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The Last Days of Rancho De Los Diablos : The Largest Migrant Camp in Southern California Was Bulldozed This Month--One More Twist in a History and Fable in Progress

November 27, 1994|ELSTON CARR | Eslton Carr has been a regular contributor to the LA Weekly and is a graduate student at the UCLA Center for Afro-American Studies

No morning at Rancho de los Diablos really begins until Don Trino descends into the canyon at a few minutes past 4 in his red-and-silver lunch truck. Before any light, before the roosters crow on the eastern side of the camp, don Trino parks near two eucalyptus trees and waits silently in the cab. Until it was razed this fall, Rancho de los Diablos, which stretched for seven-tenths of a mile along the bottom of Mc Gonigle Canyon in the northwest corner of the city of San Diego, was the largest-and perhaps oldest migrant camp in Southern California. At its height, in the late '70s, the camp had as many as 2,000 residents. By this summer, the population stood at 600. As a 20 year-old squatters camp located on private property, it was always a center of controversy. City officials called it a health hazard. Nearby homeowners targeted it as a drag on property values and a magnet for crime. Advocacy groups rallied around it as a glaring example of San Diego's failure to provide adequate housing for immigrant laborers-the backbone of the area's $800-million agricultural industry. This spring, after years of task forces and resolution, the city finally decided to relocate 39 families and level the camp.

Unlike the 200 or so other encampments that account for 15,000 migrants throughout San Diego county, Rancho de los Diablos evolved from a bachelors society to an organized community that included not just field hands, gardeners and day laborers but also women and children. Several years ago, as advocacy groups improved living conditions and promised the construction of better housing, the men, most of whom are legal residents, brought their families up from Mexico. By the end, services included weekly check cashing, a credit system, trash pickup, toilets, colar- and generator-powered electricity, Avon delivery, a water system, student carpools, and elected town council, a brothel under the stars, a local marijuana patch, fake green cards, a vibrant trade in crystal methaphetamine and daily patrols by the San Diego Police Department.

"There's bit of everything here," one resident told me with a smile, betraying amusement and amazement bordering on outrage. she wasn't just rendering to her fellow residents, but to the baptisms and quincianeras, first Communions wand weddings, deaths and fires that have marked the camp's history.

By the time the last bulldozers came in late October and cleared away 401 cardboard, plywood, plastic and metal-sided shacks, a medical clinic, six restaurants, two soccer fields, four basketball courts and a volleyball court, the communal bathhouse and general store, the men had already erected a new camp less than a mile away. It's happened this way for 20 years. The city or the growers tear down a camp and another sprouts up. So, the destruction of Rancho de los Diablos this fall was really only a twist in the plot of a story that spans three decades. It is a verdadera historia, truly a story, because it is history and fable in progress that begins with a low point for Cesar Chavez and turns on the feudal living conditions of most farm workers in San diego County.

*

Just Down The Road From Don Trino's lunch truck, Dona Adelina rises from the wooden pallet that she shares with her husband, Don Cidronio, slides her feet into worn black flats and turns on a flashlight. Quietly, so as not to wake her 16-year-old son, who sleeps on the other side of a partition, she removes the chain from the door of her family's three-room canton, shack. Once outside , she dips water from a metal drum to wash her hands and face, slicks the excess water into her medium-length black hair and brushes her teeth.

Forty-six years old, Dona Adelina has a wide, stern face and a down-turned mouth. Shen she meets you for the first time, she looks at you from the corner of her eyes, like a farmer sizing up a stranger. She arrived at Rancho de los Diablos in 1992 from Zacatetan, in the state of Guerrero, to join her husband, who had become a legal resident under amnesty. With her eldest daughters married, there was no reason to remain separated from Don Cidronio nine months of the year. "After so many years of hearing about America," She says, "I wanted to see what people were talking about."

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