By Bettye Miller, UC Riverside
Date palms transplanted from the Middle East to Indio, Calif., more than a century ago launched a lucrative industry and created a widely known date festival that celebrates the industry's Arab roots and the skilled palmeros who work in the groves.
The history of the date industry in the Coachella Valley and the National Date Festival are the subject of a doctoral dissertation by Sarah McCormick Seekatz, a UC Riverside graduate student and Indio native who will complete her Ph.D. in June 2013. The date festival opens Feb. 17 and continues through Feb. 26 at the Riverside County Fairgrounds in Indio.
"Dates were really popular in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, but not in America because they had typically rotted by the time they arrived here," McCormick says. "That was the impetus for importing the first palms in the 1880s and creating a new market."
Today, the Coachella Valley produces about 95% of the dates consumed in the United States.
"Dates have been central to the economy of Indio since they were first introduced," McCormick says. "Because the unique crop was imported from the Middle East, boosters from Indio created an Arabian fantasy around the city to sell it and the dates to visitors and potential residents."
The date industry developed at a time when Americans were fascinated with Arabia, she explains, a fascination that influenced the history and architecture of the eastern end of the Coachella Valley. The communities of Mecca and Oasis take their names from that Middle East connection, as did two communities that have since vanished – Arabia and Edom. The names of early business establishments reflected the Arabian theme, such as the Ali Baba Theatre and the Caravan Lounge, as well as street names such as Oasis, Deglet Noor, Arabia and Via Palmero, the latter named for the Mexican and Mexican American workers who have worked the groves since the industry's inception.
The first substantial crop of dates was ready for sale around 1910, and a growers association followed quickly, McCormick notes, and by 1912 a local fair featured a "date day." The first official date festival was held in 1921, but did not become an annual event until 1947. The National Date Festival adopted an Arabian theme early on, complete with the Queen Scheherazade Scholarship Pageant, camel races and, less well-known, regular invitations to dignitaries of the government of Mexico.
Mexican and Mexican American workers "have a rich history in the date festival that is overlooked," she adds. "If you look at what the festival offers today, that becomes more apparent with entertainment geared toward Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and Mexican markets."
McCormick is a graduate of La Quinta High School and previously worked as project director for a Mexican American exhibit and oral history program at the Coachella Valley Museum and Cultural Center, now the Coachella Valley History Museum. She earned a bachelor's degree in history from UC Irvine and a master's degree in public history from UC Riverside.