Cheese Master's Proud Tradition Halted : Jalisco Workers Face Bleak Future

Times Staff Writers

Ruben Pinedo, 45 and a father of 10, shook his head slowly as he stared at the closed gates of Jalisco Mexican Products Inc., unable to comprehend the calamity that had overtaken him.

"What will I do now?" Pinedo asked in Spanish. "My need is so great. Eight years I worked there, just doing my job--and it was all over in a moment. We all worked there so long. . . ."

Pinedo and 102 other Jalisco employees were notified of a layoff June 19, and the next week Jalisco was unable to borrow money from a bank to meet its payroll, a company spokesman said.

For most, it will mean a trip to the unemployment office, then a search for work. Others interviewed said some of their undocumented co-workers will return to Mexico.

In a form letter in Spanish to all Jalisco employees, company President Gary McPherson thanked the workers for the "great support and loyalty you have shown in these times of crisis for Jalisco Mexican Products Inc. . . . . We will do everything we can to open the factory as soon as possible."

But company officials said there is "no way to know" when the plant will reopen.

Jalisco stopped production at its Artesia plant June 13 and recalled all its dairy products from grocery shelves when Los Angeles County health officials announced that cheese samples were contaminated with the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes.

Deaths Linked to Cheese

The bacteria has killed 39 people--most of them Latino women and newborn infants--in California. Dozens of illnesses linked to the cheese have been reported and are being investigated.

Seated with a group of his former co-workers one recent afternoon in a home across from the plant, Pinedo said that every month for eight years, he had sent most of his check to his wife and nine of his children in Mexico. His eldest child, age 18, lives with Pinedo but has been unemployed for four months.

Pinedo, who has not seen the rest of his family for two years, said he has sent a letter home advising them of his plight.

"My checks went for food, housing, school uniforms and books for all my children," he said, counting the items off on his fingers. "And I don't think it's so easy to find work now in California. We're all a little nervous because of that."

Others in the group nodded.

A 55-year-old Mexican worker who had been employed at Jalisco for six years said he is worried no one will hire him because of his age. Two young Mexicans said they had left applications in several dozen auto shops and factories with no luck.

"It's hard even for those who are born here, let alone for an immigrant," they said.

Returning to Mexico

Some of the workers, the employees said, are undocumented and are returning to Mexico.

That morning, Pinedo said, he had applied for unemployment benefits for the first time.

But, "I'm ashamed of that," Pinedo said. "I've never asked the government here for anything."

Employees who are working in the United States legally are eligible for benefits, Employment Development Department officials said.

As of Tuesday, 48 Jalisco workers had filed claims in Norwalk, department officials said, while another 28 had applied at the office in Lakewood. will update.Tuesday

On Monday, Pinedo's co-worker, Pascual Barajas, who is making payments on a home across from the plant, said he and other eligible workers had been told they would begin receiving unemployment benefits at the end of the month.

Barajas, 50 and the father of 12, is a skilled cheese maker who was hired by Jalisco in Mexico four years ago.

Barajas, whose ancestors made cheese 100 years ago in Cotija, a Mexican town famed for its hard, white cheese, took a job with Jalisco to produce the cheese in this country. Once here, Barajas and three of his sons developed the company formula for the queso cotija seco , a 50-pound pasteurized whole milk cheese shaped like a wheel that was sold to butchers' shops, delicatessens and supermarkets.

Taught Cheese Making

The silver-haired Barajas said he is proud that he taught his children to milk cows and make cheese. The cheese he made for Jalisco has not been found to be contaminated, Barajas said, and his family is still eating it.

Barajas, standing in his front yard while children played around him, said he has been deluged with calls from his hometown of San Jose de Gracia, where everyone knows him as a "maestro," or master cheese maker. Worried relatives believed he was in jail, he said, laughing.

As for the future--"What is there to gain by crying?" Barajas asked. "Yes, we're all worried, but what can you do? We could be out of work for two months . . . or for a year.

"You have to adapt," he said, "but you can't adapt to not eating."

A group of the Jalisco's drivers echoed Barajas as they discussed the loss of their $500 weekly paychecks. At Jalisco, the drivers earned more than the average worker, who was paid between $5 and $6 an hour. Most of the drivers had worked between 10 and 17 years at the plant and had never worked anywhere else.

"Every week we got a check," said Agustin Mota, 28, of Paramount. "Then one day we pulled in and they told us to unload and go home."

Working Without Pay

Now they were working voluntarily, without pay, for the company, loading recalled Jalisco cheese into their vans at stores and supermarkets around Los Angeles County.

The other drivers jokingly suggested that because he had been laid off, Mota would have to cancel his August wedding. Mota objected strenuously.

"I'm still getting married," he said. "The dance, the party, the gowns, the cake--everything's paid for. The only problem is how to support the bride."

Company driver Salvador Anguiano, 37, of Paramount said the company owed him a month of paid vacation. Moreover, he said, he does not know how he will meet the six more months of payments left on his new car.

"But why even mention such a small problem?" he said.

Small, indeed, compared to the dilemma that confronts Pinedo.

He had come to the United States, Pinedo said, to provide a better life for his family in Mexico. Without his job at Jalisco, he could not have afforded to send his children to school. If Jalisco does not reopen soon, he said, "for many of us our last resort is to return to Mexico. But the peso is worthless and you earn very little there. We just have to have faith that this will be resolved."

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