CIRS Blog about Rural California

By Paulina Rojas

COACHELLA, Calif. — On a warm summer night the sound of shoes clacking on the floor radiated from the clubhouse at Las Palmeras Estates, a group of low-income housing units in Coachella. The sound was not coming from children running around relaxing during their summer break. This was the sound of young people from the group Sol Del Desierto practicing ballet folklorico.

Ballet folklorico are dances from Latin America that fuse local folk culture with ballet.

Parents looked on as their children perfected their choreography one step at a time. Glimmers of sweat slowly appearing on their faces. Although they were getting tired, they had many reasons to keep pushing.

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By Paulina Rojas

Editor’s note: Alma Ochoa is a Purépecha musician based out of the Eastern Coachella Valley. The Purépecha are a group of indigenous people originally from the state of Michoacan in Mexico. Their presence in the Eastern Coachella Valley dates back to around the 1970s, when few Purépecha spoke Spanish. Over the years the community struggled with both linguistic and cultural isolation. Ochoa, who sings in her native language, is one of only a few female Purépecha singers. She recently performed at The Hue Festival in Mecca, Calif. Coachella Uninc. program associate and reporter, Paulina Rojas sat down with Ochoa to find out how she helps preserve Purépecha culture. 

Q: How long have you been producing Purépecha music? 

A: About three or four years ago, I got inspired to start recording my own music. About two years ago, I recorded my first music video and a few months ago I released it on YouTube.

Q: What was the initial feedback like?

A: I wasn’t expecting so many people to like it. I was surprised, but I am happy that so many people are enjoying it.

Q: What inspired you sing in Purépecha instead of Spanish or English?

A: Most of the people that sing pirekuas (traditional music from Michoacan) are men and I wanted to change that … so that women might feel encouraged to make this music as well. With my music I hope to inspire young women to start doing the same. I also want preserve my culture in some way. Little by little we are losing parts of it due to the fact that it is being mixed with Spanish. I want to keep our culture alive so future generations can have the knowledge of what Purépecha culture is.

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Changing Demographics

A Spring 2017 Washington Post survey found that rural Americans are uneasy about the changing demographics of the U.S. and believe their Christianity is under attack as the federal government caters to urban residents. For example, 42 percent of rural residents agree that immigrants are mostly a drain on the U.S., compared with 16 percent of urban residents. Two-thirds of rural residents say cracking down on illegal migrants would improve job prospects in their areas.

Rural was defined as non-metro counties and counties near population centers with up to 250,000 people, so that a quarter of Americans were considered rural in the poll. Pollsters say that the underlying issue is fairness, with rural residents skeptical of whom the federal government favors and helps.

Rural areas have had a weaker recovery from the 2008-09 recession than urban areas, and job growth has not returned to 2007 levels, prompting rural youth to leave for education and jobs and not return. A third of rural residents said that jobs and drug abuse were the biggest problems confronting their community, compared with 10 percent of urban residents.

The Wall Street Journal reported on May 26, 2017 that the total rural population declined in each of the past five years. Births in rural counties are declining, deaths are rising, and the median age of 41 is higher than the median 35 in large metro areas. Male labor force participation in rural counties is declining, and there are 60 disabled workers per 1,000 working age residents in rural counties, double the 30 per 1,000 rate in large metro areas.

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Water

The California Department of Water Resources reported in April 2017 that 90 inches of precipitation fell in the northern Sierra mountains, breaking the previous record set in 1982-83. California has one of the most variable climates in North America.

Most precipitation occurs during the winter months, and melting snow is moved from mountains in the north to farmers and urban consumers in the center and southern parts of the state via a system of dams and canals. The Sierra Nevada snowpack usually provides a third of the state's water supply.

Governor Jerry Brown proposed to move water around the environmentally sensitive Delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers empty into the San Francisco Bay by building twin tunnels expected to cost $16 billion. The California WaterFix is controversial, generally opposed by Delta residents and farmers. The water agencies south of the Delta are expected to decide by September 2017 whether they will help to pay for the project to move water around the Delta to pumps near Tracy.

Cadiz Inc owns about 50 square miles of land above a major aquifer in the Cadiz Valley, and wants to sell the water to southern California cities. The Mojave Desert Land Trust and most environmentalists oppose the project, but the Trump administration appears to favor allowing Cadiz to pump 50,000 acre feet of water a year from the aquifer.

California's fire season began in July 2017, with major fires around the state burning the grasses and shrubs that resulted from the record rainfall of 2016-17.

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Noé Montes has photographed and interviewed people in the Eastern Coachella Valley for two and a half years as part of a photo documentary project  (which can be found at https://coachellafarmworkers.com). Recently, he answered the Rural California Report's questions about what the work. 

 

Rural California Report: What is the Coachella Valley Farm Workers project and how long have you been working on it?

 

Noé Montes: It is a photo documentary project about the community of farmworkers in the Eastern Coachella Valley. It focuses on the individuals that are working in various capacities to address the many social justice issues and issues of inequality that exist in the community. Most of the people photographed and interviewed have been farmworkers themselves or are the children of farmworkers. It is comprised of photography, writing and audio interviews. I started working on this in January of 2015.

 

Castulo Estrada copy

   Photo of Castulo Estrada by Noé Montes

 

RCR: What inspired you to pick the Coachella Valley? Why did you want to photograph farmworkers and other community members there?

 

NM: One of the main reasons I wanted to photograph and interview farmworkers is that I myself come from family of farmworkers and I know that there is a lot of value on the community. There is a lot to learn from about how to develop our communities in a positive way. A lot of the previous work done about farmworkers focuses on the problems in the community and often farmworkers are depicted very simply, either as examples of inequality or to illustrate some social justice issue. I wanted to add to the conversation and our understanding of this community and see what we can all learn from them.

I picked the Coachella Valley because it is a good representative example of a rural farmworker community in California. It is a microcosm that contains all the elements present in many rural American communities. Logistically it also worked in that it is close enough to where I live (Los Angeles) that I was able to travel there regularly and often.

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