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Eviction is bitter fruit

San Juan Capistrano is making Ignacio Lujano, 84, leave the orange groves he has tended for 38 years.

June 15, 2008|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

For half a century, Ignacio Lujano has worked the orange groves of San Juan Capistrano, laboring from sunrise to past sunset six days a week to coax the largest and sweetest harvest possible from his Valencia and navel trees.

Unwilling to leave the groves, he's never taken a vacation. In his younger years, he often took a blanket and slept under the stars, a gun by his side, to protect the fruit from thieves.

Today, many of Lujano's 13 children, 25 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren will gather -- probably for the last time -- at the family home that sits amid the remnants of the city's once-sprawling orange groves to celebrate Father's Day.

They plan to barbecue carne asada, drink a Corona or two, play ranchero music from a boom box and listen to Lujano's stories of 50 years as a citrus farmer in San Juan Capistrano. But the usually joyous Father's Day honoring the family patriarch will be, at best, tinged with sadness.

After 38 years at the Swanner Ranch, Lujano, 84, is being evicted by San Juan Capistrano city officials. They plan to build a maintenance yard there for their open-space operations and have given him until Aug. 14 to leave -- or face legal action.

The move has left Lujano bewildered -- he thought he had a deal to work the ranch until he died -- and San Juan Capistrano with a public relations challenge as word of his pending eviction has leaked out.

"Why do they want to do this now?" asks Lujano, leaning on a shovel that also serves as his cane. He's a stout man with a barrel chest, muscled arms, leathery skin and two bad knees. "I'm too old now to find other work."

Some say Lujano should have seen this coming. In 1992, as part of an open-space initiative, the city bought the 42-acre property abutting the 5 Freeway in the northern part of town. Documents show that Lujano, the ranch's foreman, was put on a month-to-month contract that allowed him to live on the site in exchange for tending five of the 42 acres of orange groves and maintaining the site. The city also paid him a $500 monthly stipend.

But Lujano swears that at about the same time, he signed a second city contract, also bearing the signature of his son Roy, that permitted him to live out his years on the Swanner Ranch, a promise originally made by his old landlord, attorney Charles Swanner. It's a document no one can find and the city doesn't believe exists.

"We're ready to take the space and use it for its intended purpose," said Cindy Russell, assistant city manager. "We had to press the issue recently because there's been no movement."

Lujano's children say they don't understand why the city won't let their father spend his final years in peace on the land he loves and has nurtured for so long.

"In Laguna Beach, they make statues of 'the Greeter,' who was an icon of that town," said Lujano's son Alex, referring to Eiler Larsen, the colorful character in the beach town who spent 33 years waving to motorists on South Coast Highway. "In San Juan, they kick my father out."

Others echo the family's sentiments. One e-mailer to the OC Weekly, which recently featured Lujano's plight, wrote: "Sad that people can legalize and justify removing this good man from his home and give cold legalese ultimatums after all his years of service."

Born in Arizona in 1924, Lujano was raised in Mexico and migrated with his brother to the United States in 1958. In San Ysidro, they boarded a Greyhound bus and asked the driver to take them as far as $5 would allow. They made it to San Juan Capistrano, which Lujano declared to be a slice of heaven with its rolling hills, thousands of acres of orange groves and vast stretches of open space.

"I have never seen a town like this . . . quiet, honest, everything the way I like it," Lujano said. He told his brother, "I can die in peace here with no problems."

Back then, sleepy San Juan Capistrano wasn't much different from the rest of the Orange County, which boasted more than 60,000 acres of citrus groves. The abundant orange groves fulfilled the prophecy of business boosters who gave Orange County its name in 1881 because of its allure, not because of its endless citrus groves.

In San Juan Capistrano, Lujano quickly gained a reputation among landowners for his knack for producing abundant harvests from the rich soil and never lacked for work. In 1970, when the ranch where Lujano worked was sold, he was hired the next day by Charles Swanner, an attorney who owned property on the west side of the 5, north of the town's famous mission. Lujano said its annual production of avocados jumped from 1,050 pounds to 51,300 pounds in his first year as foreman.

Lujano's wife died of cancer in 1973, leaving him to raise nine children still at home by himself. He didn't make much, so his children couldn't afford to compete in organized sports, and an afternoon outing to the local carnival seemed like a trip to Disneyland.

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