by Armando Vazquez
My father, Pedro Vazquez, along with his brothers, were for a long time undocumented immigrant campesinos in the “crystal hothouse” fields of Southern California. My father, along with his six other brothers, work ethic quickly earned them respect and high praise in the uniquely American Orchid propagation and sales industry that was booming in the United States in the late 1940’s through the end of the 1970’s.
In the wake of the recent Monsanto lawsuit that held that the herbicide producing giant was responsible for cancer related deaths and illness, I am reminded of my father’s death some 20 years ago. I once again recalled that my family felt my father’s death was due to long term exposure to the toxic herbicides that he worked with for over 50 years. My father, along with all the other workers in the Orchid industry routinely worked with highly toxic herbicides without the benefit of any type of protective face masks, uniforms or gloves. In those days we would fill huge plastic drums with a combination of water and the toxic herbicide, without the benefit of training, instruction or supervision. Then for a period of weeks we would dip the six inch clay orchid pots into the toxic solution until we had dipped all the tens of thousands of orchid plants. This toxic routine was carried out every spring. I remember that some of us would immediately break out in hives and rashes, while other would develop cold sores and blisters around the mouth, the nose and the eye areas. We all nursed acute headaches after our 10 to 12 hour work shifts. As I recall, no one ever complained about working conditions. How could we? Most of the workers were undocumented workers at various orchid farms that my father worked for. We kept our mouths shut, we worked and got paid.
My father was a very quiet and stoic man who never complained. He was blessed to have a job to support his large family. My father lived a beautiful life of monastic simplicity, service, sacrifice, wisdom, generosity and love that he gave to family, relatives, fellow workers, indeed every human being that he encountered. My father was that kind of man. My father always attributed his moral and philosophical development and maturation on the love, guidance, and wisdom given to him and his siblings by his mother, who was reverently called Madre Elvira by everyone in the small Mexican village where they were all raised. Madre Elvira, a widow, knew that if her family was to prosper, then her boys, the Vazquez brothers, would have to leave the dusty village and travel to El Norte to seek work and a better life. With her sacred blessing and the simple admonishment of, “Mis Hijos, cuidense un al otro!” the Vazquez brothers were sent off to in the fields of El Norte.
My uncle, Amado Vazquez, was the youngest of a group of six extraordinary brothers, who journeyed as bracersos, circa 1947, to the fields of California from their home; the foreboding, desolate and barren village of Ahualulco, Jalisco. What drove these men was hunger and love; and a singular adoration, commitment and respect for their widowed mother, nuestra Madre Elvira. In their gut they carried the necessary and vital motivation. Simply put; succeed or starve, along with a collective absolutism that if they stuck together and worked night and day they could make something of themselves. The Vazquez brothers were hard working, serious, sober men, and did not suffer fools. Young Amado learned much from his wise older brothers, this young man was special.
Agricultural contractors from all over the southland coveted the work of the Vazquez brothers. The brothers had earned the reputation of being the hardest and most efficient laborers in whatever campesino work was offered to them. As luck would have it, the Vazquez brothers caught the eye of a private and highly influential orchid grower in San Marino; employment was offered to first one and eventually all of the brothers, working in the glasshouse “fields” that grew the queen of all flowers, the orchid. The Vazquez brothers continued to work hard, listen, watch and learn everything they could about these precious plants and their exotic flowers.
Eventually the Vazquez brothers, got married, had families and split up. However, all of the brothers would continue their careers in the commercial orchid world, working with many of the most prominent orchid growers in Southern California.
My uncle Amado recalls that he didn’t know anything about orchids then but was determined to work hard and learn all he could about the regal flowers, “Orchids are special, and I learned all I could about growing them. Now they are like my children. You learn to love them. My whole adult life has been dedicated to orchids.” Amado was a dedicated worker and student, he retained all the information about propagation and breeding that he could acquire, then slowly he began his international ascension in the exclusive world of phalaenopsis orchid growers.
By the late 1960’s Amado had become the head orchid grower for the movie mogul, Arthur Freed of Malibu, where he would develop the reputation of being one of the great orchid breeders of the world. It is here that my uncle Amado became something of a legend in the orchid world, for his unique blend of third world natutalizmo and Western world clinical technique that he, along with his wife Maria, developed in the propagation and breeding of orchids.
His propagation technique is legendary. According to Amado the best time to breed phalaenopsis orchids is at full moon and high tide. He has shown many amateur breeders and lovers of orchids how the pollen form one orchid plant is lovingly placed into the ovary of the flower of another plants during full moon, because, he teaches, this is when the phalaenopsis orchid is the most fertile. He explains that in the wilds a unique moth pollinates the orchid, and that over the eons of evolutionary time the phalaenopsis is in its highest fertility level when it coincides with the brightest nights, and therefore is more visible to the moth during full moons. He tells that the phalaenopsis is the most fertile at high tide because the moisture content of the every orchid plant responses to tidal cycles.
Over the years these orchids have, indeed, become his “children”, his loving and caring hands caring and caressing them to their fullest development. Amado would often get up in the middle of night to adjust the heat or the moisture of the hothouses. He would adjust the lighting, possibly water a plant or two that seemed “thirsty”. At a magical time, that only he understood, he would hold a seed pod in his hands attempting to discern the energy of the pod to “feel” if it was time to plant the seeds in the culture flasks the following sacred day.
In 1971 Amado Vazquez partnered with Dr. James McPherson to form Zuma Canyon Orchids of Malibu. After a successful partnership of some twenty years, Amado Vazquez and his family took complete control of the business. Uncle Amado knew what he is doing, and over more than half a decade later he has the reputation and a lasting legacy as one of the great orchid breeders of the world. Along with his wife Maria, they have been an inseparable world class team, that breeds and propagates some of the most prized and beautiful phaleanopsis orchids in the world. Their two children, Linda and George, also worked for the family orchid business. George Vazquez has become one of the world leading authorities in international orchid collection, commercial breeding/propagation of the orchids, and global marketing and sales of the exotic phaleanopsis. The American Orchid Society has recognized Zuma Canyon Orchids as one of the premiere orchid businesses in the United States, and on an international level Zuma Canyon Orchids has won hundreds of prestigious awards.
This humble man from Ahualulco has made good! But what makes mi tio Amado a great man is not his riches, but his humility and his monastic simplistic life, the lesson he learned from Madre Elvira and his loving older brothers. You see my tio Amado is a very smart hard working man, a man of his word, a loving man in every sense of the word. The rarest of men, he is a true gentleman,
You know for all of this success in the orchid world that Amado has had, until his recent death, Amado continued to be one of the most humble, kindest and most generous man that I have ever known. My uncle helped countless relatives, friends and workers find a permanent and dignified place in this county. There was never any fanfare, just the simple and honest extension of help to those he could assist. The help always delivered with a smile and a loving gentle abrazo. My father and his brothers lives and work history is a classic immigrant success story of hardship, hard work, sacrifice, dedication and loyalty that contributed significantly to the specialized Orchid industry in this country and their families. I can never forget however that it came at a very high and deadly price.
Armando Vazquez, M.Ed. is Executive Director of Acuna Art Gallery/Café on A, Executive Director for The KEYS Leadership Academy and Chairman of the Oxnard Multicultural Mental Health/coalition
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal.