When city folk daydream about ditching the rat race and settling down somewhere peaceful, they imagine a place like the Pala Indian reservation. Nestled near the base of Palomar Mountain in north San Diego County and just a few miles east of I-15, it's 12,000 acres of gorgeous hilly countryside and red earth. Roadside stands sell oranges and avocados. Prickly nopal cactus grows like weeds, surrounding ranches populated by cows, horses and even the occasional buffalo.
The majority of the tribe's 800 members lives on the reservation these days, and during daylight hours the town square, ringed by a mission church and a general store, feels sleepy and bucolic. But almost any hour of the day it's hectic at the Pala Casino, a short jog away, as hordes of gamblers — including many Asian senior citizens brought in on buses from San Diego, Orange County and L.A. — feed thousands of slot machines.
"Will anyone come out here to the middle of nowhere?" many Pala members wondered when the casino was built in 2001, followed by a sprawling hotel, on loans of more than $200 million. It has since become one of Southern California's most profitable gaming palaces.
Tribe members have benefited: Today, each receives monthly payouts that add up to more than $150,000 per year, as well as free health care and free college. Members who reside on the reservation don't have to pay state income tax. Though some still live in run-down homes, parts of the reservation feel like a posh suburb, as luxury cars cruise past a gleaming sports complex and administration building. Minors receiving payments via a trust often are presented with huge checks when they come of age, so long as they graduate high school.
But with big money has come some big problems: Longtime members have been kicked out, resulting in bitter feuds about who should be considered a member of the tribe, who deserves the payouts and even what it means to be Native American.
While the Pala casino has finally allowed the tribe's members entree to the American dream, it also has turned neighbors against one another — with devastating consequences.
David Duro grew up on the Pala reservation before casino gambling. Thirty years old and stout, with a tuft of chin hair, he looks not unlike a typical SoCal Latino guy, which is not uncommon for tribal members. (One Pala man notes with a laugh that he's sometimes stopped by Chicanos asking in rapid Spanish for directions.) Duro has a deep love for his family and his tribal culture, and the payouts — which members call "per capita" — allow him to focus on both.
When he was a kid, Duro's family lived in a small tract home, built by the federal Housing and Urban Development agency, and subsisted on rations like powdered eggs and government cheese. With tribal unemployment hovering around 40 percent, and roads that would wash out during rainstorms, Duro sought to escape the reservation, enlisting in the Army at 18.
It was peacetime then, but after 9/11 he was deployed to Afghanistan as a paratrooper for the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Bearing an M4 carbine rifle as he trudged through the deserts and mountains, he dropped 25 pounds and learned to love MREs.
The Pala people have suffered unimaginable atrocities over the years — including being forced at gunpoint off their original land and relocated here at the beginning of the 20th century. But while Duro was gone, the Pala's luck began to change. By the time he returned in 2004, the monthly payments had begun.
Duro's parents more than doubled the size of their HUD-built home, while Duro, who found work as a tribal security guard, bought a BMW. He met his wife, Lupe, while getting it serviced at the Escondido dealership where she worked.
They're now raising her daughter, plus two kids of their own, in a freshly built, five-bedroom house with vaulted ceilings, a modern kitchen and rose bushes in the front yard. There's a Yukon XL SUV and Ford full-sized pickup in their driveway; in their fancy reservation subdivision, others have boats. Duro's wife and daughters have all but convinced him to put a pool in the backyard.
They can afford their home in part because of the tribe's generous housing program, which builds members custom houses on a reservation lot of their choosing and provides cheap home loans. Mortgage payments are deducted directly from their per capita payments. "Out in the city you're going to be paying a little more for a house like that," Duro says. "They kind of take care of you." (Anyone can live on the reservation, but only tribal members qualify for such programs. While Pala members don't have to live there to receive the payouts, they do if they want the housing subsidies.)