Gardener Faustino Benites worked at The Huntington for over 30 years mostly in anonymity, tending to the aloe, succulents, and cacti in the desert garden. That was before he started sharing plant tips in Spanish on The Huntington’s TikTok account.
Now Faustino – his fans call him by his first name, or Tio Faustino – sometimes gets recognized as he goes about trimming, weeding and repotting. And why not? His videos have reached almost 1 million views and have been shared more than 3,000 times.
How did the 61-year-old land this gig?
It all started in October when The Huntington's social media team cooked up the idea as an outreach effort during Latino Heritage Month.
@thehuntington Ask and you shall receive!✨ Here is a throwback to the first IG story we did with Faustino, featuring the pitayas in our Desert Garden 🌵🏜 #planttok #learnontiktok #cactus #cuttingfruit ♬ original sound - The Huntington
In an initial Instagram story, Benites discusses the columnar cacti and the pitaya fruit that grows on it. Deborah Miller Marr, director of social content and strategy at The Huntington, says that story got almost 300 replies — a lot more than she expected.
“Everybody loved the video. They were so happy to see someone speaking in Spanish, they were happy to hear about the garden from somebody who takes care of it every day,” she says. “They wanted more Faustino.”
Benites remembers being shocked that so many people reacted positively. “It was an incredible thing,” he says. “I started to like it. Now it’s like I want to make more and more videos.”
His videos really took off when The Huntington launched their TikTok account in April. People immediately connected with Benites and have left comments like “more of our tio Faustino,” “protect this man at all costs,” “his voice is so comforting,” and “I love that this is in Spanish.”
Yunuen Ramos Vega, Benites’ 19-year-old niece, says the popularity of the videos took the whole family by surprise. After all, her uncle has never been eager to create his own social accounts.
“Out of all people, like my uncle!” she says. “Out of all the random, most random people.” Benites himself is just as surprised.
He says when he started working at The Huntington in 1986, he knew nothing about plants.
Benites grew up in Toluca, about an hour away from Mexico City. He says he studied to become a teacher because it was the fastest career path at the time.
His mom helped him pay for his studies until it wasn’t possible anymore, and then he got a job working heavy equipment in construction. Benites says he wasn’t planning to come to the United States because the job paid well. But when his friend wanted to visit the U.S. to see his dad, Benites decided to tag along.
While visiting, he met someone who worked at The Huntington. They asked him if he wanted to come work at a ranch. He says he didn’t know anything about working on a ranch, but decided to go for it anyway.
He describes his second day on the job: “They’re sending me to the nopales, well what are nopales? I don’t know anything about nopales!”
After a few days of working, his friend asked him if he was going to stay or go back to Mexico. Benites told him he liked being here and wanted to stay to see more. Six months became a year, became 35 years, and now he says “no puedo irme” – he can’t leave.
Benites says he’s had a lot of fun filming the videos, but he hopes it will expand into other opportunities like leading tours of the desert garden in Spanish. Currently, he makes $17.50 an hour as a gardener and only works six hours per day due to his knee replacement surgeries.
“Many people may think very little of being a gardener,” he says. “It’s not like I’m an architect or one that flies to the moon. [But] I feel pride in what I do.”
And even though he couldn’t become a teacher in Mexico, Benites now proudly calls himself “un profesor de plantas.”