Rooted in Family and the Land

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Eleno Cervantes Navarrete has a job with a view, which has a lot to do with why he sticks with it.

On a clear day he can see the ocean in the distance. On hazy days, the view shrinks back to the hilltops of northern San Diego County. The land isn't his. Neither are the flowers that cover it.

But the job as a farm worker is, and he finds it satisfying.

"I really like plants, the feel of soil in my hands, the scent of flowers and the sounds of the birds chirping," says Cervantes, 37, who lives in a $500-per-month hilltop bungalow owned by his employers. "I wish I had more space here at my house so I could plant more seeds and grow more plants and vegetables."

Cervantes makes his living under the hot sun, grooming sunflowers until they burst with yellow, eucalyptus leaves until they shimmer with green, and lisianthus until they drip purple and pink.

He works for Mellano & Co., a grower and distributor of flowers. The blooms from this field will end up in fancy vases and simple Mason jars in homes and offices everywhere. Many will be sold at a flower market in Los Angeles where flower shop owner Lisa Howell makes a weekly buying trip.

Yet the people who will later soak up the beauty of bouquets made from those flowers know nothing of the man who nurtured them to bloom.

That's the nature of a lot of jobs: They're invisible. But for Cervantes, that's an abstract he doesn't bother to ponder. He prefers to plant. To tend. To supervise his crew of six, from whose ranks he was promoted about three years ago.

"I was raised in the campo (countryside), I worked in the campo, and I loved everything about it," Cervantes says. "Being able to work here is like a dream. I grew up poor; my family was modest, of humble means. So I couldn't dream too big.

"My wish was to someday have a job working in the campo that would allow me to raise my family. That's what I have here. I'm very happy."

It's exhausting work. Shifts begin at 7:30 a.m. and knock off at 4:30 p.m., with a half day Saturday. The sun is relentless, and the steady breeze parches. In shaded patches--light-sensitive gardens nurtured beneath screens--the sun's intensity dissipates but the humidity jumps, as if in an open-sided greenhouse.

Cervantes, even as a crew chief, trims and prunes, cuts and gathers. The palm of his hand has a permanent tender spot where the hand clippers dig in. He could walk home for lunch but chooses not to, afraid of the message it might send to his bosses.

"I have given this job everything, always worked really hard," Cervantes says. "I supervise a group of men, and I have to look after them even at lunch. It's part of the job."

Cervantes' satisfaction isn't necessarily universal. Farm work remains one of the most dangerous occupations in the country and--particularly for migrant workers who are immigrants--wages are low. At Mellano, new fieldworkers are paid minimum wage--$5.75 an hour. The average wage for all fieldworkers is $7 an hour, Mellano officials said.

Mellano augments wages by offering on-site housing for fieldworkers. Crew chiefs such as Cervantes qualify for the three-bedroom bungalows. Single male fieldworkers can live dormitory-style for $22 a week, but strict rules--including a ban on alcohol--lead half the 150 workers to share apartments in nearby Oceanside, farm officials said. Mellano employs no female fieldworkers.

Still, the drive for such work doesn't dampen easily. One of Cervantes' co-workers was caught and deported 10 times before he was able to obtain legal permits. Cervantes says he was sent back three times before he gained resident alien status in 1986.

"I came here looking for a better life for my kids, so they could go to school and move forward," says Cervantes, a father of five.

Cervantes was born in Santiago del Rio, Oaxaca state, in the south of Mexico. Farm jobs were unreliable and, when he was 19 and a newlywed, Cervantes moved to Mexico City, where he worked as a bricklayer's assistant and in a factory molding aluminum furniture frames.

He found the conditions stifling. Two of his brothers, already working at Mellano, offered to pay his passage. He decided to join them in 1984, leaving his wife, Carmen, and their young children behind in Mexico City. He would return every nine months or so to visit for a few weeks.

"If I stayed longer, I was afraid I would lose my job," Cervantes says. "But after eight years of that, I had reached my limit. For me it was very difficult to maintain and support a family from so far away. I made the decision to bring my family here, to be together and fight for a better life.

"It was difficult. You leave everything behind--your home, your family, your country. But my main concern was my children. Everything we do is for our children. We wanted the best for them."

Money is tight, particularly now that four of their five kids are teenagers. Their car is unreliable, but it doesn't matter because the family can't afford to go anywhere.

"We don't go out to movies, we don't go out to eat, because there's no money to do that," Cervantes says. "Once in a while, we'll go shopping at the swap meet. Mostly, we'll take walks around the farm together. . . . I don't go out with my friends and spend my time drinking beer. I spend time with my kids. I want to set a good example for them."

For a similar reason, his wife doesn't work, even though the extra income would help.

"It wouldn't do anybody any good if we had made all these sacrifices to bring our kids here, and then we didn't have time for them," Cervantes says. "If she worked, our kids wouldn't be looked after properly."

Despite the pressures, Cervantes says, the family has no intention of returning to Mexico.

"My kids are here now; they're going to school here. So I doubt we'll go back," he says. "California is much better than Mexico, anyway. Here you can eat and you can live. I am very comfortable here, living on the ranch. It's spacious and tranquil. It feels like we're living like rich people."

Three years ago, Cervantes and his wife bought their own home in Oceanside, partly in hopes that by moving out of the apartment in which the family was living they could separate their kids from gangs.

But the move didn't allay their fears.

When they became concerned that one of their children might be hanging out with people who were a negative influence, they sent him to Mexico to live with relatives. Later, they realized they had misjudged him--he had been sneaking out to see a girlfriend, not hanging with gangs.

It took another nine months for them to raise the money to bring him back.

"That was our fault," Cervantes says, "There was no communication there. We overreacted. But the worst thing imaginable, our worst fear, is for our kids to start emulating gang members, after we went through so much to bring them here for a better life. To me, there's pride in dressing like a campesino, a working man. I want people to respect me and my children."

Last year, the family moved onto the ranch, where Cervantes has ringed their bungalow with gardens of his own, raising chiles and tomatoes, cilantro and tomatillos, among other fruits and vegetables. And flowers, too--senpasuchi, which look like marigolds and often are used to mark graves on the Day of the Dead.

"I love their scent," Cervantes says. "I like plants, like everything about them. I'm always thinking about what to plant next."

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