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A Worker Rooted in Family and the Land

A Crew Boss Who Emigrated From Mexico Harvests Flowers to Reap a Better Future for His 5 Children

September 23, 1998|SCOTT MARTELLE and ERIKA CHAVEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Eleno Cervantes Navarrete has a job with a view, which has a lot to do with why he sticks with it.

On a clear day he can see the ocean in the distance. On hazy days, the view shrinks back to the hilltops of northern San Diego County. The land isn't his. Neither are the flowers that cover it.

But the job as a farm worker is, and he finds it satisfying.

"I really like plants, the feel of soil in my hands, the scent of flowers and the sounds of the birds chirping," says Cervantes, 37, who lives in a $500-a-month hilltop bungalow owned by his employers. "I wish I had more space here at my house so I could plant more seeds and grow more plants and vegetables."

Cervantes makes his living under the hot sun, grooming sunflowers, eucalyptus and lisianthus.

He works for Mellano & Co., a grower and distributor of flowers. The blooms from this field will end up in fancy vases and simple Mason jars in homes and offices everywhere. Many will be sold at the flower market in Los Angeles where flower-shop owner Lisa Howell makes a weekly buying trip.

Yet the people who will later soak up the beauty of bouquets of those flowers know nothing of the man who nurtured them to bloom.

That's the nature of a lot of jobs: They're invisible. For Cervantes, it's an abstract he doesn't bother to ponder. He prefers to plant. To supervise his crew of six, from whose ranks he was promoted about three years ago.

"I was raised in the campo [countryside], I worked in the campo and I loved everything about it . . . ," Cervantes says. "I grew up poor; my family was modest, of humble means. So I couldn't dream too big.

"My wish was to someday have a job working in the campo that would allow me to raise my family. That's what I have here."

It's exhausting work. Shifts begin at 7:30 a.m. and knock off at 4:30 p.m., with a half day on Saturday. The sun is relentless, and the steady breeze parches. In shaded patches--light-sensitive gardens nurtured beneath screens--the sun's intensity dissipates, but the humidity jumps, as if in an open-sided greenhouse.

Cervantes, even as a crew chief, trims and prunes, cuts and gathers. The palm of his hand has a permanent tender spot where the hand clippers dig in. He could walk home for lunch but chooses not to, afraid of the message it might send to his bosses.

"I have given this job everything, always worked really hard," Cervantes says. "I supervise a group of men, and I have to look after them even at lunch. It's part of the job."

*

Cervantes' satisfaction isn't necessarily universal. Farm work remains one of the most dangerous occupations in the country and--particularly for migrant workers who are immigrants--wages are low. At Mellano, new fieldworkers are paid minimum wage--$5.75 an hour. The average wage for all fieldworkers is $7 an hour, Mellano officials said.

Mellano augments wages by offering on-site housing for fieldworkers. Crew chiefs such asCervantes qualify for the three-bedroom bungalows. Single male fieldworkers can live dormitory-style for $22 a week, but strict rules--including a ban on alcohol--lead half the 150 workers to share apartments in nearby Oceanside, farm officials said. Mellano employs no female fieldworkers.

Still, people want the work. One of Cervantes' co-workers was caught and deported 10 times before he was able to obtain legal permits. Cervantes says he was sent back three times before he gained resident alien status in 1986.

"I came here looking for a better life for my kids, so they could go to school and move forward," says Cervantes, a father of five.

Cervantes was born in Santiago del Rio, Oaxaca state, in the south of Mexico. Farm jobs were unreliable, and, when he was 19 and a newlywed, Cervantes moved to Mexico City, where he worked as a bricklayer's assistant and in a factory molding aluminum furniture frames.

He found the conditions stifling. Two of his brothers, already working at Mellano, offered to pay his passage. He decided to join them in 1984, leaving his wife, Carmen, and their young children behind in Mexico City. He would return every nine months or so to visit for a few weeks.

"If I stayed longer, I was afraid I would lose my job," Cervantes says. "But after eight years of that, I had reached my limit. For me it was very difficult to maintain and support a family from so far away. I made the decision to bring my family here, to be together and fight for a better life.

"It was difficult. You leave everything behind--your home, your family, your country. But my main concern was my children. Everything we do is for our children. We wanted the best for them."

Money is tight, particularly now that four of their five kids are teenagers. Their car is unreliable, but it doesn't matter because the family can't afford to go anywhere.

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