Main Street in El Centro is comfortably baking in 90-degree autumn heat. In California's Imperial Valley, where federally subsidized Colorado River water has irrigated the profits of Anglo latifundistas for more than a century, and where farmworkers too often die of sunstroke and dehydration on 120-degree days in August, this is fine weather for protest.
Forty or 50 valley residents are marching down Main, past recently boarded-up storefronts, stopping in front of several banks and a McDonald's to chant, "No more, no more, no more oppression! The 99% is fed up with all the exploitation!"
The protest wears two hats — Occupy El Centro and Occupy Imperial County — but the initiatives have fused into a single emerging network of activists. (Its audacious name in Spanish, which I prefer, is Toma el Valle — or Take the Valley.)
After some lusty renditions of "El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido" ("best chant ever," an eighth-grader tells me) the marchers rally at Adams Park, where a serape-draped Day of the Dead altar has been erected in memory of the "American dream."
Leaning on the altar is a large placard: "99%." But it could also have read "32%" — the official unemployment rate in Imperial County at the beginning of September. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, El Centro and its neighboring towns lead the nation's metropolitan areas in joblessness.
Likewise, real per capita incomes are today nearly 10% less than they were 20 years ago. Half-finished subdivisions — targeted for sale to extreme long-distance commuters who work in San Diego — are becoming dusty ghost towns, and even the local cemetery is rumored to be in foreclosure.
After the rally, over apple pie and nachos at a nearby Denny's, I have a chance to interview six of the occupationistas. I dub Imperial the most "reactionary" county in California.
Susan Massey, a retired teacher from nearby Holtville and longtime peace activist, is skeptical. "Poorest, perhaps," but she points to the incremental enfranchisement (80% of the population is now Latino) that has ended the long era of overt farm fascism when shouting anti-plutocratic slogans on Main Street would have resulted in a jail cell or even a lynching. Electorally, Imperial is now a reliable national Democratic stronghold, even if voters still overwhelmingly reject gay marriage.
But everyone at the table agrees that the scale of the valley's unemployment problem far exceeds the meager resources available to local government, and that jobs and environment are inextricably linked as the region approaches a dangerous tipping point.
Anita Nicklen, a migrant rights advocate and mother of two of the younger protesters, explains the links. "Farmers are under tremendous pressure to fallow land and sell their water entitlements to San Diego's suburbs. Fewer crops means fewer farmworkers and fewer dollars circulating in our local economy.
"There is also less runoff from irrigation into the rapidly shrinking Salton Sea. Fish die, migratory birds leave, tourists stay home. As the sea dries up, its toxic contents are exposed to the wind."
The peril is not theoretical. The death of the Salton Sea, an extraordinary reservoir of sinister chemicals, would be like opening Pandora's Box. A creeping Chernobyl of respiratory illness and cancer. To prevent such an apocalypse, Sacramento has proposed a $9-billion restoration, but the plan must now face the triage of the state debt crisis.
I change my line of inquiry. "What about the border economy?"
The Imperial Valley stands astride two major NAFTA transport corridors, and its twin, the Mexicali Valley, is rapidly industrializing and diversifying. El Centro has a population of 42,000; Mexicali, well over 1 million. Across the border fence is a forest of foreign logos atop bustling maquiladoras: Sanyo, Kenworth, Allied Signal, Goldstar, Nestle and so on.
Surely Mexicali's dynamism must invigorate the Imperial Valley as well? But no one at Denny's can think of a single new manufacturing plant that free trade has added to the county (there apparently isn't one). The supposed benefits of NAFTA haven't trickled down. And the vigorous interventions by Mexico's state and federal governments to keep Mexicali booming contrast with the benign neglect of the Imperial Valley's job crisis by both Sacramento and Washington.
I went to El Centro thinking I might find a simple meme of the Wall Street protest: a copycat action unlikely to grow in the hostile climate of Imperial County. What I discovered, in fact, was a desert flower brought to blossom by a combination of elements.
First, having a history. Some of the older activists — Anita and Susan, for example — are veterans of the 2003 antiwar movement. Although never very large, the Imperial Valley Peace Coalition was a foundation for episodic actions and a political nursery where curious teenagers, like Camden Aguilera (now 24), took their first steps in dissent.