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In Their Capable Hands

The Ortizes are among the many multigenerational families employed at the See's factory in L.A., many of them immigrant women hoping to build a secure future.

July 19, 1999|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Summer is not exactly peak season for the purveyors of fine chocolates. The months creep by, bereft of a single candy-centric holiday. The heat brings up issues of melting and stickiness and images of bathing suits, none of them chocolate friendly.

At the See's Candies factory on La Cienega Boulevard, there is only one chocolate enrobing machine running, sluicing dark chocolate over hundreds of Scotchmallows. To the right, yard-long swaths of peanut brittle are cut into doormat-size squares, then pushed and patted by hand into the requisite thickness (the height of a peanut). But at many of the tables, the washtub-size copper pots and the gargantuan mixing vats stand empty.

The staff--which swells to 275 during the Christmas-to-Easter season--is down to 110. Those who remain are the skilled senior workers, many with 10, 20, 35 years' experience. The lifers.

See's, based in San Francisco, prides itself on a sense of family. Mary See still smiles benignly from the logo her son Charles designed almost 80 years ago. But she, and he, are long gone, and the real See's family now are the folks moving sugar during the summer months.

And many of them are just that. Family. Husbands and wives. Brothers and sisters. Mothers and daughters. And in the case of Enedina Ortiz, bonbon roller and 33-year employee, mother and son and daughters and granddaughter.

Ortiz, 69, has 10 children, and four of them work for See's--Belia Andelon and Juani Meza Davila work with their mother at the La Cienega factory. Son Raphael Ortiz, daughter Rosa Sandoval plus granddaughter Annie Sandoval work in the company's Carson packing plant. Another daughter and son worked for See's years ago, as seasonal employees.

Enedina's husband started it all. In 1960, Jesus Ortiz came to Los Angeles from Mexico, and on a friend's recommendation, applied for work at See's. Five years later, he brought his wife and three daughters to L.A. (the seven sons would follow later). And they too began working at See's, spending their days immersed in the factory's sweet buttery breath. Streaked here with chocolate, there with roasting nuts, it is a persistent smell that lingers in the nose and throat, long after the workday is done.

"At first, my father didn't want us to work," says Rosa Sandoval, a packing supervisor. "I was only 16. So I started as a seasonal worker around Christmas in the evenings. Me and Belia worked on production and my mother worked in packing."

Getting to Work by 5 a.m.

Jesus Ortiz retired from See's in 1976. But every day at 5 a.m., Enedina Ortiz and the children don the hairnets, the white smocks.

"I took the job because I need to work," says Enedina Ortiz, the matriarch, through a translator. "There was no reason for me to look for another one. It is a good job, clean, and a good environment. They treat us very well. I like working with my daughters. And I like to eat the candy, but not too much. I cannot eat too many sweets."

For 25 years, Ortiz has been ensconced in what company President Charles Huggins considers the jewel of the L.A. facility--the bonbon room. Seated with two other women at a long white table, she kneads a lump of maple pecan filling, now working it into a small loaf, now slicing that loaf apart, then pulling and rolling the slices into bits the size of, well, a pecan. She listens and thinks and talks and watches, and her hands never stop moving. In a day, she will roll 1,500 to 2,000 bonbons. She has been at it since 4 a.m.; See's runs a four, 10-hour day summer week.

About 10 yards away sits Juani Davila, Ortiz's youngest daughter, who is dipping the bonbons her mother has rolled into creamy coating, adorning each with an almond and a festive drizzle. The small copper bowl is fitted into the surface of the worktable; beneath it steams hot water, the sugary heat rising. Davila, like her mother, works with movements fluid and constant; if the finished candies did not continually appear, you would swear she was simply stirring soup.

She has been working at See's for 24 years.

"I grew up hearing my sisters talk about making the candy," she says, her voice bright with contained laughter. "And so I wanted to make the candy. I've done a lot of things, but what I like best is decorating.

"When I started, Belia was in charge and she showed me how. We used to decorate all year round; now it's mostly Halloween and Easter. But I like that best," she says, still smiling and dipping and adorning and drizzling.

Davila, like her mother and sisters before her, began her production career where most new See's employees do--on the enrober.

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