than $28 million in county, federal and private funds were invested in Mountain View Estates to provide Duroville residents with a refuge. The project was delayed more than half a year when the state and county wrestled over $9.9 million in redevelopment funds to buy the homes, a dispute resolved in late 2012.

Families moving in pay $425 a month, plus water and utilities. Many were paying $450 a month in Duroville — up to $600 in the summer, if their trailers had air conditioning.

"These are hard-working people. They work in the fields all day, and their kids go to school," said Bobby Melkesian, the private developer who cleared some of his date palm groves to build Mountain View. "They are really rising to the opportunity they've been given.... They don't have much, but they take care of what they do have."

The fate of some still living in Duroville remains unresolved. All of the trailers are expected to be gone by summer, but 32 families remain behind — even though county officials have offered to help them find new places to live. Others left Duroville for other mobile home parks and communities.

Why anyone would still want to live in Duroville is a mystery to Francisco Zamora Vicente, 48, who left there for Mountain View Estates two weeks ago. Vicente, who works in the fields, lives in his new home with this wife, two sons and grandchildren. He overslept his first morning there because the neighborhood was so quiet, he said.

After migrating from Mexico and living in Duroville for almost a decade, Vicente finally feels like he's arrived.

"We finally made it to the USA," he said.

phil.willon@latimes.com

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