The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has been a fixture in Indio for 15 years — or, in the parlance of some city teenagers, “forever.” And that comes with perks and drawbacks.
Big perk: The marching band at Indio’s Shadow Hills High School was invited to perform with the electronica duo Big Gigantic when the festival opened last weekend.
“I’m never going to do anything better than this,” freshman Harrison Bluto said of drumming before an estimated 20,000 fans. “How do I top this? Never.”
But for other kids, Coachella remains tantalizingly close, yet out of reach.
A three-day festival pass costs at least $375 – too expensive for many students across town at Indio High School, where Rudy Ramirez has been principal for 22 years.
“Our kids – a lot of them work,” Ramirez said. "A lot of our parents are the working class, who mow the lawns, who work at the hotels. It’s not an affluent neighborhood.”
Indio High senior Maggie Piña gets a little grouchy when cars painted with “Carpoolchella” clog the roads and festival-goers empty the shelves in grocery stores.
“Everyone’s invading our town," said Piña, "and we don’t even get to go."
The world in your backyard
Whether they attend or not, Coachella has influenced the teens of Indio, in ways big and small.
They know the festival, one of the world’s largest, to be a revenue generator for businesses in the city and its neighbors. As part of an agreement to keep Coachella and sister festivals in Indio until 2030, promoter Goldenvoice this year upped the city’s cut of per-ticket sales to about $5.
Because the festival is so prominent in Indio — the valley’s biggest city with about 80,000 people — Coachella passes are coveted birthday and graduation presents. For teens who have to work, tickets serve as a goalpost.
"We were talking about saving up for next year," said 19-year-old Monica Gutierrez, as she hung out with a friend on a day off from slinging pizza at Little Caesar's.
Some school officials in the Coachella Valley incentivize students with donated tickets from Goldenvoice. (Others, such as Indio High principal Ramirez, have refused free tickets. He’s worried about the logistics of chaperoning large groups of teens where alcohol and drugs are present.)
Although concerts are contained to the Empire Polo Club fields, Coachella has a way of spilling into the city. Residents are used to seeing limousines whisk celebrities through the dusty streets and to venues in and around town. Last weekend, the Indio Performing Arts Center, which typically hosts community theater, had its interior walls painted black for an exclusive Coachella after party that drew the likes of Lorde and Fergie.
“It makes the world kind of bigger to me,” said Cameron De Anda, a senior at Shadow Hills High School with a serious case of wanderlust.
“I’ve been in the desert all my life,” De Anda said. “The sun, the heat. What they say is, we’re desert rats.”
A born-again Christian, De Anda isn’t interested in partying at Coachella. But she loves it when tens of thousands of fans come to her city, from all over the country, the world.
“You hear people with different languages talking to each other, and you’re just like, where are they from?” De Anda said. “Are they from Germany? I don’t know. It makes you want to go out and hear new languages and new places and see all these new faces.”
Carving out a different path
The Indio De Anda's parents grew up knowing was famous for something entirely different: agriculture, especially, the date trees that flourish in the arid climate.
Before Coachella, the most famous Indio event was the annual Date Festival. The local historic society runs a Date Museum, and one of the city’s biggest landmarks is Shields Date Garden where a wide variety of the fruit is for sale.
As the city expanded, the date farms moved farther from town. Nowadays, some of the biggest employers are local government and the hospital.
But Coachella has inspired some young people to think about different kinds of careers.
“I probably wouldn’t have the same ambition I had if Coachella weren’t in my backyard,” said Christopher Gonzalez, an 18-year-old senior at Amistad, a continuation high school in Indio.
Gonzalez raps about chapters from his past — such as absent parents, and being raised by his older sister. Picking fights – just because.
“I know it sounds bad," Gonzalez said, "but living here, around the people I was around, it seemed like the thing to do. It was either them or us.”
He’s dreamed about getting signed to a record label. When he attended Coachella a couple of years ago, he passed out demo CDs, hoping that "somebody would hear it and get back at me or find me somehow."
Taking center stage
It hasn’t happened and might never. Gonzalez said he’s made peace with that. He’s planning on attending community college to keep his options open.
But for one group of Indio kids, performing at Coachella is getting to be shockingly familiar.
The marching band from Shadow Hills High School is practicing for a repeat performance with Big Gigantic on Sunday, the last day of the festival.
Aside from playing in the school band, Nick Hernandez and Josh Sanchez have an indie rock group called Enter the Void.
Having gotten past the nerves of their first Coachella performance, they now talk about one day playing their own songs at the festival.
Sanchez can’t think of anything better than “going out to the big leagues some day and coming back to our hometown and performing.”
“That’s the dream right there,” Hernandez said. “That’s what we’re planning to do.”
Also part of the plan? Playing the main stage.
Correction: Captions for the photos previously misidentified the marching band. As the article correctly noted, the band is from Shadow Hills High School in Indio.