There’s more than music going on in Coachella

By Mary Lou Fulton

If you’ve heard of Coachella, odds are it’s because of the popular annual music festival by the same name that this year drew 75,000 people per day, more than twice the population of this rural California desert community.

But there’s a lot more than music going on in Coachella, as I learned last week when I visited there to help launch a new youth media grant funded by The California Endowment and led by New America Media, the nation’s largest ethnic media network.  In the coming months, our funds will be used to create to hire and train young journalists who will create a web site and other forms of media to tell the world more about life in Coachella — the good, the bad and everything in between.

Coachella is one of the 14 neighborhoods in The Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities initiative.  Coachella is home to many farm workers and Native Americans who struggle with chronic health conditions such as diabetes, asthma, hypertension and cancer. More than 97% of Coachella’s residents are Latino, and nearly 30% of families are below the poverty line.

Like many underserved communities, Coachella lacks any kind of meaningful and consistent local news coverage.  The regional newspaper, The Desert Sun, doesn’t have a reporter who regularly writes about Coachella, and in fact, has stopped offering home delivery of paper in the area, a common cost-cutting move among newspapers when there are relatively few subscribers in a rural area. There is no community newspaper or web site serving Coachella and local television stations don’t show up except when there are terrible crimes, such as a recent incident in which a 17-year-old boy was doused with gasoline and set ablaze in a local park.

But just because there are no news outlets doesn’t mean there isn’t news.  In a lively meeting with community leaders and local youth, we heard many stories worth telling.  Some stories left me feeling angry and sad, such as learning about how about how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers trailed cars in Coachella, waiting for parents to drop off their kids at school and then deporting the parents, leaving children to fend for themselves.  Or hearing about how many neighborhoods lack basic amenities such as safe drinking water, clean air, paved streets and sidewalks, as depicted in Contaminated Valley, an award-winning video by students at Desert Mirage High School.

But we also heard heard many stories of resilience and hope that were all the more remarkable considering the challenges of day-to-day life in Coachella.  For instance, Coachella Valley High School offers a range of Partnership Academies that integrate academics, career, and technical education. Participating students receive on-the-job experience and training through job shadowing.  One youth spoke enthusiastically about the Health Academy, through which he had spent time at a local clinic and even observed a baby being born at a local hospital.

Another Coachella Valley High School program helps prepare parents to send their children to college, with a focus on helping parents feel more comfortable about allowing their kids to move away from home to continue their education.  As a teenager, I had to do battle with my Mexican-born mother to persuade her to allow me to accept a scholarship from a university 180 miles from home, so I definitely see the value in this kind of training.

There was also great pride in the achievements of local residents, such as Desert Mirage High School graduate Maria Rodriguez, the first Coachella student to be named Gates Millennium Scholar, and Coachella Mayor Eduardo Garcia, a native son who is among the youngest mayors in California at age 33.

And beyond the bad news and the good news, we learned some interesting facts about Coachella, as you often do when visiting someplace new.  On the drive to the beautiful new Boys and Girls Club where our meeting took place, we noticed some street names that seemed unusual:  Baghdad, Damascus, Tripoli and Cairo.  It turns out that those streets were named in recognition of the local prominence of dates, an agricultural crop that originated in the Middle East.  And we learned that the mascot of Coachella Valley High School is the Arab.

And oh, about that famous music festival?  Turns out it’s not even held in Coachella, but in the neighboring city of Indio. In addition to piggybacking on Coachella’s name, the festival also claimed the coachella.com web address — the city itself had to settle for coachella.org.  The festival tickets are so expensive ($269 for all three days, with no single day passes sold) that most Coachella residents can’t afford to go.  To support the local community, the festival donates $3 per ticket to charities, with the only local beneficiary being the Indio Youth Task Force.

I look forward to next spring, when our new local media outlet will be thriving and when I imagine young Coachella journalists calling up festival organizers to ask, “So you use the name of our community, sell thousands of t-shirts and sweatshirts bearing the name Coachella without any royalties paid to us, sell tickets at prices that few local people can afford and not a dime comes back to our city — what’s up with that?”