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."
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.