RIVERSIDE (California) PRESS-ENTERPRISE

April 24, 2009

 

Decision on Duroville expected next week

 

By RICHARD K. DE ATLEY
The Press-Enterprise

A federal judge announced he will issue a decision next week on the fate of the Duroville migrant farmworker mobile home park. The Coachella Valley park is too squalid to be saved, government attorneys claim, but two residents testified Thursday they have no where else to go.

U.S. District Judge Stephen G. Larson said he will hear one more day of testimony today and then final arguments Thursday. The judge said he intends to announce his decision after the arguments.

Larson's announcement followed an afternoon of testimony from two residents of the park. Both men said they work as harvesters and are Purépecha, an indigenous people from the central Mexican state of Michoacán.

The two men described their community, and both stoically recounted how they believed Duroville rent collectors had cheated them. They said things were better after court-ordered administrators began managing the park in July 2008.

The trial is in federal court because Duroville, formally known as Desert Mobile Home Park, is on the Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian reservation. Indian reservations are under federal jurisdiction.

The federal government says the park, which began taking residents as early in 1998, grew without proper regulation and code enforcement and has dangerous or poorly maintained electrical, water and sewage systems.

The park is operating illegally, they claim, because it never got a lease from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

This is the federal government's second lawsuit against the park.

The park's nickname derives from its owner and former manager, tribe member Harvey Duro Sr. Residents also call it "Duros." Duro is a defendant in the case, but now maintains he also wants the park to close.

Duroville, near Thermal, consists of about 260 mobile homes that house 2,000 people.

The population can increase to 6,000 during the grape harvest season. Thermal is about 75 miles southeast of Palm Springs.

 

TESTIMONY

Merejildo Ortiz, 34, who has lived in Duroville since 2000 and is president of the Purépecha Council inside the park, estimated about 1,500 residents of the park are Purépecha.

"Whenever a tragedy happens, or some other unfortunate thing, we help each other out, spiritually and financially," Ortiz said. "We don't go to companies or the government to get help."

He said he is the family's only breadwinner and earns about $14,000 a year, supplementing his field work with doing some mechanic jobs.

Ortiz, speaking through a Spanish interpreter, said he lives in a mobile home with his wife, three children and an adult nephew. Attorney Arturo Rodriguez of California Rural Legal Assistance asked what he would do if he had to move out of Duroville. He said if it was only him, he would go back to Michoacán.

Ortiz said he has asked his children if they would like to return as well "And they simply tell me 'no,' " he testified.

"From what I see, if tomorrow there is no Duros, they will be harmed, because they have friends and I personally have many colleagues from Michoacán."

Two of his children are American citizens, and speak English, he said. All three go to local schools.

He said the nearest place to live was in Mecca, but the rent was too high. He pays about $470 for his land and utilities at Duroville and owns his mobile home.

Like many Duroville residents, he testified he stopped paying rent about four months ago on rumors the park would be closed.

 

RENT DISPUTES

Ortiz said he also had disputes with rent collectors in the park, saying they were not crediting him as promised for in-kind work. He has a small dump truck, he testified, and used it to by and spread road gravel at Duroville.

He said he had an oral agreement that each gravel load -- he estimated he had made more than 50, would result in $100 cash payment to him and $100 credit toward his rent.

But instead, he said, a bookkeeper kept insisting his overdue rent was increasing. It had been at $2,500 but at the end of 2008 he was told he owed about $4,600. "I though I was bringing that amount down, but it doubled," he said. "In the end, there were no signed papers, so I can't do anything," Ortiz said.

Duroville resident Alejandro Amezcua, 43, testified that he had paid an advance on his $275 rent for July through September 2008 so he and his family could leave to pick grapes in Bakersfield. He said he also disconnected his mobile home's electrical hookup.

But when he returned he was told he had to pay the rent. He got receipts, but a bookkeeper, he testified, claimed they must have been falsified even though the bookkeeper issued them. He also said he was presented with an electrical bill for $579.

"I told you I am not going to pay you again," he said he told the bookkeeper. He said he was told, "If you don't want to pay, fine, get your trailer and get out."

Amezcua said he wound up paying the amounts over again "so we could end the argument," He also told Rodriguez he feared he and his family, including his wife and two children still living at home, ages 6 and 12, would be kicked out.

Amezcua said he was among the first to move into Duroville, during the summer of 1998.

Earlier in the day, Duro told attorney Chandra Gehri Spencer that years of struggle over the park wore him down. He was removed from any role in the park's management and his $7,000 monthly payments were cut late last year by Larson, who said he had failed to improve the park and seek loans to help it.

"The honest truth is this court took my funds and I have no desire to go on," Duro testified.

"Are you tired of fighting about it?" asked Spencer, who represents park residents.

"Yeah, I threw in the towel," Duro said.