For our latest Destination Travel Guide To California's High Desert, we at Magnetic head out West to the desert cities with our guest, cultural producer and activist Juan Espinoza. Read on for an in-depth interview to meet our featured guest! 

A local native born and raised in the Coachella Valley, Juan Espinoza shares some local heat and his journey embracing radical self-care and galvanizing change for his hometown and community-at-large. 

Juan @ Merchant House

Juan @ Merchant House

Thanks for showing us around your childhood stomping grounds. Introduce yourself!

Hi! My name is Juan Espinoza. I’m a first-generation desert rat, son of working-class Mexican immigrants that was born and raised in the Coachella Valley. When the temperature hit the triple digits in the summer, my family spent summers in my parents’ hometown in Jalisco, Mexico.

I’m in my third year of law school where I work as a student attorney and lead our wage theft practice at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. I organize around workers’ rights and issues affecting the Latino community. Prior to coming to law school, I worked as a waiter, in Film & TV, and as an organizer. I also produce film screenings and events exploring the intersections between the arts, storytelling, and the law through an organization I co-founded, Harvard Law FiLM Society. I dream of creating a career that fuses art, fun, and organizing for working-class people. 

This is why I’m in the high desert – it’s my backyard—and a place where I have consistently centered and rooted myself throughout life. Although I did go to college in LA, the high desert isn’t an escape from the city, it’s home.

What do you love about the High Desert?

I love being able to get on the mountain within minutes and see the entire valley where I grew up, it gives me a ton of perspective. My entire imagination is based on creating adventures in the desert.

I hike up the same trails I’ve been going on since I was 9 years old. I grew up bathing in the wash that runs down from Tahquitz Canyon or head over to Whitewater Preserve, where I remember building small pools with rocks or enjoying a family picnic. 

White Water Ecological Preserve

White Water Ecological Preserve 

Another great hike is South Lykken, Araby or try the trail up to the benches behind behind the Desert Art Museum.

I love the Mexican taqueria’s that serve tacos and pan dulce. For the best carne asada tacos, horchata, and Mexican pan dulce, visit Villa Bakery.

If you’re looking for a good run to work off those carbs, park near EOS Fitness and run the loop around the Palm Springs airport. It’s a nice 7-mile run from Ramon-Gene-Autry-Farrell-and back up Ramon.

Often at dusk, I’ll rollerblade on the CV link or bike the Tramway Road in Palm Springs. Or sneak onto the smooth paths on golf courses. 

For more inspiration, check out Magnetic's Destination Travel Guide To California's High Desert for your next desert adventure. 

How has it been being at home during the pandemic?

It’s been real! I get to eat my mom’s cooking, which is sweeeet, and a huge blessing to say the least. I just turned 30, and was displaced from my housing in Boston due to pandemic circumstances, so I found myself feeling "30 going on 13" while living back home with my parents.

My parents are magical people. I don’t mean that in a patronizing or the very California, cliché, use of the word. I’ve seen them interact with birds, their garden, use natural remedies for everything from a stomach ache to Covid – and just generally hold down the fort for SO many people. My parents were seasonal farmworkers in central California when they first immigrated in 1968, but they settled in the service and hospitality industry of Palm Springs in 1971. 2021 marks 50 years that my parents have made the desert home, so I am so lucky to share this time with them.

It’s also been very challenging… witnessing the impact that coronavirus is having on the Latino community. One of the major issues I have been fighting for is the equitable distribution of vaccines for frontline domestic workers who are being excluded from the current phases of administration.

What changes are you hopeful for?

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There is so much work to be done in Riverside County. We need to clean house!

In California alone, 48% of Covid deaths are Latinos yet we are 39% of the general population (given the number of Latino deaths in recent weeks, this number is likely much higher).

A few weeks ago, I created a petition because domestic workers were not included in the current phase of vaccine administration. I did this because my mom and several of my aunts clean houses– including those of doctors exposed to Covid patients.

"I’m especially at a loss for how domestic workers have not been included as essential frontline workers because I’ve seen how essential my mom is to the people she serves during the pandemic. During the early months of isolation, she made favorite Mexican dishes for her most isolated and elderly clients. She delivered groceries. She checked in on those whose family couldn’t. She made calls and kept up with everyone as more than simply a cleaner, but rather, a proper caretaker and integral part of many families.

...These workers–largely immigrant women of color—remain unseen and unprotected." 

– Juan Espinoza, "Invisible & Ignored Again: Domestic Workers Excluded From Vaccine Distribution"

I’m acutely aware of the level of risk that older, working-class, Mexican immigrants with several underlying conditions face, especially those who aren’t on the internet or speak limited English.

Anti-immigrant sentiment and racism continue to manifest in harm and death. And not just in massacres and manifestos (Texas Walmart, Charleston, Christchurch Mosque, Charlottesville, and too many others). But more pervasively, in the ways in which misinformation, negligence, and lies have had their most drastic repercussions on our communities here in the desert. Masking became politicized while workers of color were on the frontlines of almost everything having to face the consequences. Public health disparities made us already more vulnerable and at risk of dying. 

Our families live in intergenerational homes, pressed for space, unable to work remotely, dependent upon family for childcare, and with the heightened anxiety of living paycheck to paycheck and a possible eviction notice. We are already victims of the entire financial apparatus: Latinos hadn't even recovered from being the hardest hit during the 2008 financial crisis - "median wealth of Hispanic households fell by 66 percent from 2005 to 2009."

Because death literally surrounds us in Southern California. Because before news headlines and studies could keep up, for months, I’d been screaming at public officials about how acutely this virus is affecting working-class Latinos. Because back in May, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors had unanimously voted to rescind California public health orders – including quarantine restrictions and mask mandates.

Where can we go to support your petition?

We need to work collectively to get through this together. To support, you can sign the petition or share the link here

Though it’s been rough, I feel more rooted in my drive to support workers in the desert. I see the beauty that brought my parents here, but I also, after 10 years of school and working abroad, I can see how much better things could’ve been for my family. And how much things really haven’t changed around here.

It seems like you have a lot on your plate. How do you stay balanced?

I know it sounds basic, but especially when times get chaotic, practice radical self-care. It’s the best thing you can do, not only for yourself but others around you, to stay focused and do the work that needs to get done.

I’ve embraced a few rituals that help me feel grounded and I take every opportunity while at home to explore nature. Radical self-care to me looks like eating a pitaya bowl from Fresh Juice Bar after a 7-mile run or drinking a wheat grass energy smoothie from Nature’s RX in Palm Springs.

Or hiking the trail at the end of Ramon Road and doing some breath-work on the benches while watching life carry on below on what seems like a miniature playground atop the San Jacinto Mountains. 

Ramon Road Hike to South Lykken Trail

Trail overlooking San Jacinto Mountains.

I meditate and use phrases I’ve kept since middle school as mantras as I speak to myself as I observe the valley below – all the way from the Desert Regional Medical Center, where I was born and where my dad used to work as a busboy at what was back then the El Mirador Hotel, all the way to where my parents (we) now currently live. But more importantly, making the time to be present and sit in my parent’s backyard, observing their joy in making our home, and listening to their stories. 

The desert has been such a gift during the lockdown, reminding me that distance and isolation can also bring life and community.

The world is experiencing an unprecedented paradigm shift away from systems that no loner serve us – as individuals and as a community. We are dealing with so many fights being thrown at us. So, it’s important that we practice self preservation and find ways to be good with ourselves.

As parting words of wisdom, I’ll share the three words from a Maya Angelou poem that I’ve been using since I was a teenager and repeat to myself whenever I need to run out into the desert and regroup: And still I rise.

Merchant House

Merchant House

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