The history of achievements of Sylvia Montenegro is extensive. Among others she is one of the founders of the program of housing Coachella Valley Housing Coalition she was Mayor of Coachella y besides being a Mother, Grandmother and Great Grandmother.
Montenegro, 76 years old, was born in Indio, though she now lives in Coachella. Her father was originally from the state of Puebla, Mexico, and her mother was from Arizona. “I come from a long line of Yaqui. I did the DNA test and I am Sonoran Indian”, said Montenegro, adding that her Mother was of the people called TI-ti-quito in the state of Sonora.
Now Montenegro lives with her husband, with whom she had nine children that have given them 19 grandchildren and nine great- grandchildren.
She completed her primary studies in Indio and she pointed out that she had lived during the historical moments of the Second World War. Her father would take her to the movie theater on Fargo Street, known as the Desert Theaters, where they would see the latest news of the conflict in Europe.
During her childhood she experienced cruel moments on the part of teachers, who would cover the mouths of children for speaking Spanish.
Montenegro worked with the Riverside-San Bernardino Council of Churches, who built the first 100 apartments for low-income people. The apartments were called Coachella Community Homes, that are located at Avenida 52 and Calle Empalme en Coachella. Originally, the project was proposed for Palm Springs but the city rejected it. ” This type of work was not welcomed”, said Montenegro.
The funds obtained to build those apartments were part of the programs designated by President Lyndon B. Johnson to fight The War Against Poverty. Thanks to this money and the generosity of a politician named Nick Abdelnour, who gifted the land, the construction of these first homes happened. The construction was finished in 1968; today these apartments are being restored (by the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition).
Another of her jobs was with the Coachella Valley Unified School District, part of the educational programs “Head Start”. Montenegro went to the communities to register the children. Carrying out that work she found that those children did not have housing.
“I found families living under the trees, without bathrooms, without water, without electricity. Their fathers worked in the fields and returned home late at night. The older daughters of the house stayed there to care for their younger brothers and sisters, they did not have the opportunity to get an education”, remembered Montenegro.
Montenegro met with teachers of the school district, among them were Larry Salas, Manuel Arredondo, Cali Ramos and Manny Maestas, to analyze the situation of housing for farmworkers.
Shortly afterward she received a call from Rob Wiener, the Director of the California Coalition for Rural Housing. ” He invited me to go to the Capital, and in a few days I attended a conference for Housing in Washington DC”, said Montenegro. During the meeting Congressman Henry Gonzales recommended to her to form a non-profit organization.
When she returned, Montenegro spoke with Father Frank Francovich, who worked with Catholic Charities, with the teachers, and with John Mealey, who was working for the Riverside County Department of Housing and Economic Development. At that time we had no place to meet so we asked the California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) to rent us an office. CRLA was located at the corner of highway 86 and 6th Street.
It was there that in 1982 the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition was organized.
Montenegro remembered very well that Mealey was not paid a single cent. “We could not pay him. There was no money. He helped us organize, working day and night searching for money for this new organization”.
“The County of Riverside was opposed to these projects”, says Montenegro.
The events in this region reached a grand magnitude, causing the Los Angeles Times to come to the Coachella Valley to report the conditions in which families of agricultural workers lived.
“They saw me as a woman who was out of touch, thinking that I was loca”, she added. “Nevertheless, I was seeking better conditions for housing, health and education for my community” she said.
Forming Coachella Valley Housing Coalition was not easy. The first funds they received was $10,000 from the Aetna Insurance Companies Foundation thanks to Charles Ellis, a local insurance broker. It wasn’t mush but according to Montenegro they made miracles. Later, funds were solicited from the United States Department of Agriculture and, in time, they were able to establish credits with major banks.
It is important to mention that Montenegro does not work for CVHC, however, since then she has been an active member of the Board of Directors. Every person in CVHC deserves recognition for their work, said Montenegro.
“I see the success in each of these people. They are very special people who use their knowledge and experience to do good and help the community. We have helped more than 3000 families (actually more than 4500). Besides the Coachella Valley, we have constructed houses in Imperial County, Moreno Valley, Blythe, and soon we will be building homes for veterans in Riverside”, she added.