There’s something empowering but terrifying about handing my microphone over to a 17-year-old to do a radio interview for me. Will she ask the questions I would? Will she remember to press "record"?
I decided to trust youth reporter Karla Martinez with my mic recently, as we spent the day boarding slow-moving buses winding their way through the rural desert near the Salton Sea.
Karla writes for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth-run magazine documenting life in the rural Eastern Coachella Valley. She and 21-year-old photographer Bryan Mendez have been reporting on the challenges young people here encounter when it comes to transportation. So if we’re going to talk to teenagers riding a public bus, why not have them talk to one of their peers?
As we boarded the bus, Karla said, "Transportation does have a lot to do with the opportunities you’re afforded. It kind of limits you -- can I get to the next stop? Can I get to the next goal of my life?"
Karla understands this well. When she was a baby, her own mom -- then a 16-year-old herself -- lugged her on the bus to public high school, sometimes walking 15 minutes in the heat to get to the bus stop. As Karla grew up, her mom vowed never to have her daughter rely on the public bus, because it comes so infrequently and takes so long to get places. Karla’s mom drives her most places.
But 16-year-old Rosy Mendez’s mom doesn’t drive, and her dad leaves early to work in the fields. She has no other choice but to take the public bus to a library to get her homework done. Her family doesn’t have internet access, and her high school’s library closes early. The bus comes only once an hour, so if she misses it, she has to wait in the searing heat for the next one. Here’s an excerpt of Karla's interview with her:
How does it feel to have to get on the bus and go to where you need to after a long day?
ROSY MENDEZ: It’s exhausting, because I have to go all the way over there, wait a couple hours, get home, eat, then be able to do all of my homework if I don’t have time to finish it. And then I end up going to bed around 10, 11. It’s exhausting.
In what ways do you feel like the service could be improved for all these young people who use the bus?
MENDEZ: They could improve on the way that they manage the schedule so there are more buses. For me, every hour is better than having to wait three.
How do you feel like the public transportation in the East Valley kind of decides what the future is for the youth in terms of economic opportunity, getting a job, going to school?
MENDEZ: Well, if the bus comes only once an hour or every three hours, it’s difficult to get to school or a job, or your work. It's just very stressful to fix your schedule and modify it to fit the bus schedule. If you aren’t early to where you need to go, you could get fired, or miss important things from school.
When you’re on the bus, when you’re zoning out and listening to music, what goes through your mind?
MENDEZ: I’m usually just thinking about my work, how am I going to get it done?
In the middle of their interview, the transmission overheats and the bus stalls. It starts back up again, but then has to stop for a long train at a railroad crossing and take a detour because of construction. All of that means it takes nearly 45 minutes to go just 5 miles.
But Rosy is determined to make the bus journey, because she says doing her homework at the library is the only way for her to succeed in school.
"I just want to do engineering, 'cuz I know in my culture, women don’t really do that kind of stuff, so I kind of want to break that barrier,” Rosy tells Karla. “My plan is to be able to go to College of the Desert, the local community college, and then transfer to San Diego State University."
But Rosy says she’s lucky that her school is on a line where the bus stops once an hour. Some buses come only once every three hours. And some bus stops have no benches, no shade, while summer temperatures here can sizzle past 120 degrees.
We finally get to the library, where Rosy takes out her ruler, pencil and the iPad she’s borrowing from school, to get going on her homework. I ask her what motivates her to take all these extra steps to succeed in school, to find things like internet, air conditioning, a quiet place to work. Things so many young people in California just take for granted.
"I just want to help out my family, get a good job once I graduate and get my degree,” says Rosy. "They’re the ones who keep me going."
At the end of a long day riding the bus, I ask Karla what she learned.
"We met people who, no matter what time they have to wake up, no matter what sacrifices they have to make, they’re going to get that bus, and they’re gonna go where they need to go,” she tells me. "Nothing’s impossible. The impossible doesn’t exist here for people who are low on resources."