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Fruits of Success : Ray Orozco and Ruben Gonzalez came from different backgrounds to start a produce stand. Nine months later, the hard work is paying off.

August 12, 1993|RICK SHERWOOD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's just past 3 a.m. as Ray Orozco and Ruben Gonzalez fly down the Pacific Coast Highway on this crisp summer morning. It's quiet on the road at this hour, and the moon is just light enough to give them a spectacular ocean view. They set the cruise control on their way to downtown Los Angeles, gliding along as fast as their borrowed pickup will take them.

Their own aging Chevy has broken down again, and to reach the L. A. Produce Market when it opens, they had to rely on Ray's brother, Hector, for the gas-powered loan.

Family, these two entrepreneurs will tell you, is what it's all about. In all sorts of ways.

Ray and Ruben will spend more than an hour wheeling and dealing with the big boys of produce, as hundreds of sellers and even more buyers tangle over prices and quality. They've been doing it two or three days a week since December, when they opened R&R Organic Produce, a little stand at the corner of Telephone Road and Olivas Park Drive in Ventura.

It might not look like much to an outsider, but to these young Mexican-American men, it's a field of dreams.

If they are right, the stand will provide a ticket out of a life they want to leave behind.

The negotiations this morning seem particularly trying, as Ray and Ruben find wide variations in price and quality among the sellers. When they're done choosing, though, the care they took to decide what to buy will be worth it.

"Today we got really good prices. That means we can charge less," Ruben will say later in the day. "Two weeks ago, tomatoes cost $14 a box--today it was $3 a box--so we have to lower our prices. Every day something is different, and every day I am still learning."

The physical grind of the early morning journey--the business dealings, loading the truck bed eight feet high with an assortment of fruits and vegetables--takes its toll, even on fit bodies. And when their borrowed truck sputters and nearly stops on the way home, the drain on their faces is obvious.

The men are now nearly an hour behind schedule as they recross the Ventura County line. At a lot of other jobs, it might call for going straight into work, with perhaps an excuse and apology. Certainly, it occurs to Ray that maybe they should just drive on and get the store stocked and opened.

But being the boss does afford them certain luxuries. Eating breakfast with their families is one of them.

"Family," Ray says later, "is what this is all about. That's why we opened R&R Organic, and that's why we work so hard. It's all about getting something for our families."

He glances at the pickup filled with corn. "This is our chance at the American dream."

Disparate Backgrounds

Ruben Gonzalez, 24, and Ray Orozco, 26, are both sons of immigrant Mexican farm workers and grew up in Oxnard. But there the similarities end.

One is a Mexico-born kind of straight arrow, a man who turned his back on the allure of the streets of Oxnard to achieve what no one in his immigrant family ever had. The other is a California-born, street-smart, ninth-grade dropout, a young man who once turned his back on his family in favor of the gangs and drugs of Oxnard.

Despite their differences, the men nevertheless are connected: by pride, ambition, trust and, perhaps most of all, by a shared goal.

Ruben Gonzalez was born in Mexico and moved to Oxnard when he was 12. He's one of eight children--the oldest boy and the oldest child to make the move north with his family. Three of his sisters stayed behind.

"In Mexico we didn't own anything," Ruben says. "We were just working and working and there wasn't enough money and we didn't own anything. My three older sisters (who stayed in Mexico) didn't go to school because they had to work. And they have families there now."

For the last decade, Ruben's family has lived in the same modest home in the heart of La Colonia, one of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the county. But Ruben says he was able to avoid the gangs and drugs that were available, literally outside his front door.

He swears he's never been drunk a day in his life, something he attributes to his parents. "They did such a good job of keeping me in school and away from drugs," he says. "All the money in the world would never be enough to pay them back for that."

Born in Fresno and the youngest of five brothers, Ray Orozco took a different path than his partner. He moved to Oxnard with his family when he was two after his father, until then a fieldworker, went into the construction trade. Some of Ray's relatives still work in the fields in the San Joaquin Valley.

Ray says he was the only one of his siblings who seemed to have trouble getting his life straight. He already was involved with drugs, in trouble at home and with the law, and flirting with gangs when he dropped out of school in the ninth grade. It was then that he cast his family aside, he says, choosing instead the kind of life he found in the streets.

"I was a blockhead," Ray, now a husband and father, says with a smile.

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