Columbia Journalism School

Peril Among the Palms

By Sam Quinones

Los Angeles Times
October 26, 2006



LIKE many of the immigrant men from his Mexican village, Gerardo Rodriguez was a Los Angeles gardener. But few from his village had done so much so young.

The 19-year-old, who came to the United States illegally, was already his own boss. He had his own truck, tools and a small gardening route.

Plus, he was learning to prune palm trees. He hadn't scaled many, but he told his friends that he liked it. Palms paid more, required more nerve and made him the focus of other men's awe.

On an April afternoon in East Los Angeles, as he yanked away dead fronds halfway up a 50-foot palm, the tallest he'd ever scaled, Gerardo Rodriguez had reason to feel the world spinning his way.

Then he pulled the wrong frond. Suddenly, a thick ring of them came loose and plunged on top of him. It pinned him back against the belt that held him to the tree. He gulped its dust as he battled it like a beast. But it weighed too much.

A coroner's report found that he was asphyxiated in that tree, just out of reach of his friends.

The story of how Gerardo Rodriguez died is part of a larger tale about Southern California's changing "green industry," the gardening and tree-trimming trades. Once a path to a middle-class life embraced by skilled Japanese American entrepreneurs, the industry has come to resemble a Third World factory: low-wage, low-skill, under-the-table, fiercely competitive and at times dangerous.

Tree trimming especially requires caution and preparation, but these are increasingly sacrificed in the green industry's underground economy.

Nationally, "tree workers have a fatality rate three or four times that of police officers and firefighters," said John Ball, a South Dakota State University forestry professor who tracks tree accidents nationwide. "Your odds of being killed in this industry are one in 3,000."

Statewide, California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, has investigated 394 tree-work accidents, including 67 deaths, since 1990, when the worker-safety agency began keeping statistics. More than half those accidents -- 214, including 42 deaths -- have happened since 2000, according to agency reports.

Fourteen of the 67 deaths occurred in palm trees, 11 of them since 2002.

Tree trimmers die in falls after mistakenly cutting their security belts with their chain saws. They accidentally cut their arms and toes; they fracture spinal cords. Trees fall on them; they're electrocuted; and some are mangled in grinders.

Palm trees are particularly tricky. Dead fronds often appear to be attached to the tree. In reality they are attached only to other fronds in a deceptive weave. When the dead fronds are pulled loose, the whole weave collapses, as it did on Rodriguez.

A segment of the tree industry -- companies that are bonded, licensed and insured -- is investing more than ever in safety, in training seminars and better equipment. It is standard practice for such a company to have a contractor's license and liability insurance and to employ a certified arborist who maintains certification through continuing education, said Rose Epperson of the Western chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture in Orange County.

Yet accidents and deaths are rising as untrained, inexperienced Latino immigrants flood into the gardening and tree-trimming trades in Southern California.

Homeowners fuel the problem. They often hire based on price, ignoring whether a worker is insured, skilled or legally in the country.

Immigrants, mostly undocumented, come primarily from villages in four north-central Mexican states. Often equipped with more desire than skill, they enter the trade easily, with a few tools and a truck, and then madly compete among themselves.

"They sense what the market will bear and undercut professional companies," said Randy Finch, owner of Finch Tree Surgery in San Gabriel, founded by his father in the 1940s and the state's first company accredited by the Tree Care Industry Assn. "We barely make a living in a very risky, low-profit industry."

The result, in the words of one tree trimmer, is a world of "dog-eat-dog, scraping against the bottom of the barrel for the scraps."

But to Gerardo Rodriguez, it seemed a world of opportunity.

*

A FRIEND, Mari Marrufo, recalled the sparkle in Rodriguez's eyes when, a few months before his death, he told her he was learning to prune palm trees.

"He was very happy," she said, "because it meant more money."

He had shown up at her door in South Los Angeles in 2002 asking to rent a room. Relatives had thrown him out of their apartment, he said.

He was from her hometown in Mexico. She and her husband, Saul Nunez, let him stay, charging him nominal rent.

"He lived with us as if he were our son," Marrufo said. "My sons loved him like a brother. He was very friendly, very simple and had a lot of desire to get ahead."

Rodriguez had crossed the Arizona desert and arrived in Los Angeles alone at 15, with the shirt on his back and a fourth-grade education, the youngest son of a poor rancher.

He was known as El Bocinas, which translates as stereo speakers. He never liked the name, but it matched his personality, for he was playful, energetic.

He was from Refugio Salcido, a Durango ranching village that helped change the Southern California green industry.

In the late 1970s, villagers came to Los Angeles and found work with Japanese gardeners. Accomplished and relatively few in number, Japanese Americans had dominated L.A. gardening for decades. Their clients were well to do; gardeners then were too expensive for anyone else.

The Japanese gardeners formed associations that provided members with liability, health and theft insurance, low-cost supplies and training seminars.

From World War II to the 1980s, "gardening paid better than a lot of white-collar jobs," said Ron Tsukashima, a sociology professor at Cal State L.A. who has studied the Los Angeles gardening industry. Gardeners "could buy themselves a house and send their kids to college."

But by the 1980s, the ethnic Japanese were getting older. Their college-educated children weren't becoming gardeners. A housing explosion meant more places needing tending.

The Japanese hired Mexican helpers, mostly from ranching states, including Jalisco, Michoacan and Zacatecas.

Thousands of gardeners would also come from towns in central Durango, including Refugio Salcido. Today, hundreds of men from that village are gardeners in Los Angeles.

"We learned all we know about gardening" from the Japanese, said Esiquio Barrera, 50, who arrived in Los Angeles from the village in 1981.

The Japanese paid their helpers $70 a day and charged clients $80 per yard. In time, Mexicans found they could make more if they did the work themselves and charged clients $50.

In doing so, Mexican gardeners helped create the region's illegal economy. Often, they had no certification, licenses or insurance; they paid no taxes. Early on, they shared apartments, and their families remained in Mexico.

Meanwhile, better implements -- more powerful blowers, electric weeders and pruners, faster lawn mowers -- were making gardening a cheaper, easier trade.

Prices dropped to between $20 and $60 per yard. "More and more working-class families" started hiring gardeners, Tsukashima said.

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.

He spoke often of marrying Brenda, if not this year then next.

With nothing else, climbing palm trees was how he showed her he was brave, Marrufo said.

"He liked it when people told him, 'You already go up in the palm trees? You're not scared?' " said Brenda, 17.

Yet Rodriguez was still learning the trade. Before he died, "I think he'd cut maybe four palm trees," Nunez said.

The job on which he died was no different from many others: It was done without insurance or a contractor's license.

"Employees need to be insured," said Cal/OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer. Without it, "if something happens, that homeowner could be liable if it were to get to a courtroom."

Fatemeh Mahmoudi, the owner of a duplex on Hammel Street in East Los Angeles, needed a tree cut down and two palm trees pruned. Guerrero and Rodriguez negotiated the work for $1,500, Guerrero said.

That day, Brenda called Rodriguez about 3 p.m. and asked if he wanted her to take him lunch. He told her it was too far away and he'd be by later.

About 4 p.m., Rodriguez scaled the first palm. He called out to Guerrero below to take his picture with his cellphone.

"He said, 'I'm going to wave my hand like I'm waving goodbye,' " Guerrero said.

Guerrero snapped a photo. Ten minutes later, the skirt of fronds collapsed on Rodriguez.

About that time, Brenda was dialing his cellphone.

"I kept calling and calling," she said, "and nobody answered."

*

THE young man who sought his future in the palms of Southern California is buried in the cemetery in Refugio Salcido.

The gardeners from the village donated $100 apiece to fly his body home. Most of the village turned out to walk him to the grave site.

Nunez, Marrufo and their sons remember the humble and friendly youth from the village who unexpectedly entered their lives and left it the same way.

"We all loved him here," Nunez said. "He earned it."

Two weeks after he died, Gallegos, in her red dress, attended her senior prom alone. "Everybody went to the after-party, but I just went home," she said.

Cal/OSHA fined Mahmoudi $630 for not providing safety instructions and a certified tree worker to explain the hazards of the job to Rodriguez and Guerrero, as state law requires.

Mahmoudi denied knowing anything about the accident for which she'd been fined. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said. "I don't have to talk to reporters."

Six weeks after his friend's death, Guerrero saw another man fall to his death from a palm tree.

Still, he remains undaunted. Many gardeners from Refugio Salcido have left Los Angeles for Phoenix, where they install marble. He has no plans to follow them.

Now caring for an ailing grandmother in Durango, Guerrero said he'll soon return to Los Angeles to trim trees again. Palms, in particular, he views as a challenge. He has no special training but trusts in his ability to tame them.

"I don't think anything will happen to me," he said.

*

sam.quinones@latimes.com
© Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times

 

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