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The truck driver was a young man in his 20s, working alone. He would remove one palette of sealed products, wheel it on a dolly and stack it outside the door where it was going, then do it again. And again. He had made several trips before he noticed a woman standing near his truck. She was aiming her iPhone at the wall next to the door.
Curious, he looked to see what she was photographing. He saw the enormous mural that covered most of the side of the building. He stopped and stared.
The young man said, “I’ve never noticed that before."
The woman said, "It's pretty."
The young man, still gazing at the mural, smiled. “Yes, it is.”
The mural depicts two girls -- twins or a mirror image of one? -- each holding a heart from which flowers sprout. It is entitled Sembramos Sueños y Cosechamos Esperanza (We Sow Dreams and We Harvest Hope). The background is a rich shade of red. The girls' expressions are mysterious. Dreamy? Yes. Hopeful? Yes. But there's something else there too.
The mural is in Coachella, California, at the east end of the Coachella Valley, which is better known for the city at its west end, Palm Springs. Palm Springs is affluent and still vaguely glamorous, a relic from its reputation in the 1950s and 1960s as a winter playground for the rich and famous. As you head east out of Palm Springs, you pass through the newer cities of Cathedral City, Palm Desert, La Quinta, Indian Wells, Indio. The distinction among them is slight. They too are mostly affluent. The houses tend to be built within gated communities, walled off to the outside world. There are plenty of fountains, and even the ornamental grass strips between sidewalks (where you rarely see people walking) and streets (where you see lots of cars) are watered generously.
After Indio, you reach Coachella, 35 miles from Palm Springs. Coachella is different from its neighbors. It’s poorer, the houses modest, its population mostly Hispanic, many of whom work on the farms that produce grapes, dates, lettuce, citrus and bell peppers. There's a casino, but otherwise there hasn't been much to attract tourists. At least, there wasn't until a few years ago with the advent of the Coachella murals.
It began in 2013, when a local artist named Armando Lerma started a project called Coachella Walls to paint murals in the city’s then-gritty Pueblo Viejo central business district.
"Initially, my idea was to just get things going," Lerma told me last week by phone. "That part of town was neglected for so long. My idea was for it to be an artist revitalization program. It was to get the neighborhood just to look better.”
Lerma was dismayed that when the music festival took place each spring, it would draw as many as 100,000 people, but few ever ventured the short distance to Coachella.
“You would never see any outsider people," Lerma said. "For thirty years, no one would go to Coachella. There was no reason. There was nothing there."
Lerma teamed up with a friend and fellow artist, Carlos Ramirez, to paint Casa Del Trajabador (Worker's House) on the side of a small building where Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union used to meet to devise strategy.
Notice the date on the mural beside the words Grape Boycott: September 8, 1965. That was the day that the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, a union representing Filipino-American farmworkers, struck in the town of Delano in the San Joaquin Valley. Earlier that year, AWOC had called a strike in the Coachella Valley which won them a 15 cent an hour pay increase to $1.40 an hour.
AWOC was led by a dynamic Filipino immigrant named Larry Itliong, who had been battling for better pay and improved working conditions for farm workers since the 1930s. In those days, thousands of Filipinos, including Itliong, worked as seasonal migrant workers throughout California, following the harvests north starting in Coachella Valley in the spring.
When AWOC struck in Delano, Itliong appealed to Cesar Chavez, whose National Farm Workers Association represented mostly Mexican-American migrant workers, to join them. Chavez didn't think it was the right time for his group to go on strike, but he reluctantly agreed. The two groups merged as the United Farm Workers union.
It would take five years for their strike and national grape boycott to succeed, allowing farm workers to unionize, gaining them better wages, health care benefits and safety protections from the pesticides used in the agricultural fields. Chavez died in 1993. Today, he is a civil rights icon. Larry Itliong died in 1977. Today, he is largely unknown outside the Filipino-American community.
Lerma, 46, works out of a studio in the Pueblo Viejo neighborhood. He says mural painting is tough work, not just artistically, but physically.
“I really think of murals like a contact sport,” he said. “They (muralists) are like athletes and it takes a lot of effort. A lot of people can't go up and down the ladder. Some don’t have the drive to complete the job. You have to build up to being a muralist. You can't just go out there and start doing it.”
Some of the Coachella murals honor the farm workers and the struggle for their rights that took place in the Valley. One of them, Lucha Sin Fin (Endless Struggle), is dedicated to female farm workers who were not only exploited as workers but were often targets of sexual abuse. Other murals reflect the area's rich Mexican culture. Still others are the artists' personal aesthetic vision. There are at least a dozen in Coachella. Collectively, they are a gorgeous mosaic.
According to the Desert Sun newspaper, El Mac, who painted Anonymous Farm Worker, wrote on his website: "One girl came by and asked if I was painting someone famous, When I said no, she replied, 'Good, then I can say it's my tio (uncle). Thank you for bringing beauty to our barrio,' This is the best kind of feedback I can hope to receive."
When I spoke to Armando Lerma, he told me, “I believe in the power of art, teaching, inspiring and uplifting the community.”
I told him the story about the truck driver who paused to admire Sembramos Sueños y Cosechamos Esperanza.
He was pleased. He said, “Those murals are still doing their job."