With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
There’s this hill, a perfectly-sloped green hill, that rises above the Pomona Freeway on your left as you cross the 605 and drive west into Los Angeles. Young trees stand equidistant from one another — clearly planned and planted not long ago. Between them, snaking their way from street level all the way up to the top mesa, green plastic tubes about 2 feet in diameter rise above the ground, transporting the methane gas produced by the slowly decomposing trash that lives inside the belly of the mountain.
As the population of LA County has expanded over the last 50 years, so has the hill. About a decade ago, an average 12,000 tons of trash arrived daily (that’s the equivalent of about 200 adult elephants, to give you an idea) atop these huge dump trucks. The non-recyclable waste would then get flattened out by the dump truck’s equally huge wheels. I had a photo taken next to one of them just so I could remember their size: A bright yellow safety helmet sits awkwardly atop my head; behind me, one of the truck’s tires rises to twice my size.
“All waste facilities have great views,” told me one of the landfill’s workers back in 2010 when I visited Puente Hills. He pointed down to cookie-cutter housing developments, a few pockets of green, orderly suburban streets where cars could be seen shuttling in all directions and at different speeds.
But a mountain of trash is still trash, no matter how many trees may be covering it up, no matter how pretty the sight. And this perfectly sloped mountain of trash was getting to be just too big for Los Angeles. The Puente Hills landfill would have to close down, and the trash would need to be shipped elsewhere.
Early one summer, a little over a decade ago, my editor sent me to a town about 160 miles east of Los Angeles. My assignment was to spend a couple of days trying to understand why there had been a history of illegal dumping in these parts and why the Los Angeles County Sanitation District had considered the Imperial Valley desert close to the U.S.-Mexico border a future disposal site.
I took Interstate 8 east of San Diego, towards the Jacumba Mountains’ huge, round boulders, past a Border Patrol checkpoint, and the curve in the road that brought me just a mile away from the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Then, less than two hours into my ride past another rocky mountain range, the plain opened up in front of me just as the sun was coming up. I could see just two layers in the landscape ahead — the Imperial Valley’s sandy light brown and a blue sky — that resembled a Mark Rothko painting.
The closer I got to my destination, the more green mixed into the landscape. This is the Eastern Coachella desert but still it is known for its agricultural production 300 days of the year; one only made possible by an informal migrant workforce and intense irrigation. Eighty-eight percent of cropland here is artificially irrigated with water from the All-American Canal.
Seasonal farm workers can be seen dotting the fields and picking produce almost yearround, even when temperatures reach 110 degrees. By the time I showed up to the unincorporated community of Thermal mid-morning, the air was dry and warm. Eduardo Guevara, a gentle, stocky guy with a closely cropped dark mustache and beard, waited for me by the side of the road.
I first heard about Lawson Dump when I became obsessed with Los Angeles’ massive output of trash and wondered where it ends up. It turned out some of the county’s construction debris and hazardous waste was illegally ending up here, a 50-foot-high dump that would be set on fire regularly. Next to it was Duroville, a trailer park infamous for its poor living conditions and bad air quality. Without paved roads and garbage pick-up, Duroville was a sad indictment of the daily reality of too many California farmworkers. And it was overcrowded—at one point, up to 4,000 people lived on the 40-acre site.
Meanwhile, Duroville residents had no idea of the possible risks of living next to a smoldering dump. “This is where nearby farms disposed of grape stakes covered in pesticides; where people discarded their old cell phones and computers,” Eduardo told me as we walked around the edge of the dump. “We knew people burned trash here, but we didn’t know it was that bad.”
Even before coming to Thermal, I’d become both fascinated and repelled by this place: Here was the largest toxic dump in California located a short drive east from the gated communities and irrigated golf courses of Palm Springs and the site of the Coachella music festival. It was a symbol of the great disparities you’d find in the state: of the migrant farmworker as a dispensable asset, of the desert landscape as a literal wasteland.
We spent much of that day exploring the four unincorporated rural towns of the Eastern Coachella Valley that border the Salton Sea: Thermal, Mecca, Oasis and North Shore. Eduardo told me he’d managed to get his family out of a trailer but his wife still suffered from the severe asthma she acquired during their time in Duroville. He’d begged county officials to do something about poor quality housing, pesticide drift, hazardous waste and water contamination, but nothing came of it.
“Maybe researchers couldn’t link the asthma directly to the dumps, but it’s a big coincidence for a community that has been living next to a burning, open-air dump for years, don’t you think?” he said, as we stood atop one of the mounds that made up Lawson Dump. I listened to him intently, thinking I’d also need to get a response from public officials, check the record, do my research, be objective. My story, I genuinely thought, would capture the injustices of this place. It would take me some time — years, really — to be able to identify the lessons that this part of the desert held for me.
I kept coming back, driving the two-and-a-half to three hours from the city. By 2014, the Los Angeles County Sanitation District decided to indefinitely postpone its “waste-by-rail” plans of moving LA’s trash to this part of the state and Lawson Dump was ordered shut by a court. More often than not, I came alone and without an assignment, struggling to make a case to my editor that one or two stories couldn’t possibly capture the complexity of what I was seeing or what it all meant.
I met Griselda Barrera at a middle school auditorium in Thermal, moments after she offered her public comment about air quality to a panel of state regulators. With her long, black hair, straight talk and black platform pumps, Griselda demanded attention. But the public officials facing her, all of them men, avoided her gaze.
“I’m tired of the agencies that come here asking us to bring people from the community as an audience for their presentations,” she said out loud in Spanish. “We have no idea what they do with the information we give them. Nothing changes.”
Fifteen years ago, Griselda told me, she and her family came from Mexico and moved into Duroville. They, of course, hated it. She and her husband got a seasonal job picking grapes and chiles, averaging only $15,000 per year.
Low wages in the fields define this corner of California: They are the reason why a majority of workers endure substandard living conditions in mobile home parks, and why at the height of harvesting season, four men will share a single room for months, or worse yet, live out of their cars. Income inequality is why migrant populations typically are forced to face extreme levels of environmental hazards and also why migrants’ health disparities are so persistently widespread. In 2010, there was only one primary care physician per every 8,400 residents in the Eastern Coachella Valley. Local clinics report higher rates of diabetes and asthma, particularly among young children, coupled with a 30 percent uninsured rate among patients.
“I’m taking you to the new Duroville,” Griselda promised me the day we met, explaining how after the old dump and trailer park had been ordered shut down, the county created a new $28 million public-private mobile home development in its stead. I’d be able to meet Griselda’s youngest son who’d dropped out of college and now worked in a fast food joint, and her eldest, who had just welcomed a baby with his young wife from El Salvador who had also spent her first few years in America living in (but plotting her exit out of) Duroville.
“But you should think about a way to pay people for their time,” Griselda said, coyly, as we made plans to meet again. I tried to explain to her that it was unethical for journalists to pay for interviews. Then, for weeks, I waited for Griselda to reply to my messages.
I was once a middle-class kid growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, a big city flanked by mountains and less than an hour’s drive from the Caribbean Sea; an urban setting not unlike Los Angeles, located far away from where my food was grown and where my trash was disposed of.
The tropics’ tall, flowering trees, and seasonal monsoon rains defined my view of nature. When my family visited the desert dunes in Coro, 300 miles west of Caracas, we jokingly called it “a beach without water;” a habitat for scorpions and snakes. I never thought I’d one day come to love the Eastern Coachella desert and the Sonoran Desert, my home of the past two years, with its stalwart and adaptable biodiversity despite high summer temperatures and a lack of water.
Once in the U.S., I would become an outsider: Spanish-speaking, but not from Mexico. Nostalgic, but increasingly independent and distant from my own family’s traditions. I learned to survive winters.
The deeper I got into the legacies of Duroville and Lawson Dump, the more I learned about the life and work and dreams of migrant farmworkers, the harder it became to sort out whether I was being a well-meaning witness to injustice or someone exploiting the details of others’ suffering for my own sake. It turns out that like most journalists, I could be both.
Like a privileged Western foreign correspondent parachuted into a conflict area in the developing world, I was routinely asked to make sense of a history I did not feel or know. Yet for years, I’d functioned under the assumption that as a journalist, my craft was the only thing I needed to show loyalty to. My stories, I naively thought, would shed light on the injustices faced by people, creating a shift in public opinion, and eventually, tangible change.
It would take me another decade to see the shortsightedness of this promise — mainly, that I could efficiently yet deeply understand and share stories about “other” people and places, without getting to truly understand myself first. Neither my class consciousness nor my native Spanish-speaking could make up for the easy characterization of other people’s lives, for the way their stories could be perceived by others, how they could contribute to the already-existing stereotypes about migrants, desert-dwellers, immigrants, farm workers, activists.
I needed to sort out my duty to the people who trust me with their lives and feelings, and figure out that in the end, these stories I’m drawn to, past and present, are also about myself: They are stories about home or the search for it. Stories about dignity and justice. More often than not, the narratives I care to help tell the most, the ones that keep me up at night, and give me a sense of purpose, are about individuals and communities who have a sense of hope about their futures.
In getting to know the desert —its vastness and possibility— I have learned to slow down my experiences to see what happens when I give myself one month or two or a year to tell a story, instead of one day or one week. Sometimes, the stories never get told and instead, I befriend the people I interview. Other times, these stories morph into life lessons instead or into yet more stories, or rather, snippets that make their way into my dreams. The places I write about become fixations, and I keep returning, as if hitting the rewind button to replay the scenes of a movie that hold some personal meaning that I cannot yet decipher.
This past November, I paid my latest visit to Thermal. Eduardo and Griselda are no longer living nearby, but the last time we spoke, they’d both told me how proud they were of the roles each of them played in the clean up of the old Lawson Dump site. The hill is still there. It rises above street level but the waste is now hidden beneath thick layers of dirt. Next door, where Duroville’s trailers once peppered the landscape, there is nothing but flat open land. Beyond, on either side, I could see a patchwork of fields of lettuce and other greens being harvested by men and women hunched forward, donning big hats, dreaming their dreams of home here in the desert, or elsewhere.
Ruxandra Guidi is a native of Caracas, Venezuela. She has been working in public radio, magazines, and podcasts for twenty years across the US, Latin America, and the US-Mexico border region. She’s an assistant professor of practice at the University of Arizona School of Journalism and a contributing editor to High Country News magazine. She collaborates regularly with her partner Bear Guerra under the name Fonografia Collective.
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