Field Notes From the Revolution: Activists Occupy California’s Imperial Valley

Field Notes From the Revolution: Activists Occupy California’s Imperial Valley

Field Notes From the Revolution: Activists Occupy California’s Imperial Valley

I thought I might find a simple meme of the Wall Street protest. What I discovered was a desert flower brought to blossom by an activist tradition, coalition-building and old-fashioned grit.


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.”

Water Transfer and Death Winds

Later, over apple pie and nachos at a nearby Denny’s, I have a chance to interview six of the occupationistas. I’m particularly interested in how they connect the broader themes of greed and inequality to their local situation.

I dub Imperial the most “reactionary” county in California. Susan Massey, a retired schoolteacher from nearby Holtville and a longtime peace activist, is skeptical.

“Poorest perhaps,” she says, but she points to the incremental enfranchisement (80 percent of the population is now Latino) that has ended the long era of overt farm fascism, when shouting anti-plutocratic slogans on Main Street would have resulted in a jail cell or even a lynching. Electorally, Imperial is now a reliable national Democratic stronghold (represented in Congress by liberal Bob Filner), even if voters still overwhelming reject gay marriage.

But everyone at the table agrees that the scale of the Valley’s unemployment problem far exceeds the meager resources available to local government. And as in southern Louisiana, jobs and environment are inextricably linked as the region approaches a dangerous tipping point.

Anita Nicklen, a migrant rights advocate and mother of two of the younger protesters, explains the links in a potentially fatal chain. “Farmers are under tremendous pressure to fallow land and sell their water entitlements to San Diego’s suburbs. Fewer crops means fewer farm workers and fewer dollars circulating in our local economy. There is also less runoff from irrigation into the rapidly shrinking Salton Sea. Fish die, migratory birds leave, tourists stay home. As the sea dries up, its toxic contents are exposed to the wind.”

(A scientist friend of mine later suggests a recipe for making the muck at the bottom of the sea: “Add alkali salts, deadly pesticides and carcinogenic industrial residues to vast quantities of fertilizer and sewage. Let it dry. Then let it blow. Roll up your car windows and quickly drive as far away as possible.”)

The peril is not theoretical. Los Angeles is currently spending hundreds of millions of dollars to restore parts of Owens Lake, whose water supply was diverted into the LA Aqueduct in 1913, to mitigate the alkali dust storms that for years have created acute respiratory problems in high-desert communities.

But the death of the Salton Sea, an extraordinary reservoir of sinister chemicals, would be like opening Pandora’s box, a creeping Chernobyl of respiratory illness and cancer. Partial depopulation of the Imperial and d valleys might follow.

To prevent such an apocalypse, Sacramento proposed a $9 billion restoration plan for the sea, but authority for the appropriation was blocked in court in 2009, and the plan now faces the triage of the state debt crisis. Meanwhile, climate change and a long drought in the Colorado Basin have reinforced political pressures to allow much larger water transfers from the Imperial Valley to the coast.

NAFTA Doesn’t Trickle Down

I change my line of inquiry. “OK, agriculture will likely decline, but what about the border economy?”

The Imperial Valley stands astride two major NAFTA transport corridors, and its Siamese twin in Mexico, the Mexicali Valley, is rapidly industrializing and diversifying.

El Centro has a population of 43,000; Mexicali, about 1 million. Across the border fence is a forest of foreign logos atop bustling maquiladoras: Sanyo, Kenworth, Allied Signal, Goldstar, Nestlé and so on. And an ambitious new industrial park, the “Silicon Border,” is fishing in Asia to bring semiconductor manufacturing back to North America.

Surely Mexicali’s dynamism must invigorate the Imperial Valley as well?

But no one at Denny’s can think of a single new manufacturing plant that free trade has added to the county (there apparently isn’t any). On the other hand, everyone has a horror story about the economic and personal impacts of the post-9/11 border.

Anita, who volunteers for Angeles sin Fronteras, a shelter for deported migrants in Mexicali, talks about cumulative fatigue of purgatorial two-hour-average waits in the northbound lanes to enter California. The delays, she points out, have killed off much of the cross-border retail trade that once nurtured Imperial Valley’s malls, markets and department stores. (Indeed, I discovered a 2007 study by the California Department of Transportation that estimates the Operation Gatekeeper–like delays have cost Imperial County several thousand jobs and tens of millions of dollars in sales tax receipts.)

The supposed benefits of NAFTA, in other words, haven’t trickled down to the Valley. Otherwise, how can you have the nation’s highest unemployment within spitting distance of one of the continent’s busiest trade corridors?

And the vigorous interventions by Mexico’s state and federal governments to keep Mexicali booming contrasts with the benign neglect of the Imperial Valley’s job crisis by both Sacramento and Washington.

Mobilize to Organize

I went to El Centro thinking that I might find a simple meme of the Wall Street protest: a copycat action, unlikely to grow in the hostile climate of Imperial County.

What I discovered, in fact, was a desert flower brought to blossom by a combination of long cultivation (local activist tradition), lots of sunlight (dialogue via social media) and, equally important, the existence of a local greenhouse (a physical space for meeting and interaction).

(I apologize to Occupy El Centro for not being able to interview more of its instigators, as well as for any errors in my interpretation of events.)

First, having a history: some of the older activists—Anita and Susan, for example—are veterans of the 2003 antiwar movement. Although never very large, the Imperial Valley Peace Coalition was a foundation for episodic actions and informal meetings and film viewings. It was also a political nursery where curious teenagers, like Camden Aguilera (now 24) from the town of Imperial, took their first steps in dissent.

The peace network recently roared back into existence when Wind Zero, a mysterious San Diego company headed by an ex-Navy SEAL, obtained permission from Imperial County supervisors to build a huge private military-training complex near the desert hamlet of Ocotillo. The plan is almost a carbon copy of Blackwater’s notorious attempt several years ago to construct a Goldfinger-like base in the eastern San Diego community of Potrero.

Blackwater (now Xe) was eventually defeated in San Diego by a unique grassroots coalition of conservative back-country residents and peace activists; and now People Against Wind Zero, supported by Occupy El Centro, is building a similar alliance.

Second, the importance of having a place: in the current global protests, physical fora and public space have re-established their centrality to rebellion. In the case of the Valley, Camden and Anita both stress the key role of the Center for Religious Science in El Centro, a meditation-focused spiritual center that provides performance space for actors, musicians and poets, and encourages meetings on issues of peace and environmental justice. Camden says the center enables creative countercultures and an alternative realm of ideas to exist in the Valley.

Although activists in the Coachella Valley (a northern extension of the Salton Sink) recently attempted to occupy Palm Desert’s Civic Center Park—nine were arrested—the Imperial Valley movement is conserving its forces for outreach. As Anita eloquently put it, “We must go from mobilize to organize.”

The prime movers of the El Centro demonstration bring together an impressive agenda of 99% issues, including migrant rights (Anita), anti–Wind Zero (Susan), feminism (Camden) and veterans’ rights (John Hernandez of Brawley).

Occupy El Centro provides a framework both for concentrating forces, as against Wind Zero, and for nurturing new solidarities on both sides of the steel wall that now separates the two Californias.

“Because the Imperial Valley is on the border,” Camden, said, she looks forward to “opportunities to take part in not only local or national activism, but global activism as well.” Anita hopes in particular that they can link with similar groups in Mexicali and begin to build an “Occupy the Border” dimension.

Finally, there is the virtual community aspect of the Occupy movement that enables participation in spite of geographical distance. Thanks to Facebook, for example, the Valley’s college diaspora, including recent UC Santa Cruz graduate Jessica Yocupicio, was able to play an integral role in planning the protest.

According to Susan, “a young man, Sky Ainsworth, ignited the process with an online call for action. When very few people responded, Jessica approached Anita, whom she knew from anti–Wind Zero organizing, and she contacted Camden and John Hernandez to start the planning dialogue. Other young people read the blogs and joined in.”

At the end of the day, however, occupying El Centro was an exercise in old-fashioned grit. As Susan explains: “I wanted to add that I was moved by the tremendous effort that the young organizers of the rally put forth. None of them have cars and get to work or school by public transportation. In Imperial Valley, buses are so few and far between it means spending two to three hours to go somewhere that is twenty minutes away by car. They are also very dedicated to helping friends and family with problems, so it was amazing that they could bring this off.”

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