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Oasis residents set their hopes on new community park: $3.5 million facility to open soon

The Desert Sun (Palm Springs) logo The Desert Sun (Palm Springs) 5/20/2021 Estefania Moreira, Palm Springs Desert Sun
a group of people posing for the camera: Oasis residents show their support for the Oasis Community Park, which is under construction near Avenue 76 and Harrison Street in Oasis, Calif., March 5, 2021. © Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun Oasis residents show their support for the Oasis Community Park, which is under construction near Avenue 76 and Harrison Street in Oasis, Calif., March 5, 2021.

Many inhabitants of Oasis, a small community in the eastern Coachella Valley, make their living in the verdant agricultural fields of Mecca and Thermal.

But they raise their families on patches of dusty land in the arid, open desert, where the nearest swipe of green is a cluster of creosote bushes or a tangled grove of tamarisk trees.  

For years, residents have been lobbying for their own park — a place that would help Oasis live up to its name. After a decade of perseverance, their dreams are about to come true. 

By the end of the year, Desert Recreational District officials say, Oasis residents will be able to walk to Oasis del Desierto (Desert Oasis), a new $3.5 million, 2½-acre park that will include a basketball court, soccer field, baseball field, a playground, a garden, and a BBQ spot with a picnic area.

A community center is also being planned. Officials, however, did not have specific details about its cost or the amenities it might feature as that phase of the project has yet to be finalized.

Once the park is up and running, Oasis residents will be able to watch their children play on a stretch of grass not far from their homes. Put down a blanket and have a cookout. Or kick around a soccer ball, or toss a baseball.

It will be an answer to a longtime prayer for residents such as Rosario Gutierrez, who said her 16-year-old son will "be happy this is happening.”  

She says she'll save on gas, as well as the time it takes to drive her son the 8 miles to and from Mecca, where the nearest park — really, more of a soccer field — exists. It takes about 20 minutes each way.

"The community is growing, and the kids need this,” Gutierrez said, adding that she hopes it will also bring the same ease to her community as a whole. 

A farmworker whose husband fixes cars in their neighborhood, Gutierrez has worked in the fields for the past 20 years. She spends her days planting seeds, harvesting produce, moving equipment, carrying boxes and clearing debris. 

"I've had difficult, long days at the fields with no other (outlets) to enjoy” or take away the stresses of the day, Gutierrez said. “We have adapted for many years living with difficulties."

The work can be hard and physically draining. And, like their children, many of the adults are also in need of a respite — a place to relax and rid themselves of the day's anxieties or decompress and unwind.

 “I feel so happy we are finally progressing," said fieldworker Armando Martinez, who has lived in Oasis for 23 years. "We have something to look forward to."

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors, on May 11, approved the Desert Recreational District's "long-range park plan," which outlines the agency's goals for the east Coachella Valley, including the new park in Oasis. The agency has already built the North Shore Community Park in 2018 and, with the county, is also using a $5.8 million state grant for the Mecca Regional Sports Park, which will benefit residents there.

“It is exciting to see progress in developing parks for residents who have long waited for parks in their communities,” said county Supervisor V. Manuel Perez in announcing the approval. “We have a strong partnership with the Desert Recreation District to provide high quality programs, activities and recreational resources that benefit Coachella Valley residents. I am glad we continue to partner and come up with the funding to get more parks built in the eastern Coachella Valley and throughout all our communities.”

'A very special place'

a group of people standing on top of a sandy beach: The Oasis Community Park is under construction near Avenue 76 and Harrison Street in Oasis, Ca., March 5, 2021. © Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun The Oasis Community Park is under construction near Avenue 76 and Harrison Street in Oasis, Ca., March 5, 2021.

Supervisor Perez, who represents the fourth district, which includes the Oasis and Thermal area, as well as the rest of the Coachella Valley, is the son of farmworkers. His father immigrated to the states in the 1960s and lived in a trailer park in Oasis. 

Perez, 47, remembers the sparseness of the area — nothing but dirt roads where the park is now being built at 88-775 Avenue 76, between Pierce and Harrison streets.

"For me, this has always been a very special place because of the fact there’s roots that bring me back to my father, my grandfather, and my tias and tios that once lived here," Perez said.

"Honestly, this place has always had a bit of struggles. ... There’s always been issues when it comes to poverty, when it comes to literacy rates, education levels, the lack of infrastructure, and the lack of opportunity. I am very proud and happy to be part of what’s going on here," he said. "These folks deserve a nice and beautiful park, like anywhere else in the U.S. and in the state of California. It's finally going to happen."

There are no sidewalks in the community, just well-traveled dirt roads. Vehicles are the primary mode of transportation. Rarely do you see people out walking.

It is common, though, to see people sitting outside their homes, watching as cars pass by. They watch as the children play soccer with no soccer field — or chase one another in an impromptu game of tag, or ride their bicycles in the dust and sand of the open desert.

Despite their play, the children don't roam too far from their homes. 

Garbage clutters around some homes and sometimes there are dead animals in the roads. Random, uncollared dogs walk freely, searching for food or shelter.

“This community is used to living on the edge. The residents have adapted to how things are so far away and (are used to) not having many resources accessible nearby," according to Edith Ruiz, a UC Davis graduate who grew up in Oasis. "Some residents are fearful to say something because most are undocumented. They want to work and want to stay. A lot of people may not even know their rights.

a group of people in a field with a mountain in the background: The Oasis Community Park is under construction and will be the first park for the small community of Oasis, Ca., March 5, 2021. © Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun The Oasis Community Park is under construction and will be the first park for the small community of Oasis, Ca., March 5, 2021.

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"I grew up here and it has always been hard," she said. "My father worked in the palm tree fields for many years and due to health reasons, he could not work anymore."

Ruiz's father's eyesight deteriorated dramatically and he eventually went blind. When that happened, she said, her mother began working in the fields to support the family. 

It's a common story in Oasis, she said.

A bit of history

According to 2020 Census data, the population of Oasis is 2,857 and it sits on a spread of land that is 19.6 square miles. The median household income is $19,457. The poverty rate is 51.8% — more than 2½ times higher than the state's rate of 18.2 %. In addition, just 3% of the population has an undergraduate degree or higher.

Thermal began in 1910 as a camp for workers who were laying the tracks for the railroad, according to the Neighborhood Data for Social Change platform, a data collection project by the University of Southern California's Price Center for Social Innovation. The platform was developed in partnership with Lift to Rise, a community-based partnership focused on helping families thrive.

By the 1930s, permanent dwellings had been built and Thermal had become a community. Oasis, which popped up soon after Thermal, was populated mainly by migrant workers who were employed by the various farms that make up the agricultural industry in the eastern Coachella Valley.

The workers moved in and out of the area during specific growing seasons. But, at some point, groups began to stay. Farmworker housing was erected in Indio and Coachella, as well as in Thermal and Oasis.

According to the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition, as time went on, the farmworker housing sites began to deteriorate. And by the 1960s, when Cesar Chavez began his movement in Coachella to improve working and housing conditions for farmworkers, some of the places farmworkers stayed were considered slums.

In Oasis, groups of farmworkers took up residence at a trailer park that, in the past decade, has been riddled with environmental issues. The area, according to the Neighborhood Data for Social Change platform, is "marked by high pollution and lower levels of drinking water quality."

For at least the past 15 years, according to U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert, whose district includes the Oasis area, drinking water at the Oasis Mobile Home Park where many farmworkers live has been contaminated by arsenic. The park is located on Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians tribal land.

In August 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency filed an emergency order against the mobile home park after arsenic levels in its drinking water registered nine times the legal state limit, Ruiz said.

The park's owner, Scott Lawson,  has been ordered to provide 1 gallon of water per resident per day at no cost to the residents. For the past year, according to the congressman, the Oasis Mobile Home Park has faced repeated EPA violations as a result of the contaminated drinking water.  

In addition to the issues with the water, fires at the Sun Valley Recycling Center, a waste facility located on tribal land not far from the Oasis community, caused significant environmental issues as well. Repeated fires at the recycling center, which in some cases were caused by the extreme heat and flammable debris, Rep. Ruiz added, sickened nearby children and teachers and forced the cancellation of classes at schools in the Coachella Valley Unified School District for more than a week. 

More: Two fires on Torres Martinez reservation burn nearly 100 acres of vegetation, debris

More: EPA to hold informational meeting with Oasis residents over arsenic contamination after Ruiz letter

More: Thermal dump site ordered to immediately shut down by federal officials after new mulch fire

The site was eventually shut down and continues to undergo cleanup efforts, he added.

In addition, when it comes to infrastructure, Oasis is also at the mercy of the elements.

In March, power was knocked out to thousands of Imperial Irrigation District customers for more than 36 hours when strong winds felled 14 power poles in the east valley. Residents from La Quinta to Salton City, a range that includes Oasis residents, were without power for more than a day as crews worked overtime to erect new poles and re-establish power lines.

The origination of a community park

a sign on the side of a fence: The Oasis Community Park is under construction near Avenue 76 and Harrison Street. © Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun The Oasis Community Park is under construction near Avenue 76 and Harrison Street.

Workers are currently building the Desert Oasis park near the site of the area's first public school, which was established in the 1940s. 

Also named Oasis del Desierto, the school served middle school students. Until 2002 when it was transitioned into an elementary school and its name was changed to Oasis Elementary.

Students continued to attend class there for another six years, according to state Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, the former mayor of the city of Coachella who now represents the 56th District, which includes parts of eastern Riverside County and Imperial County. 

He described the building as one of the oldest facilities, at the time, in the Coachella Valley Unified School District.

For years, it had been slowly coming apart. Everything about it was old and worn out. Circumstances inside the school were at their worst in the winter when it rained. Heavy storms outside meant major flooding inside.

"From my recollection, there were infrastructure issues, both with the school delivering adequate services and — at the same time — the school was built in a flooding zone area that constantly caused issues on campus," Garcia said.

Oasis Elementary was eventually replaced with a new school. After that, the Borrego Medical Health Foundation provided health care services to community residents from the old building.

According to Garcia, officials considered making the old school building the permanent site for Borrego, but issues with the building's inner workings and its location on a flood plain meant it would need to be upgraded at significant expense.

Adonis Galarza-Toledo, a trustee with the Coachella Valley Unified School District Board, grew up in the Oasis area, which, along with parts of Imperial County, he now represents. The old building, he said, had no sewer backups to help reduce flooding when heavy rainstorms occurred.

Despite its age and infrastructural shortcomings, though, the old building did offer the community many happy times.

"What was great about it was even though we had no community park, the old school had a big playground where everyone would play," Galarza-Toledo said. "I remember every Tuesday and Thursday the community would gather, the lights would go on and the community would use the old school playground like a park." 

When the transition to the new school started in 2008, the community gatherings ended. "It fell apart," Galarza-Toledo said,

And, sometime between 2011 and 2012, the old middle school building that had been around since the 1940s was demolished.

The new park is being built across the street from the old middle school site.

'We got our park'

a group of people wearing costumes: Oasis community residents from right, Rosalba de la Cruz, Edurado Mendoza, Limba Contreras, Maria de la Cruz talk about the importance of the Oasis Community Park to their community, March 5, 2021. The park is under construction near Avenue 76 and Harrison Street in Oasis, Calif. © Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun Oasis community residents from right, Rosalba de la Cruz, Edurado Mendoza, Limba Contreras, Maria de la Cruz talk about the importance of the Oasis Community Park to their community, March 5, 2021. The park is under construction near Avenue 76 and Harrison Street in Oasis, Calif.

After the new Oasis Elementary School was up and running, residents turned their sights to the creation of a family park. The new school site had a small playground, but what residents wanted was a park.

In 2016, the Desert Recreation District purchased the old elementary school site from the Coachella Valley Unified School District to build an official community park in Oasis.

At that time, a soccer field was opened as a temporary measure, while the community decided what features and amenities the new community park would have.

Edith Ruiz, in her teens at the time, was an active advocate for the park, attending meeting after meeting with her mother. She said they wanted to ensure the park would have what residents wanted and needed.

After graduating from Desert Mirage High School, Ruiz went on to UC Davis. During her visits home from college, she continued to attend the park meetings. 

Now 23, Ruiz has returned to the Coachella Valley. Since 2017, she'd had a job as an assistant with the UC Davis Graduate Department; however, she was let go from her job due to COVID-19, so she decided to return home to Oasis.

Currently, she is a caregiver for both her parents and helps them while helping out at the nonprofit organization ECV for Change, which has a mission to empower the eastern Coachella Valley "one student at a time through higher education, leadership development, and civic engagement," according to its website.

Ruiz said she remembers that many residents attended planning meetings for the new park. The majority were older people, or parents, with a few young adults present. 

They decided that Oasis del Desierto Park would be located between Pierce and Harrison streets. It was one of three parks to be developed in eastern Coachella Valley. North Shore's park opened in 2018, and another park in Mecca opened in 2020.

To help pay for the first phase of the project, the Desert Recreation District obtained grant funding to offset the $3.5 million price tag.

Ultimately, Oasis del Desierto Park is being built using funding provided by the Riverside County Environmental Development Agency, the Coachella Valley Mountain Conservancy, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Assemblyman Garcia added that Prop 68 funds also helped pay for the park's construction. The proposition creates new parks and new recreation opportunities in underserved communities across California.

In all, officials say, it has taken eight years to get to this point because it took time to assemble the necessary funds and the amenities residents wanted are expensive.

 "Infrastructure is costly. There will be a sidewalk in the parking lot and a walking path to the park. It took long because there was no money before," according to Troy Strange, Desert Recreational District planning and public works director.

Garcia said the project also benefited from economic progress and local leadership with deep roots in the community.

"The moment leadership starts looking like the community that is here, you start seeing things happen,"  he said. "When you elect people that are from those locations, who know about the issues that impacted people, all of a sudden we are in positions to make these decisions."  

For Edith Ruiz, the success of the park can also be attributed to community involvement and determination.

"That's why we continued to advocate for the park. There were many obstacles but, because of the people who would attend the meetings and who continued to push for it, we got our park," she said. 

Oasis resident Limba Contreras, who said she was at every park meeting, agreed. “The needs of our community are finally being met," she said. "We never had a place like this before. The park gives us hope from the problems we have dealt with in the past.”  

Oasis resident Juan Jose, who has lived in the community 18 years added, “Our school was removed — where the park was proposed. We hope to God this will be a huge step in our community. I hope they finish the park for the sake of our children.”

Rosa Alba Del La Cruz, another park advocate, added: “We do not have a place to go with our children. The trailer homes are so small and there are (multiple) families living in them. It’s so much stress, but now we will have a place for our kids to enjoy. We are so happy to have this park built.”

Estefania Moreira is an intern at The Desert Sun. You can reach her by email at EMoreira@palmspri.gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Oasis residents set their hopes on new community park: $3.5 million facility to open soon

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