Loving the Orange Grove

At five, I started learning Spanish from our Mexican bracero orange pickers. Most of the English words they knew were dirty ones. One bracero said, “Go ask your mother what f* means.”

I asked her. She knew. She said, “Don’t you ever go out into the orange grove again!”

But I couldn’t keep out—the orange grove always beckoned. I built a lean-to there with surplus boards. When I disobeyed, I would hide out there. I would hide things there I didn’t want anybody else to see. Sometimes I would go there to cry, or pray. The leaves greened the year round. The trees, filled with insects and noisy birds, sheltered like a canopy. I breathed in the smell of fallen leaves. In summer we would overnight beneath the low branches, feeling the leaves beneath our backs. We woke up seeing the sun gilding the dew on green leaves, and smelling the sweetness of the white orange blossoms.

Behind our orange grove lay a large lot filled with miscellaneous old door and window frames, used lumber, and all things made of wood—Joe’s “lumber-” [think junk-] yard. Sometimes, we would shortcut through the lumberyard on the way to school. Bill the tramp lived there with his long, unwashed, disheveled hair. He wore a dirty, torn shirt and baggy pants with his knees sticking out the ripped holes. One day we were shortcutting through the lumberyard, rounding a disordered pile of used 2×4’s, when Bill appeared from nowhere! He just stared at us. We ran all the way to school.

One day when I was in second grade, I decided to run away from home—I forget why. I cut an orange branch and tied a large red kerchief to the end. I told my mom, “I’m running away tonight.”

Mom said, “That’s a great idea; I’ll pack you a lunch.” Her enthusiasm blunted my joy a little, but after dinner (I didn’t want to leave hungry) I left my childhood home forever and trudged west, walking through the orange grove. I paused just at the edge of Joe’s lumber yard, and wondered where Bill the tramp was. Would he be already asleep, or might he be wandering around? It was an epiphany moment. I wavered, and then decided that it would be nice to sleep in my own bed that night—I could always run away the next day. So I turned around and ran home.

Grandfather bought these four and one-half acres of oranges in the 1920s, a few years after he moved his family from South Dakota. After he buried his plow horse here in the grove, he bought a Fordson tractor with steel-cleated wheels that hurled up great hunks of earth. He used it to pull a sledge—its rough wooden runners scraped and screeched on the rocky soil. The sledge carried dead branches or young plantlings that had gunny sacks tied around their tender, moist roots. Sometimes it carried his screaming grandchildren.

Of all the trees, we liked our solitary navel tree best. Unlike the Valencias, the navel oranges have a belly button on the bottom. We hung No Glom signs on this tree so the braceros wouldn’t pick the precious navels. (Although I’m fluent in Spanish, I have no idea what No Glom means.) My sister and I used to sit under this tree as rulers of the realm, devouring the fruit of our family’s labors. The navel’s thick skin peels off in seconds, and I can still feel the sting in the nose from its acidic smell. We sucked the sweet juice from the seedless pulp.

In summertime the bending branches drooped with oranges, and the ones that fell off provided ammunition for our combat operations. We piled a few “lug” boxes up for a barricade, gathered rotten oranges, and stationed ourselves opposite our opponents. The rules of engagement—no green oranges and no head shots. A beautiful feeling when a rotten orange splattered all over the clothes of your enemy! He even smelled rotten.

Tending the grove

Snails infested the orange trees, so Dad sent us kids into the grove as a conquering army. We would pry the snails off the tree trunks, drop them into tin cans, and then pour lots of salt into each can. We weren’t bothered about the snails’ agonizing death—they didn’t make any noise.

Orange County’s meager rainfall (10 inches per year) meant we always needed water. Southern California is dry, so dry that once the bushes in our Santiago Creek streambed caught fire. Dad sprayed down our cedar shake roof under the swirling sparks.

So we irrigated. The sanjero (“ditch man”) from Santa Ana Valley Irrigation would ask Dad, “What head do ya want?”

Dad usually said, “A fifth head, and run it for 12 hours or so.”

One dry summer day, I stood at the end of Culver Street watching the sanjero unlock the lid on the big concrete cistern and turn a valve to release a fifth head of water. When the water flowed into our orchard, Dad told me, “Check the concrete standpipes at the head of each furrow.” I used a shovel to open the little tin doors so the water could flow down the ditches toward the back of the orchard, and I crafted tiny wood-chip boats with paper sails and sailed them down the shining stream. My dreams rode on those little boats, dreams of travel, of adventure, of faraway places, of finding my place in the world.

We laid the dry ground up in wide ditches that stayed usable for several years. But this “no-till” method meant weeds, and weeds meant spraying. Dad would say, “Jamie, the Revis orchard has some big weed patches.” I would reluctantly fill a little weed sprayer and carry it out to spray the dichondra, purslane, and especially the Bermuda grass. Yet it seemed the weeds thrived on the spray. Within a couple weeks they always came back—a vast, rebellious sea of green, always threatening to overwhelm the orange trees and steal precious moisture and nutrients. One day I accidently spilled the spray on my arm. It burned for a week. Once every year we brought in the heavy artillery—a truck with a large tank sprayer. We walked behind with two hoses, spraying everything in sight. I felt proud to walk alongside my dad.

California winter nights would turn cold, and when the temperature fell below 28o, frost would ruin the oranges—the pulp turned hard and the juice soured. Our neighbor’s grove stood on lower ground, so on the coldest nights he lit oil-fired smudge pots. I could see the flaring pots, and smell the burning fuel oil. Larger growers had tall wind machines that circulated the chill wind to prevent frost. We had no smudge pots or wind machines, so our grove lay naked to the cold. Dad said, “Well, the oranges don’t produce much income anyway. We’ll just hope it doesn’t freeze this year.”

When orange trees died, we cut them down and dug up the stumps. Dad would say, “Stack the dead branches and we’ll let them sun-dry.” After a few weeks, we created a huge bonfire to roast hotdogs and marshmallows for a summer picnic. The firelight played on our hot faces as we sat around and told stories.

When I was young, instead of “get outta my hair,” Mother would say, “Go out and play in the orange grove.” The grove provided a womb to nurture our childhoods. It bonded our family and gave us a common purpose.

 The braceros

In the late 1950s, almost one-half million braceros worked in the U.S. under agreements with the Mexican government, working on the railroads, harvesting vegetables, and picking oranges. The bosses would warehouse the orange pickers in barbed-wire-enclosed tent camps near Santa Ana—euphemistically called “bracero housing.” When we drove by and saw the men milling about inside, I felt like I was on a zoo tour looking through the barbed wire at caged animals. California needed their labor but did not want their families, and did not want them to stay. Except to pick oranges.

We would wait for the braceros to arrive in our grove. One July morning, as always, the braceros drove up without warning, riding in big tarp-covered trucks where they sat on wooden benches built along the sides. Dirty handkerchiefs protected their sweaty heads. These were resourceful and frugal men. They didn’t work for themselves, but sent their wages back to their families in Mexico.

The picker would climb a ladder to the tree canopy and work fast. His plier-like snippers cut the stems and released the oranges into the canvas bag slung around his waist. When the bag was full, he unhooked its bottom flap and spilled the oranges into the lug box, which measured one foot by one foot by two feet long. I wondered what the bosses paid him per box.

We kids felt a little scared of the braceros—their language and ways seemed strange. At noontime we would watch the men gather a few stream cobbles and build a fire between them to heat their burritos. They rolled pinto beans into their tortillas and added some chile sauce and cooked chicken or pork. The smell of the warming burritos made me hungry.

Orange packing house

The empty lug boxes came to the orange grove stacked high on flatbed trucks, the braceros poured their oranges into them, and the same trucks returned the full boxes to the Santiago Orange Growers packing house. Built during WWI, it processed oranges and juice for almost a century.

Grandma worked at the packing house on the conveyer belt where they washed, culled, graded, and packed the oranges, lemons, and grapefruit. She sat on a high stool and pulled the bad oranges out as they rolled by. A huge freezer building housed a compressor where workers froze three-foot-long ice blocks to cool the oranges during shipment.

One summer when I was in high school, my friend Bill and I rode our bikes down to the packing house and told the office guy, “We want to pick oranges.”

“OK,” he said, “We’ll give you 25 cents a lug box.” We walked out. I developed a new appreciation that day for the braceros who worked for 25 cents a box. Even today [2014] it is estimated that ex-braceros are owed $500 million in illegally-withheld wages.

The orange grove was a great place to grow up. Our family lived immersed in the vast sea of orange trees that covered Orange County—until the 1960s, when the subdivisions swallowed them all. I learned lots of Spanish words that served me well in my ten years in Latin America. The grove didn’t provide much income, but it’s branches sheltered and shaped all our childhood.

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