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Eviction is bitter fruit of citrus man's labors

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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also bearing the signature of his son Roy, that permitted him to live out his years on the Swanner Ranch, a promise originally made by his old landlord, attorney Charles Swanner.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.

It would be 16 years before Lujano would remarry and father two more children. In the meantime, he focused on the orange groves and his children.

"Growing up, we didn't have to share my dad with another woman," Alex Lujano said. "We had to share him with the ranch."

As development accelerated in Orange County, orange groves disappeared. Even in the county's remaining agriculture areas, citrus was replaced with more profitable crops such as strawberries. Today, the county has less than 100 acres of orange trees, most of them used as nostalgic forms of landscaping or living tributes to a bygone era.

In 1990, the third act of Lujano's life was put into motion when San Juan Capistrano residents passed a $20-million bond measure to buy and preserve open space. The city later purchased the Swanner Ranch for nearly $7 million.

As part of the sale, owner Roger Swanner asked that Lujano be made an independent contractor for the city and be allowed to live on the property and work the orange groves. Lujano said he believed that another agreement -- the one he can't find -- let him stay on the land until he died. He said that for the next 16 years, he never considered eviction a possibility.

In the last few years, Lujano said, he has watched with sadness as the orange groves that once thrived under his care began to wither as the city took control of the last five acres. In his opinion, a lack of watering and pest control has doomed many of the trees -- a contention the city disputes.

"I feel bad to see my trees die, because I've been taking care of them for a long, long time," Lujano said.

In May 2007, city officials said they were ready to carry out their open-space plans for the more than 120 acres they purchased on the city's north end and gave Lujano 60 days to leave.

They offered to help him find affordable housing within the city, an offer he's turned down because his wife, 22 years his junior, wouldn't be allowed to stay there when he died. He doesn't want her to have to move twice.

The city waited a year before sending a second eviction notice, this time giving him 90 days. San Juan Capistrano officials stopped Lujano's monthly checks in October.

"It's time to turn the page and start a new chapter," said Councilman Thomas Hribar, vice chairman of the city's Open Space Committee. "This tenant has been on that property since the city bought it in 1992, and he's known he's needed to move for the last year. It's time to move."

Lujano's family wonders why the city couldn't leave the ranch house alone until the patriarch dies.

"This open-space plan is not an emergency," Alex Lujano, 37, said. "What's the rush?"

Ignacio Lujano figures he'll have to move in with his son Roy in one of the city's "dumps" -- a term he uses frequently to describe any kind of development. Roy Lujano says he's trying to find a place next to some open space. He says his father "won't make it in a town."

Lujano agrees: "The last few days I've got left, I've got to live like a prisoner in jail. I'm not allowed to drive a car. I'm not allowed to do nothing. Just live out my life."

Until he's kicked off the ranch, Lujano can't stop looking after his trees. At night, he'll sneak out, drag a hose into the groves and give them the soaking he believes they deserve.

"The soil here used to be black," he said, kicking the light brown dirt with his cowboy boots. "Now look at it."

william.lobdell@latimes.com

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