Photo: California Poverty for Latinos
Nearly every day, Modesto Junior College student Arleen Hernandez battles an aging septic tank that backs up into her toilet and shower, bringing with it “bits of paper and chunks of mold.”
Hernandez has learned to take quick showers and work swiftly with a mop. She has also tried to fix a leaking toilet herself, but her home repair skills have been no match for an outdated system with clogged piping.
When Hernandez’s parents moved to Parklawn in 1986, they didn’t realize the extent to which their new neighborhood, an island of county land within the city of Modesto, lacks basic public services.
Parklawn is not connected to nearby city sewer lines, so Hernandez and her neighbors flush their sewage into overloaded septic tanks. There is only one short strip of sidewalk along the southern edge of the community and not enough storm drains. During heavy rains, children dodge traffic in flooded streets on their way to school in the neighborhood that locals call “No Man’s Land.”
“I’ve lived here my whole life, and when you’re a child, you don’t think it’s something big,” said Hernandez, a member of the South Modesto Municipal Advisory Council, which advises the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors on issues regarding unincorporated communities. “But as you grow older, you start realizing that it doesn’t seem fair that people have basic needs met and you skip one community.”
Not all unincorporated communities are as bereft. Some, such as Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County or Woodside in San Mateo County, are among the wealthiest in the state.
But across California, there are hundreds of neighborhoods like Parklawn. These poor, dense and unincorporated communities on county land – which uniformly lack some combination of sewer systems, clean drinking water, sidewalks, streetlights and storm drains – have been the victim of years of government neglect.
In the Eastern Coachella Valley, residents in mobile home parks pipe sewage into aging septic tanks and cesspools. On the outskirts of the city of Tulare, Matheny Tract residents can’t tap into the city sewer treatment plant, and arsenic contaminates their well. Arsenic also taints the tap water in Lanare, a community near Fresno.
“It’s like people are living in colonies of the United States,” said Miguel Donoso, a longtime Latino community advocate in Stanislaus County. “Living in a Third World country, that’s close to what you see here today.”