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A smile grows on Jacqueline Aguilar’s face when she talks about local art and her community.

Aguilar, a senior at Coachella Valley High School, is passionate about these topics—and she’s eager to share her insight with anyone willing to listen.

Aguilar represented Raices Cultura when she spoke about art and her community to an audience of city planners at the 2014 Annual Conference of the American Planning Association’s California Chapter in Anaheim in mid-September.

“I was really nervous. I was shaking,” Aguilar said. “I’m not usually that nervous, but people started showing up, and it was really weird to have such a large audience.”

Aguilar and other youth representatives from the eastern Coachella Valley participated in a youth panel at the annual conference titled “Legitimate Voices: Youth Perspectives on the Meaning of Building Healthy Communities in the Eastern Coachella Valley.”

The youth panel was an opportunity for planners to hear from youth who are working in the Eastern Coachella Valley. The Building Healthy Communities Initiative was represented by Adriana Diaz-Ordaz, and Pueblo Unido CDC was represented by Sahara Huazano and Victor Gonzalez.

Daisy Ramirez, a health education assistant for the County of Riverside Department of Public Health, said she was proud of the panel, because the youth representatives were able to better educate the planners about the work that is going on in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“Some planners didn’t even know where the eastern Coachella Valley was, or what was going on in the eastern Coachella Valley,” Ramirez said. “Sometimes, we assume people already know.”

The youth panel met again on Sept. 22 at the Building Healthy Communities office in Coachella to debrief. Diaz-Ordaz and Huazano both said they felt honored to present their community projects to people who are responsible for planning future communities.

“There’s this realm, or sphere of influence, that comes with being a planner,” Diaz-Ordaz said. “There’s that network, there’s that community, and that social capital that comes along with even being in that place.”

At the conference, Huazano and Gonzalez presented Pueblo Unido’s Coachella Valley Mobile Home Pavement Project, which is aimed at improving the health of more than 400 families in 39 mobile home parks in the eastern Coachella Valley. Huazano said the conference helped her identify skills she needs to build in order to keep representing the eastern Coachella Valley well.

“I’ve been thinking of how I can improve my speaking skills, because I want to continue on doing this work.” Huazano said. “And in order for me to represent my community how they deserve, I need to learn how to speak properly.”

Miguel Vazquez, the co-chair for the California Planning Roundtable Healthy Communities Workgroup, organized the panel and moderated the session. At the debriefing, Vazquez said he’d never heard an audience applaud so long for a panel.

Vasquez encouraged the youth presenters to use the momentum they built at the conference to keep working on community issues.

“It would be really cool if something came out of this, and next year, we could go back and say, ‘Remember that group of youth? Well, they did this. And it wasn’t futile,’” Vasquez said.

Alejandra Alarcon is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth media organization in the east Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit coachellaunincorporated.org.

Published in Local Issues

Sustainability. It’s a word that often comes up when discussing the Salton Sea—but what does “sustainability” truly mean?

On Saturday, May 24, environmental leaders and residents gathered at Second Annual Environmental Health Leadership Summit at Thermal's Desert Mirage High School to learn about the sustainability plan being proposed by the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), as well as many other environmental issues.

Bruce Wilcox, environmental manager at the IID, presented the Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative at the event organized by Comité Civico del Valle and Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto.

This initiative seeks to develop more than 1,500 megawatts of geothermal energy, with solar, wind and biofuel projects to follow in phases following the initial geothermal project.

According to the IID website, the Salton Sea possesses the largest capacity of geothermal energy in the nation. The agency's leaders believe the initiative would allow for the development of new jobs and economic development.

“IID has a network of air-quality monitors around the Salton Sea. Since the IID spans both sides of the sea, it pretty much does what (the South Coast Air Quality Management District) and (the Air Pollution Control District) do in Riverside and Imperial counties,” said Eduardo Guevara, executive director of Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto. “They have information we need them to share.”

The Salton Sea was formed in 1905 when a massive flood caused the Colorado River to burst through an irrigation canal and flow freely for 18 months into what was then known as the Salton Basin. It is a closed basin—which leads to the buildup of salt.

The Salton Sea, for now, is sustained by agricultural water inflow from the various agricultural locations within the Imperial, Coachella and Mexicali valleys. However, it is also evaporating at the same time.

It is important to note, however, that in 2017, an agreement that has led to an annual allotment of Colorado River water being diverted into the Salton Sea will end. The lack of incoming water will worsen the water-quality and air-pollution problems that are already prevalent. Year by year, the sea will slowly dry up, meaning pesticides, salts and fertilizers that have settled on the seabed will be exposed. Therefore, fine dust and toxins will become more airborne than they already are, thus endangering the health of the public, various agricultural fields and other parts of the local economy.

The IID initiative would create a renewable energy source in the Salton Sea, which would, in turn, provide some groundcover in the sea.

While the sea’s future depends on cooperation and deliberation by agencies and environmental leaders, the residents of the eastern Coachella Valley can aid in the effort to sustain the health and economy of the region by attending meetings and gatherings like the Environmental Health Leadership Summit.

“Ask, demand and be present,” urges Guevara. “Leaders are nothing without the people backing them up. They need to start demanding solutions and making elected officials accountable.”

To learn more about the IID’s Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative, visit www.iid.com/index.aspx?page=663.

Johnny Flores Jr. is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth-media group in the east Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit coachellaunincorpaorated.org.

Published in Environment

Residents of Thermal scored a major victory in their 16-year fight for clean air when Riverside County was awarded the funding to pave the roads of 31 trailer parks in the unincorporated communities of Eastern Coachella Valley.

The $4.1 million project is scheduled to begin as early as next summer, and should be completed within two years.

“When cars pass by, they lift a lot of dust, and it affects everyone that lives here,” said Margarita Gamez, a resident who has been active in the grassroots effort since 1997.

In 2008, Pueblo Unido, a community-development corporation, joined the fight for improved environmental conditions in the region’s trailer parks, which are typically situated in areas that lack potable water, sewer systems and basic infrastructure.

Trailer-park residents were the backbone of the organizing effort, and the idea to push for paved roads came from them, said Sergio Carranza, executive director and founder of Pueblo Unido.

“I’m just facilitating the project,” he added

Carranza said that dust and fine-particulate pollution from the unpaved roads are linked to the prevalence of asthma and respiratory problems among the many families who live in the trailer parks. The paved roads will also improve accessibility for residents and alleviate another major problem in these communities: flooding caused by heavy rains.

A Long-Awaited Opportunity

Pueblo Unido saw hope for funding when the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) began accepting proposals for environmentally friendly projects, funded by AB 1318 emission-mitigation fees from the Sentinel Energy Project. Meetings were held in number of Riverside County locations to gather community input—but many in the eastern Coachella Valley felt left out of the conversation.

“There were only public hearings being made in the western Coachella Valley,” said Carranza. “We (Pueblo Unido) made sure that the eastern Coachella Valley was taken care of, too.”

Pueblo Unido received backing for their roads proposal from Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez, who introduced AB 1318 in 2009, and Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, who co-authored the bill when he was a state senator. As a result, county officials and held meetings in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“We had a lot of public hearings all over the valley on how this money should be spent. One of the witnesses was a young boy from the eastern Coachella Valley. He had to walk to school every day of his life. He felt that the air quality affected him greatly. (His story) impacted me and other members that are working on this project,” said Benoit, who is a member of the SCAQMD governing board.

SCAQMD, the manager of the mitigation-fee funds, entered into a contract with Riverside County to pave approximately 8.3 miles of unpaved roads within 31 mobile home parks containing 483 mobile-home units.

According to Darin Schemmer, communications director for Benoit, “The actual construction may begin as early as summer 2014. The remaining steps the Riverside County Transportation Department needs to take include completing the design and CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) environmental document, (and) preparing, advertising, bidding and awarding a construction contract.”

The county, in turn, has contracted with Pueblo Unido to continue to be the liaison to the community that came together to make their needs heard.

“I advocated strongly that AQMD must provide technical assistance to grantees, and ultimately, we convinced them to do so. Another thing we did was encourage smaller, community-based grantees, to the extent possible, to partner with agencies that had the resources and capacity to present a strong application,” said Perez. “Such was the case of Pueblo Unido in partnering with Riverside County for the successful paving project.”

"Trail" Would Connect East, West Valley

More than $17 million of the $53 million mitigation fee fund total was awarded to CV Link, a proposed 52-mile multipurpose trail from Palm Springs to Mecca. Tourism leaders aggressively pushed for these funds on the grounds that the entire Coachella Valley would benefit.

Not everyone in the eastern Coachella Valley believes that would be the case.

“The road from Palm Springs to Mecca doesn’t benefit us. It only benefits wealthier communities,” said Gamez, who believes the trail is being geared toward tourists.

Perez, however, said he sees the environmental benefits of both the trail project and the paving project at the trailer parks.

“One of the things we have emphasized from the beginning is the need for an equitable distribution of grant-funding, so that many worthwhile projects and grantees would be able to use their ingenuity and community know-how to address local air quality concerns,” he said.

With the paving project now in place, Carranza said Pueblo Unido would continue listening to and organizing residents of these rural communities, in their quest for a better living environment. Future projects include a water-purification system and the opening of a learning center.

Alejandra Alarcon is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth media startup in the east Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. Brenda Rincon is Coachella Unincorporated’s professional adviser. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit coachellaunincorporated.org.

Published in Local Issues

As with a lot of other families living in the eastern Coachella Valley, when one of our family members fell sick, it meant driving about 100 miles across the border into Mexico, to the city of Mexicali, to get taken care of by a doctor.

The only other option, it seemed, was not being taken care of at all.

Now, because of health-care reform efforts in the United States, young people growing up today in the eastern Coachella Valley—the unincorporated rural communities of southern Riverside County—don’t need to go without health insurance the way I did. The scenario is finally beginning to change. At least it can change—if people here are made aware of the health services now available to them through federal health-care reform, right in their own community.

“We owe it to our country to inform the citizens to take advantage of all these resources that are available,” said Ronnie Cho, associate director of public engagement for the White House, during a speech about health care reform that I attended in Washington, D.C., as a reporter in April.

Cho is right. For the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to make a difference, people need to first be aware that health care is an option for them. People need to know that they can afford to visit a doctor, without having to stray more than a few miles away from their home.

When my family would go visit relatives across the border in Mexicali, we always took advantage of the opportunity to stop by the Mexican pharmacy to buy medicine for ourselves, as well as for our friends and neighbors who always requested some. As a child, I thought those trips to Mexicali to visit the doctor were the only way—it was just what people did—until later on in my youth, when my father got a job with a new trucking business that gave him medical benefits that included family coverage. Because my dad worked for a lot of different trucking companies during the years, and because there were lengths of time when he was unemployed, our health-care situation was never stable. for those few years, my family and I received the best health care we’d ever had.

“Young people are relatively healthy, so they think, ‘I don’t need health care,’ until something happens, and they actually need it,” said Cho.

Again, Cho got it right. I can remember my worried mother, back in 2008, telling my little sister and me that we once again did not have health insurance and would have to resume our trips to Mexicali.

In retrospect, I never minded the long trips to the doctor or dentist’s office. In fact, I never worried about my health. My parents always had medicine from Mexicali available in our cabinets for emergencies. For my siblings and me, it was not something that got in the way; it was something that we believed had to be done, because there was no cheaper option.

The irony is that even though being uninsured felt normal to me and my siblings growing up, it is families like ours who need that insurance the most. Families like mine who live in the unincorporated communities of the eastern Coachella Valley—most of us are Latino; many (like my parents) are immigrants; and many make a living as farm workers or do some other type of physical labor—are especially in need of the protections provided by health insurance, because of occupational hazards and other health risks associated with living in an area where people lack money and resources.

The Affordable Care Act, the bulk of which will be implemented on Jan. 1, 2014, is helping families like mine take control of our medical insurance, by providing options and a sense of security. It’s an idea—health-care security—that at one time, at least for my family, seemed impossible to imagine. The health insurance that for so long seemed like such a special privilege will now become available to more people than ever before.

The ACA was put into place in part to make sure insurance companies cannot end your coverage plan when you need it the most, cannot bill you into debt, and cannot discriminate due to pre-existing medical conditions.

Among other provisions, the ACA will secure medical insurance for American citizens after getting laid off or changing jobs. It will require insurance companies to cover the cost of mammograms and cancer screenings. And for the first time, young adults will remain eligible to be covered under their parent’s or guardian’s health-insurance plan through the age of 26, even if they are married.

As a result, 3.1 million young adults are now covered along with their families, and more than 107,000 Americans with pre-existing conditions who didn’t previously have insurance are now receiving health coverage, according to federal data.

If you know where to look, it is free and simple to apply for affordable or no-cost medical insurance programs such as Medicaid and the Childrens’ Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which cover medical services that include doctor check-ups, emergency care, hospital care, vaccinations, prescription drugs, vision, hearing and dental.

There was a time for a lot of us living here in the eastern Coachella Valley when driving across the border seemed like the easiest and most-affordable way to access health care. Fortunately, for many of us, that no longer needs to be the case. Our communities can have the security of health insurance that for so long seemed just beyond our reach, if we just know where to find it.

To see if you qualify for Medicaid or CHIP, or to apply online, visit insurekidsnow.gov. To find out what is your best insurance option for your specific demographics and needs go to finder.healthcare.gov.

Alejandra Alarcon is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth media startup in the east Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit coachellaunincorporated.org.

Published in Community Voices

Javier Avila and Calani Raceles are two young men with mental challenges doing the unimaginable—playing baseball.

“At first, my son didn’t even want to show up. He couldn’t catch a ball, let alone hold a bat. Through this program, his hand-eye coordination skills have improved, and he can do all those things,” says Enia Raceles, Calani’s mother. “Now he looks forward to each Friday so he can hit again and talk to his baseball friends.”

Both Javier and Calani are players in the Challenger division of Coachella Little League. The program is made up of more than 20 physically and mentally challenged young people with disabilities including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. The division started in 2010 and is the only one in the Coachella Valley.

“As the only division of its kind here in the Coachella Valley, we want to teach everyone with a disability that you can play a sport and that it is possible,” says Esmeralda Ortega, vice president of the Challenger division.

Every Friday at 7 p.m. at Bagdouma Park, 51723 Douma St., these young people get together under the guidance of dedicated volunteers of all ages. Together, they work on the fundamentals of hitting and catching and conclude with a game against each other or against another team.

But this isn’t an ordinary game: No score is kept. There are no outs recorded, and each player must bat and record a hit before the next side can do so.

“Most teenagers get together on Friday nights, go to the movies, hang out, play video games,” says Alex Rodriguez, secretary of the Challenger division. “For these kids, this is their Friday night, getting together on a Friday night with their friends outside of school, and they play baseball.

“They’re just like me and you. They have drama, hopes, dreams. Only a disability separates us.”

Javier’s father, Jose Avila, is grateful that this program exists and wishes more programs like these were available for children like his son.

“A lot of these kids can’t do much like me and you. Programs like these help increase hand-eye coordination, motor skills, sportsmanship and, above all, socialization,” says Avila. “Here, they’re not outsiders, but just another person like me and you. Here, disabilities don’t exist and friendships are formed.”

To join or volunteer with Challenger division, please contact Esmeralda Ortega at (760) 972-9053 or Alex Rodriguez at (760) 238-2690. Johnny Flores Jr. is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth media startup in the East Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit coachellaunincorporated.org.

Published in Features

When I told my family I was going kayaking on the Salton Sea, their reaction was just what I expected: “Are you sure that’s safe?” my mother asked with uneasiness.

That is precisely what had crossed my mind when I was invited to join Assemblymembers V. Manuel Pérez and Ben Hueso (now a state senator) on a kayaking excursion on the manmade sea bordering Riverside and Imperial counties.

As a beat reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, there is no “standard” assignment. I never know what will come out of an editorial meeting, but I am usually up for anything. However, this particular assignment made me nervous and excited at the same time. The nervous part of me worried I would flip the kayak upside down, forcing me to swallow gallons of the toxic salt water. The excited part of me couldn’t wait to row a vessel across this controversial body of water.

The Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, is a big part of our region’s history. Created more than 100 years ago in 1907, the inland sea was the product of high flooding on the Colorado River crashing into the canal gates leading into the Imperial Valley. At about 45 miles long and 20 miles wide, the Salton Sea would later have fish introduced; by 1920, the sea became a popular tourist attraction.

But those stories of the former greatness of the sea are only memories now—black-and-white images of surf signs, and tourists dancing along the shore with their radios and beach balls. Now the Salton Sea is known more for dead fish and bad odor.

Before I could think about it too much, I found myself at the Salton Sea Recreation Area, where, much to my surprise, I learned kayaking is an activity that anyone can do. As I settled into my individual kayak, I couldn’t help but notice the smell—the foul, fishy, dirty-water smell with which Eastern Coachella Valley residents are familiar. Nonetheless, I powered through it. After being pushed into the water, my kayak rocking side to side, I felt a rush of excitement. I was actually in the Salton Sea! On a kayak!

The smell seemed to disappear as I paddled farther and deeper into the sea. The water looked like a reflection of the blue sky above, while the mountains engulfed the space around us. I managed to lay the paddles on the kayak and take some photos, hoping to capture the picturesque scenes.

A Salton Sea official, kayaking along with the group, told us that kayaking is not the only activity available to the public. Campers, birdwatchers, photographers and hikers can enjoy the area’s many recreational opportunities. The high winds provide a perfect place to simply fly a kite.

I also learned that the sea is technically safe to swim in, although it was not advisable due to the presence of bacteria. Imagine my surprise when I saw Hueso jump into the sea for a swim! (Last I heard, he was doing just fine.)

Although I grew up in the Eastern Coachella Valley, not too far from the Salton Sea, I have only recently realized the impact this environment has had on my life. This sea is as much a part of our valley as the mountains that surround us and the sandstorms that wreak havoc on newly washed cars.

The Salton Sea is receiving a lot of attention these days, in part because of the high winds last year that blew the smell of dead fish and salt water as far away as Los Angeles and San Diego. People outside of our area were reminded of the unfiltered inland sea in our backyard. Many of our elected officials, including Pérez, are working on proposals to save the sea and improve the quality of life of those who live nearby. These proposed solutions are complex and may take years to come to fruition.

Kayaking along the Salton Sea felt like a mini getaway from the worries and pressure of the issues people my community faces daily. I feel almost ashamed that it took an invitation from our assemblymember in order for me to realize the potential of the Salton Sea. On that kayak, I saw firsthand how special our sea is—and why it is worth saving.

Coachella Unincorporated is a youth media startup in the East Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit coachellaunincorporated.org.

Published in Community Voices

Two summers ago, I was feeling anxious, nervous and scared. But it was more than the usual sadness about another summer coming to an end; I was about to begin my freshman year at a fancy prep school outside my community—not to mention my comfort zone.

I have lived in the city of Coachella my entire life. The great majority of the population is Hispanic, and many families who live here don’t have access to adequate living conditions, health care or even healthy food. In the near vicinity are thousands of acres of farmland where many people, including my own grandfather, work every day in order to support their families.

Up until last year, I attended elementary and middle school at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, just outside of Coachella, in the city of Indio. Even though OLPH is a Catholic school, things like exotic family vacations or fancy computers never mattered to me and my classmates. Catching the latest episode of our favorite television shows was far more important.

But in eighth-grade, my friends and I started talking about high school. I decided I really wanted to go to Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, a private Jesuit school; however, I did not have high hopes. Seeing my parents struggle with tuition at OLPH, attending Xavier did not seem realistic. Yet I filled out my application and anxiously waited every day for a response. I was thrilled when I was accepted and awarded financial aid.

During the summer of 2011, there was one thing that never left my mind: Why am I leaving the Latino Eastern Coachella Valley for the glitz and glamour of Palm Desert? Palm Desert is an affluent community, and I feared I would never fit in.

During my first weeks of school, I realized my fears were coming true: I did not fit in. I never had most of the things I wanted in life, so I figured everyone must be just like me. I’ve only been out of state once in my entire life, and here, kids were talking about their lavish summer trips to the East Coast and Europe. I had only seen MacBooks and other Apple products on television, and here, kids had all of them at their fingertips.

But I was smart enough to realize that their MacBooks and European trips did not make my new classmates better than me. David Allan Coe once said, “All men are created equal; it is only men themselves who place themselves above equality.”

And then, I came across an opportunity that was only for youth from the Eastern Coachella Valley: I was offered a chance to be a reporter for a news website (which now also has a brand-new print version). I would be able to cover events in my community and improve my writing and photography skills. I filled out my application and was eventually hired by Coachella Unincorporated in January 2012.

The reporting I knew from television is different than the reporting I am doing now. Contrary to popular belief, journalism is not only flash photography and-breaking news headlines. For us, it is being the voice of the voiceless, and shedding light on the struggles that our community goes through every day. Writing for change is what I consider myself to be doing, hoping that someone will listen to our voices and that together we can resolve these issues for the betterment of my community.

In the end, I finished my freshman year with outstanding grades and was elected to student government. I am now a sophomore, a locker higher and a year wiser. I plan to continue my writing career for as long as I can. I plan to further my education in college as well.

In the end, I found the answer I was looking for. I leave my rural community every morning for Xavier College Prep, in the wealthy community of Palm Desert, for one thing: opportunity. An opportunity to better myself in this world. An opportunity to leave my mark in this world. An opportunity to change my life, the lives of others, and to change the community I call home for the better.

Coachella Unincorporated is a youth media startup in the East Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit coachellaunincorporated.org.

Published in Community Voices