In My Own Words: Sweeping Change
Fifteen years ago I was a highschool student sweeping the floors of Coachella's City Hall. A year later my friend and I found ourselves videotaping the city council meetings for extra summer money. Nowadays I am not that handy with a broom or even a camera, but I still walk the same halls and attend the same city council meetings with that same friend—he as the mayor and I as the city attorney for Coachella.
Ninety-six percent of the city's population is composed of Mexican immigrants. Coachella is a young community where the median age is twenty-six and visitors can better navigate themselves by speaking Spanish than English. The city is approximately thirty-two square miles and is located in Riverside County, California; it is the easternmost city in the region collectively known as the Coachella Valley.
Coachella is located 120 miles southeast of Los Angeles and 100 miles north of the Mexican border. Known as the “City of Eternal Sunshine—Gateway to the Salton Sea,” the city has traditionally been a rural, agricultural, family-oriented community in the desert and one of the state’s fastest growing cities.
The community's green fields feed the country. With everything from dates to grapes growing year round, most residents have contributed to this richness of American agriculture. Although many have faced the reality of social, political and economic deficiency, Coachella's history of resistance and struggle is alive and well in its residents. This experience has also etched the city's name into history books by providing a backdrop for the organizing drives of the United Farm Workers (UFW) since the '60s.
Coming from Coachella, I joined the past and future generations of farmworker children who entered universities with a deep conviction and passion to make our community's struggles relevant to others. Pitzer was the college that provided the environment and space to help make this change. From organizing with the UFW, to collaborating with Pitzer's community members, other students and myself continued this commitment to change our own condition and the daily condition of others. I transferred this commitment of community empowerment from Pitzer, to law school, and now to my current position.
As the city attorney, I have been thrust into a new role representing the City on all legal matters. Some days, I advise the City on the public bidding process, contract negotiations or pending litigation. On other days, I work on issues that directly impact residents' lives.
This has allowed me to work with the City on adopting a resolution against federal immigration policy that criminalizes undocumented immigrants and their loved ones; working on the adoption of a resolution against the war in Iraq; as well as drafting a letter to Congress calling for comprehensive, just and humane immigration reform. When the community complained that the local police were questioning residents about their legal status, the City put a stop to this even at the displeasure of the county sheriffs department.
This desire to take local government to the community is also exemplified during the city council meetings when I translate the meetings for the non-English speakers in the audience. Moreover, the City also distributes its literature in Spanish and offers Spanish classes to its employees so they can better serve the city's Spanish-speaking residents.
The City's commitment to making government relevant to all the residents is also very crucial since the city is experiencing tremendous growth. Coachella has been one of the fastest growing cities in the state for the past several years. The city's population, now at 42,000, has grown by about 50 percent within the last seven years. If left unchecked, this growth will transform Coachella without taking into account the dynamics of the community or the human capital of its residents.
The recent slowdown in the residential real estate market has been a blessing in disguise for balancing the city's future growth. This is providing the City an opportunity to develop and implement a plan and vision which ensures that growth and development occur on favorable terms. The plan allows the City to balance growth and responsibly develop a community that benefits all of its residents, while at the same time incorporating the city's long and rich history of immigration and community.
As city attorney, I now have another opportunity to create change through a different form of sweeping at Coachella's City Hall. It is a privilege I do not take lightly.