A Local’s Journey from “Coachella the City” to “Coachella the Music Festival”

April 16, 2012 /

The Coachella Fest grounds at dusk. PHOTO: Jesus Vargas/Coachella Unincorporated


By Jesus A. Vargas,
Coachella Unincorporated

A cacophony of voices invades your ears, ringing with tangible excitement. You manage to distinguish Australian and British English from the audible jumble, but you also hear Spanish, something that’s probably German and some other languages that you won’t even try to figure out.

There’s an eclectic mix of music blaring from rows of cars that are currently at a standstill, moving a few feet every five minutes when the car in front of them does the same. After a while, people just put their cars in neutral and push them forward rather than turn them on to move them. Everyone’s outside their cars, most with a beer in hand, and people are already mingling with complete strangers as if they’re old friends, the conversations monopolized by inquires of, “Where are you guys from?” and, “Who are you excited to see?”

It’s 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 14, 2011, and you’re in the line for car camping at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. You and your friends decide to get comfortable; this “queue” (as a nearby English girl refers to it) is going to take a while.

The festival, affectionately known as simply “Coachella,” attracts upwards of 75,000 music (and party) lovers to the modest city of Indio, California. Held annually in mid-April, the three-day music extravaganza has become the premier music festival in North America, attracting revelers from around the world. For most of these concertgoers, Coachella is a pilgrimage; a journey to a sleepy, out-of-the-way area in the scorching desert known mainly as a place to retire. They plan their trips months in advance, pack days before the festival and drive hours to get to it—but I just grab whatever I can carry on me and go.

For me, it’s always been just a 10-minute bike ride up the street. I’m 22 years old and a lifelong resident of the Coachella Valley and, now, a four-year veteran of Coachella Fest. My house is about three and half miles away from the Empire Polo Grounds, the festival venue.

Most people who frequent Coachella Fest or the nearby resorts know nothing about the real Coachella. I actually live in the city of Coachella, a small 40,000 person town that is economically depressed, mostly rural and agricultural and predominantly Hispanic. Further east of the city of Coachella are the unincorporated communities of Thermal, Mecca, and North Shore, which are home mostly to Hispanic migrant workers who work in the area’s agricultural fields. Many live in poverty and the environmental conditions there are terrible and the landscape is desolate. There are trash heaps and illegal dumps in the area. A nearby soil recycling plant emits a stink that many residents say causes them extreme discomfort. It is a stark contrast to the glitz and glamour of the Western Coachella Valley that’s only a few minutes down the I-10.

When my friends and I tell people at Coachella (the festival) that we live literally five minutes away in Coachella (the city), they are incredulous. They didn’t seem to think that anyone under the age of 40 lived here. When I tell them I’m not from La Quinta, Indio, Palm Desert or Palm Springs, they ask, “What other cities are there here?” This year we got a car camping spot, and when we told people we were locals a lot of them asked us why we were camping. We answered with a disinterested, “Why not?” or a sarcastic, “To hang out with you, of course.”

Many times we just say we’re from somewhere else to avoid the inevitable bemused looks and questioning. Why should I kill their Coachella buzz experience with tales about Mecca and Thermal and the poverty and pollution endemic to them? There are, however, a few people that are aware of the large Hispanic population just east of the festival grounds and, upon hearing of our status as locals, they ask us questions. We tell them mostly the good things and just a few of the details concerning the crime, poverty and pollution. They are appalled at the little we do tell them.

Being a local, it is kind of surreal that all these famous people and young, beautiful, and often wealthy tourists are suddenly transplanted just up the street from me. As it’s happening, as I’m there listening to the music, taking in the awesome art installations and talking effortlessly to strangers, there’s always the nagging sensation in the back of my head that none of it is real, that my mind is playing an elaborate trick on me.

But then I feel the rays of the burning sun hit my skin, get sprayed by a heavenly cool stream of water or “accidentally” bump into a cute girl I see, and this tactility reassures me that it’s all real, that it’s all happening now and to make the most of it. No one knows who I am (except my friends and other locals who I run into), and aesthetically I fit right in with this crowd of indie twentysomethings just trying to have a good time. I’ll admit it—the problems of my community don’t seem exist to me when I’m there.

There, water bottle in hand, desperately trying to find shade in an afternoon set at the outdoor stage. There, in the dark and pulsating lights of the Sahara Tent, packed chest-to-back with other electronic music lovers, dancing the night away. There, listening to the Chemical Brothers, watching their elaborate light spectacle, time seemingly is at a halt as the melodic electronic harmonies ring out on full blast. Suddenly, there’s a lull in the music and an ethereal voice begins repeating the line, “You should feel, what I feel” over and over. You turn your head to take in your surroundings and everyone around you is swaying gently to and fro with their eyes closed and gratified smiles. You see that everyone is feeling, what everyone is feeling and you join them and think to yourself how glad you are that this incredible event is right in your back yard. You also wonder how next year’s “Coachella” can possibly top this.

Yet you know from experience that every Coachella Fest is better than the last, always managing to find a way to improve from one year to the next. That’s something I wish Coachella the city had in common with Coachella the festival.


This article was originally published on this website April 22, 2011.

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