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Farewell to a life full of oranges

Man tended one of O.C.'s last groves, but city had other plans.

August 17, 2008|Paloma Esquivel | Times Staff Writer

Two months ago, as Ignacio Lujano sat with family beneath the ample shade of an oak tree he planted decades ago, he wondered what he would do when the city of San Juan Capistrano finally made good on its promise to evict him.

There was talk of resisting, of forcing police to drag him off the orange grove he'd called home for four decades. Some talked of hiring a lawyer to fight the city.

But in the end, Lujano decided to go quietly.

"You can't fight those people, those educated people," he said, sitting beneath the oak tree late last week and pronouncing the city the victor in the war over one of the last orange groves in Orange County.

"They've got too much money to fight."

Lujano had lived on Swanner Ranch and cared for its orange trees for 38 years before the city told him last year to leave. City officials initially said the land would be used for a maintenance yard but now say there are no immediate plans for its use.

Regardless, Lujano's battle to stay is over. Two weeks ago, he packed up and left for a small home in Lake Elsinore. He left behind dozens of dead and dying orange trees and a lifetime of memories.

City officials say Lujano, 84, no longer cared for the trees as he promised he would in 1992, when the city bought the 42-acre grove as part of an open-space initiative. The city had to supplement maintenance of the orchards and surrounding area at taxpayers' expense, officials said.

Worried he might end up without a place to stay, family members encouraged Lujano to leave before the deadline, said his son Alex.

Alex's brother Rogelio, who lives at the Swanner Ranch home with his wife and daughter, is also leaving. He said he found a home near Lujano's and got permission to stay 30 more days while trying to finalize the purchase.

Born in Arizona, Ignacio Lujano was raised in Mexico and came to California in 1958. In San Juan Capistrano, he quickly learned to tend the orchards and was known for producing abundant harvests. He moved in 1970 to Swanner Ranch, where he cared for acres of citrus trees and, after his wife died of cancer in 1973, raised nine children alone.

Earlier this month, as Lujano prepared to leave, family members held a yard sale, selling off fragments of the old man's life -- broken record players, television consoles and pieces of farm equipment used to care for the orange trees.

His new home in Lake Elsinore is pale blue, almost the same color as his old one. His sons helped paint, fix old plumbing and clean up the dilapidated house that was all he could afford.

When inland temperatures aren't too high, Lujano spends hours outside, clearing out weeds and cleaning the yard.

The house has one tree -- a small olive -- but he's determined to plant more: "lemon, peach, orange; maybe something like that," he said, "so we can have a little shade."

Alex Lujano said that every few days, his father comes up with excuses to visit Swanner Ranch -- even though he's just "a tourist" there now.

As Ignacio Lujano sat looking out at the Valencia and navel orange trees a stone's throw from his old patio, an old Chevy truck was packed with the last of his things: a wooden rocking chair missing a few screws, a metal walker and a tire, among others.

Lujano sat in the shade, happily reminiscing on the years spent caring for the grove -- watering, fertilizing, lighting oil fires to ward off the frost.

Rogelio Lujano's wife, Carmen, was the one doing the packing. She has lived at the home since she was a teenager.

She sat down near her father-in-law. A light breeze broke the day's heat and they talked of days spent making orange juice and orange blossom tea and of the smell of orange blossoms on a summer night.

"No matter where we move, it's not going to be the same," she said.

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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