How your garden tells the story of immigration in Southern California

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Unlike other domestic immigrant labor, such as housekeepers and nannies, jardineros often keep a distant relationship with their employers. They mostly stay outside and are often working at homes while the owners are away at work.  They say that can make them feel more anonymous.  (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

The buzzing of leaf blowers, weed whackers and lawnmowers are part of Southern California’s sonic landscape. And the people usually holding those machines are Latino immigrant men, who call themselves jardineros, Spanish for gardeners. It’s their labor that gives curb appeal to so many homes, keeping lawns neatly trimmed, hedges pruned and weeds at bay.

The story of the jardineros also reveals the long relationship between immigration and the development of Southern California’s gardening culture. Many gardeners are Mexican immigrants. But before they came into the business, residential gardening in the region was dominated by Japanese-Americans who took advantage of an American love affair with the Japanese gardening aesthetic.

For new immigrants, starting a small gardening business has been a way to plant the seeds of their American Dream.

We talk to jardineros and get the story of labor history and economics with Pirrette Hondagnu-Sotelo, a USC sociologist who’s written a book about immigration and the residential gardening industry. Listen:

Pierrette Hondagnu-Sotello
Sociologist Pierrette Hondagnu-Sotelo has written a book about the role of immigration in the history and development of  Southern California’s gardening industry. “It is impossible imagining us having these kind of gorgeous, diverse gardens today without immigrant labor,” Sotelo says. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
For decades, Japanese-Americans were synonymous with Southern California’s gardening industry. They became gardeners because early California laws prevented them from often owning their own properties. But the Japanese-Americans also benefited from Americans embracing Japan’s gardening aesthetic. Having a Japanese gardener was often a status symbol for the suburban middle class. (Photo Courtesy of Naomi Hirahara)
The small trucks filled with gardening tools driven by jardineros are common sights in the neighborhoods of Southern California. Business-minded immigrants often turn to gardening work because the start-up costs are relatively modest, namely the price of the truck and the gardening equipment. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
There’s a hierarchy among “jardineros.” Gardeners who own the truck and interact with customers will frequently pay  assistants, or “ayudantes.” Filoberto Sanchez is an “ayudante” now, but he dreams of starting his own jardinero business and developing his own route.  (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Jardineros have also receive their share of criticism, mostly related to the use of gas-powered leaf blowers. Many residents who like their neighborhoods peaceful hate the noise caused by the blowers, but jardineros say the blowers are essential to doing their work faster and keeping their prices low (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Many jardineros hope their labor will create a better life for their children. Hugo Perea sometimes lets his son  Antonio come with him as he does his work. But he says he doesn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps. “I want him to go to university,” says Perea. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)