THERMAL, CALIF. — Like most of their neighbors in the sprawling, ramshackle Oasis Mobile Home Park, the Aguilars have no heat, no hot water. On cold nights, the family of eight stays warm by bundling up in layers of sweaters and sleeps packed together in two tiny rooms.
Bathing is a luxury that requires using valuable propane to boil gallons of water. So the farmworker clan spends a lot of time dirty.
Jose Aguilar, a wiry 9-year-old, has found a way around the bath problem. He just waits until dinner. "My mom makes frijoles," he said, "then I take a bath in that water."
Jose and his family live in a world few ever see, a vast poverty born in hundreds of trailer parks strung like a shabby necklace across the eastern Coachella Valley.
Out here -- just a few miles from world-class golf resorts, private hunting clubs and polo fields -- half-naked children toddle barefoot through mud and filth while packs of feral dogs prowl piles of garbage nearby.
Thick smoke from mountains of burning trash drifts through broken windows. People -- sometimes 30 or more -- are crammed into trailers with no heat, no air-conditioning, undrinkable water, flickering power and plumbing that breaks down for weeks or months at a time.
"I was speechless," said Haider Quintero, a Colombian training for the priesthood who recently visited the parks as part of his studies. "I never expected to see this in America."
Riverside County officials say there are between 100 and 200 illegal trailer parks in the valley, but the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition says the number could be as high as 500.
California Rural Legal Assistance says as few as 20 parks are legal, and they are often as dilapidated as the illegal ones. When county inspectors locate a park without permits, they prefer to let owners bring the place into compliance through loan and grant programs rather than evict the tenants.
Some of the largest and poorest parks are on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation where they are not subject to local zoning laws and the county can't monitor safety, hygiene and building standards. The reservation is also home to the worst illegal dumps of any tribe in California, Arizona or Nevada, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The federal agency has closed 10 of the 20 most toxic dumps and cited four of the largest trailer parks for health violations.
Despite the conditions, park owners say they are providing a vital service in an area where housing prices have soared.
"Before the parks, they were living in their cars, in the desert and bathing in the canals. Five guys would pay 50 bucks a month to share a camper shell," said Scott Lawson, a tribal member and co-owner of the Oasis park on the reservation. "Nobody cared when they lived like that, only when they moved into trailers. You can't expect the poorest to live like the wealthiest. They feel comfortable here; it's like being back in Mexico. They tell me that."
Lawson's 300-trailer park has been cited by the EPA for clean-water violations and was recently ordered to stop pumping raw sewage into the nearby Salton Sea.
"We had some citations about water but it's because we didn't know how to test it," he said. "I'm not ashamed of my place. There are a lot worse places than mine."
Exactly how many people live in the trailer parks is unknown, but social workers estimate tens of thousands. The biggest park, Desert Mobile Home Park, or "Duroville," has more than 4,000 residents and can be seen off California 195 near Thermal. Others are on private property and virtually invisible to passing motorists.
The tenants are almost entirely Latino farm or construction workers. Many are in the United States legally, but plenty are not. Their average income, according to county officials, is about $10,000 a year. Many parents rent out their children's rooms for extra money, leaving kids to sleep on floors or in sheds. Many families keep warm by burning grape stakes, which fill their trailers with toxic fumes.
In one nameless park on the reservation off Avenue 70 in Thermal, trailers with broken windows and unhinged doors sit against piles of trash. Box springs, tires, car parts are stacked 10 feet high. Sewage runs behind the trailers, and wild dogs yap and howl.
"This place has some of the worst conditions I have seen," said Sister Gabriella Williams, who does community outreach in the parks and is raising money to build a learning center for residents. "And it's actually gotten worse since I last saw it."
She picked her way through a yard that doubled as a trash heap.
"The park owners have to look into their own conscience as to why they run these kinds of places with these kind of conditions," she said. "They wouldn't want this in their backyard. They wouldn't tolerate it. We all need to recognize the dignity in each other."
Former resident Conrrada Valenzuela said she went three months without electricity, living by candlelight.