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The State | COLUMN ONE

Perils among the palms

Some immigrants who get by as gardeners are finding real money in tree trimming. But a lack of training and experience can be deadly.

October 26, 2006|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

He was known as El Bocinas, which translates as stereo speakers. He never liked the name, but it matched his personality, for he was playful, energetic.

He was from Refugio Salcido, a Durango ranching village that helped change the Southern California green industry.

In the late 1970s, villagers came to Los Angeles and found work with Japanese gardeners. Accomplished and relatively few in number, Japanese Americans had dominated L.A. gardening for decades. Their clients were well to do; gardeners then were too expensive for anyone else.

The Japanese gardeners formed associations that provided members with liability, health and theft insurance, low-cost supplies and training seminars.

From World War II to the 1980s, "gardening paid better than a lot of white-collar jobs," said Ron Tsukashima, a sociology professor at Cal State L.A. who has studied the Los Angeles gardening industry. Gardeners "could buy themselves a house and send their kids to college."

But by the 1980s, the ethnic Japanese were getting older. Their college-educated children weren't becoming gardeners. A housing explosion meant more places needing tending.

The Japanese hired Mexican helpers, mostly from ranching states, including Jalisco, Michoacan and Zacatecas.

Thousands of gardeners would also come from towns in central Durango, including Refugio Salcido. Today, hundreds of men from that village are gardeners in Los Angeles.

"We learned all we know about gardening" from the Japanese, said Esiquio Barrera, 50, who arrived in Los Angeles from the village in 1981.

The Japanese paid their helpers $70 a day and charged clients $80 per yard. In time, Mexicans found they could make more if they did the work themselves and charged clients $50.

In doing so, Mexican gardeners helped create the region's illegal economy. Often, they had no certification, licenses or insurance; they paid no taxes. Early on, they shared apartments, and their families remained in Mexico.

Meanwhile, better implements -- more powerful blowers, electric weeders and pruners, faster lawn mowers -- were making gardening a cheaper, easier trade.

Prices dropped to between $20 and $60 per yard. "More and more working-class families" started hiring gardeners, Tsukashima said.

By the time Gerardo Rodriguez came of age, a tradition in Refugio Salcido was set: Young men went north to work as gardeners in L.A.'s underground economy.

"They grow up seeing men returning from up north with trucks and nice clothes," said Victoria Sanchez, who lives in a South Los Angeles apartment complex inhabited entirely by immigrants from Refugio Salcido. "That becomes their dream. I don't think he was the exception."

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IN reality, Gerardo Rodriguez was the exception.

He'd worked for only two years in Los Angeles before he saved $2,000. He bought a truck, chain saw, lawn mower, weeder, edger and blower. He had no insurance. With a friend's Social Security number, he took out a cellular phone account. He printed some business cards. Just like that, the poor rancher's son was a businessman.

He was 17.

Soon, he had a route of yards he cleaned on Mondays. Other mornings he went to the corner of Jefferson Boulevard and Edgehill Drive in South Los Angeles, where young gardeners look for day work.

But he saw that competition was fierce among gardeners. Customers were loath to increase what they paid, even as the gardeners' costs climbed.

"Most homeowners use us because they don't want to pay a professional," said Nunez, who is also a gardener. "They don't care what happens to you, providing they don't pay much. If I don't do it, there's someone who'll do it cheaper."

Up in the air, friends said, Rodriguez felt a man could stand out and move ahead.

So last year he began learning palm-tree climbing from Diego Guerrero, an immigrant from Refugio Salcido.

"He didn't like working where they ordered him around," said Guerrero, 30, in a telephone interview from the village. "He liked climbing trees."

Tree trimming has always attracted risk takers.

"The pride and ego in this industry are just devastating things, but they're almost a requirement," said Richard Magargal, a San Diego County tree worker and safety instructor for the last four decades. "Who make the best tree men? Egomaniacs and ex-cons, generally."

Or immigrants with nothing to lose. Rodriguez wanted people to see that he could do more than others, Nunez said.

"Not just anyone goes up there," he added. "Those who do it are fueled only by courage. They have no training. Just pure courage, to earn a little more money. I wouldn't risk it."

Fueling his ambition, Rodriguez had met Brenda Gallegos, a high school senior and daughter of a gardener from Refugio Salcido. Straight off, he asked her to be his girlfriend.

They saw each other daily. She occasionally accompanied him on his Monday routes and took him lunch on tree jobs. He dreamed of taking her to her senior prom.

"He asked all about it, what he needed to do and how it was," Marrufo said.

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