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Applying Anthropology in Coachella

UC Riverside Researchers Will Work with Coachella Valley to Boost Employment, Analyze Health Dangers, and Provide Access to Technology

Federal Housing and Urban Development Adds $400,000 to Project to Aid Low-Income Communities

(August 9, 2004)

Zuri Nuñez, 15, a freshman at Desert Mirage High School, reviews her environmental health check list after an observational training segment in Mecca. <br />

Zuri Nuñez, 15, a freshman at Desert Mirage High School, reviews her environmental health check list after an observational training segment in Mecca.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (August 9, 2004) -- Researchers at the Ernesto Galarza Applied Research Center at UC Riverside are using a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund a three-year project to improve living conditions in the low-income colonias of Mecca, Thermal and Oasis and adjacent trailer parks.

This three-year project, called “Capacity Building for the Future,” seeks to create research-oriented programs that help residents improve dangerous conditions and prepare for future employment. An important part of the project is communicating findings to local, state and national policy makers.

Two Community Technology Centers, one for adults and one for youth, will provide a place for training and developing materials. For example, the environmental home health program will ask residents to research and document such common dangers such as contaminated drinking water and improperly vented propane tanks, and use that knowledge to create educational materials for their community. The skills learned for the project should transfer into improved job prospects.

“At the end, we hope to raise awareness about the dangers inherent in living in less than optimal conditions,” said Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, professor of anthropology and the principal investigator on the project. “We want to create teams of people inside who can research and communicate effectively about the reality of their own lives, develop their own self help projects, and correct conditions so that following generations can benefit from their experience. Knowledge is power.”

He said the area is home to approximately 15,000 farm workers who live in trailers and have little access to clean water and proper trash disposal. Some residents store pesticides next to food stores, or use cooking fuels inside that contaminate the air. Trailer homes are frequently poorly ventilated and sewer, gas and electric lines might be installed improperly. Unemployment is at 22 percent. The weather is extreme, with temperatures too hot for comfort at least sixs months of the year.

“These thousands tend and harvest the fields so that millions of Americans can eat year-round fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Vélez-Ibáñez, who studies the culture of “colonias,” or border towns that spring up outside of city boundaries and typically without government services.

This federal grant comes with matching funds from local agencies, such as UCR itself, the Coachella Valley Unified School District, the Riverside County Library System, the Economic Development Agency, the Catholic Diocese and the Mecca Family and Farm Worker Center. It continues an earlier project funded for $190,000 by the California Wellness Foundation, which pays stipends for a local team of researchers, training in fieldwork observation, the use of digital cameras, and computers. Teams of student researchers develop a local store of information about health practices within the communities, create school curriculum about health and safety issues and communicate with governmental agencies about the needs of the community.

The research will be done with the cooperation of local schools, organizations and tribal authorities.

The coordinator for the project is Travis Du Bry, a post doctoral researcher, who said he is glad to have a chance to apply anthropology to make things better in the community. “I like the fact that the community gains knowledge and can pursue their own vision for the future,” he said.

He can be reached at (951) 827-2196
or via email at

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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