My car radio reports an Arctic blizzard on Wall Street, but Main Street in El Centro is comfortably baking in ninety-degree autumn heat. In California’s Imperial Valley, where federally subsidized Colorado River water has irrigated the profits of Anglo latifundistas for more than a century, and where farmworkers too often die of sunstroke and dehydration on 120-degree days in August, this is fine weather for protest.
Forty or fifty Valley residents are marching down Main, past recently boarded-up storefronts and extinct family businesses, stopping in front of several banks and a McDonald’s to chant “No more, no more, no more oppression. The 99 percent is fed up with all the exploitation.”
The protest wears two hats—Occupy El Centro and Occupy Imperial County—but both initiatives have now fused into a single emerging network of activists. (Their audacious name in Spanish, which I prefer, is Toma el Valle, or “Take the Valley.”)
After some lusty renditions of El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido (“Best chant ever,” an eighth-grader tells me), the marchers rally under a picnic canopy at Adams Park, where a serape-draped Day of the Dead altar has been erected in memory of the “American Dream.”
There are sprays of marigolds, painted papier-mâché skulls, a portrait of a santo (Cesar Chavez), corn husks, pumpkin seeds, pan de muertos, small American flags, amulets, a plaque with the names of local war dead and a copy of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Leaning on the altar is a large placard: “99%.”
But it could also have read “32%”—the official unemployment rate in Imperial County at the beginning of September. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, El Centro and its neighboring towns lead the nation’s metropolitan areas in joblessness.
Likewise, local per capital incomes are today nearly 10 percent less than twenty years ago. Half-finished subdivisions—targeted for sale to extreme long-distance commuters who work in San Diego—are becoming dusty ghost towns, and even the local cemetery is rumored to be in foreclosure.
Statistically, in other words, the sueño Americano in the Imperial Valley is almost without a heartbeat. And the outside world is eager to rub salt in the wound.
One yuppie lifestyle site, for example, recently voted El Centro the “worst city” in the United States, while William Vollman, the Forrest Gump of US literary journalism, has depicted Imperial County as the heart of border darkness, if not Hell itself, in an immense, sprawling, solipsistic book. His Imperial is 1,344 pages long; my edition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, 1,296 pages.
After the rally, while organizers are dismantling the altar, I talk to several protesters about outside images of the Valley. One teenager thinks I’m pulling his leg when I describe Vollman’s magnum opus: “About El Centro, for real? Why? This is just an ordinary place.”
An older Latino man acknowledges the Valley’s brutal and extraordinary anti-union past, but also demands respect for its rich cultural core of family life, outdoor recreation and Mexican heritage. “If our kids leave,” he emphasizes, “it’s not because they hate the desert, but because there are no decent jobs.”