For this merchant from Oaxaca, worries mean more than ever this Día de Muertos

The 20,000 marigolds were blooming at the right time.

They had to be picked and sold in five days, to radiate their orange glory from Día de Muertos altars across Southern California.

For memory :

10:47 a.m. November 2, 2022In an earlier version of this chronicle, the village of Zeferino Garcia was called San Fernando Yateé. This is San Francisco Yateé. Additionally, his wife, Maria Francisco, was misidentified as Maria Fernando. His brother, Jose Francisco, was also misidentified as Jose Fernando.

Zeferino Garcia and an eight-man crew had been working under the high beams and halogen lights of automobiles since 3 a.m. Friday, pulling each 5-foot-tall marigold plant from its base; cut it with a curved, serrated knife; then place the stems on the ground in bundles. They tilted to avoid tumbling down the slope where the marigolds clustered tightly, looking like a huge, flattened Home Depot bucket.

At Garcia’s five-acre farm, Mi Rancho Conejo, rocked in the hills near Moorpark they were also harvesting 20,000 gallo crest – cockscomb, in colors ranging from deep scarlet to wispy pink – for the holidays. The men worked for free under a mutual aid agreement called gozona from their home region of the Sierra de Juarez in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Once the sun came up, Garcia logged into Facebook Live.

“Wonderful beauty, these marigold flowers,” he said in Spanish. He had taken off a puffy jacket to show his camisa oaxaqueña — a long-sleeved shirt with intricate designs on the front pleats. “In a short time you will be able to buy them in our stores.”

Garcia repeated the spiel in his native Zapotec.

Then someone shouted, “Coffee, boys!

They gathered around a table to help themselves to cinnamon-flavored café de olla, unwrap mole negro tamales and munch on an anise-flavored pan de muerto for dessert.

“Seeing these flowers reminds us of our ancestors,” said Florentino Ambrosio, 65, a retired teacher who helped with the harvest but also took the time to talk about the marigold tradition with Garcia in Spanish. and in Zapotec.

He explained that the flower’s Spanish name, cempasuchil, comes from a Nahuatl expression meaning “20 petals”, referring to its radiance.

Its scent, he says, is supposed to guide the dead to the living, if only for a day.

Garcia first experienced worries like yej kua — their name in the Zapotec dialect of his native San Francisco Yateé, a village perched in the Sierra de Juarez.

The closest place to buy them was the capital of Oaxaca – a bumpy 13-hour bus ride on narrow mountain roads “that left marks on your head”, he recalls.

But villagers did the annual hike, bringing back baskets for All Saints Day and All Saints Day, the Catholic commemorations that fall on November 1 and 2 and are now more commonly known as Día de Muertos.

Mexicans believe that on these days the veil that separates the world of the living and that of the dead is thinnest. There are many traditions and traditions associated with what some call Día de los Muertos, but one virtual condition is marigolds – the beacon for the deceased to come home to.

Memories of fresh flowers stayed with Garcia after he arrived in the United States in 1996.

He rose through the ranks from housekeeper to dishwasher, then hot dog seller on the streets of Westwood to a successful entrepreneur serving the massive community of Oaxaca in Southern California, with three produce markets that make their own breads and tortillas, a restaurant, a gift shop and a clothing store.

His wife, Maria Francisco, bought marigolds at the original Los Angeles Flower Market to resell at their businesses whenever Day of the Dead came around.

But “they weren’t like those back home,” she says. “They were too short here, with not enough color. Bloomed too early. Then a vision came to my mind to make them grow.

“We had the tortillas, we had the mezcal, we had the tlayudas,” added Garcia. “We needed cempasuchil.”

In 2018 they purchased Mi Rancho Conejo, clearing the scrubby land with plans to plant tomatoes, mint, avocados and other crops to use at home and for their businesses.

A year later, Garcia brought marigold seeds from Oaxaca and tried to grow them, aiming to have them bloom just before Día de Muertos so he could sell them at their brightest.

The seeds were sown too early, meaning it flowered weeks before its target. Yet customers bought Garcia of everything.

Last year the winds knocked down many flowers when they were too young – but what was left sold out.

For three months, Garcia has zealously watched over the fields.

Jose Francisco taught himself how to drive a trailer to till the soil. Garcia and his friends planted the seedlings when they were 3 inches tall, after germinating them at a nursery in Carpinteria.

People took turns watching the drip irrigation system, weeding out weeds and making sure the gophers weren’t swallowing anything.

This year the marigolds bloomed just when they were supposed to.

The flowers – mostly orange, but some yellow – were as big as a fist. The concentric petals of each flower unfolded like a mathematical puzzle. Their pungent smell attracted the bees, which bounced off each bouquet.

“When you see all this, you feel like you’re in Oaxaca,” said Maria Francisco. “You want to feel that. It’s great to see our culture flourish here.

Zeferino García stands in front of a photo of the Santo Domingo Church in Oaxaca City inside his restaurant, El Chapulín.

(Soudi Jimenez/Los Angeles Times)

“You feel the heaviness of the work to choose everything, but when you see everything you forget the heaviness,” said Jose Francisco, who is a store manager at Garcia’s businesses but runs Mi Rancho Conejo during the season of worries.

In a few hours, he would be driving an air-conditioned truck full of flowers to El Mayordomia #2, Garcia’s market which is in the same shopping plaza as his restaurant, known alternately as Expresión Oaxaqueña and El Chapulín – the Grasshopper, Garcia’s nickname. .

Some would be shipped as far away as Michigan and Oregon, but most would be sold at family stores in Los Angeles.

Gallo Somis Ridge

Alvaro Fernandez, 31, harvest gallo crest (cockscomb) at Mi Rancho Conejo in Somis in Ventura County.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

As Día de Muertos grew in popularity among Latinos and non-Latinos alike, marigolds became big business. Figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that flower wholesale revenues topped $50.6 million last year, putting them second only to begonias and pansies.

They appear for sale on street corners and in supermarkets, in bunches and pots. Their use in altars and general decorations has become as much a part of the fall landscape of Southern California and beyond as jack-o’-lanterns.

On the drive along Highway 118 to take Highway 5 towards El Chapulín, I saw marigold fields much larger than Mi Rancho Conejo. But Garcia was the only farmer I wanted to talk to.

The Día de Muertos commemoration in Oaxaca is widely recognized throughout Mexico as particularly vibrant and respectful.

And this year — last month — worries meant more to Oaxacans in Los Angeles than perhaps ever before.

marigold bee

Marigolds ready to be harvested for Día de Muertos in Mi Rancho Conejo.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

We were in El Chapulín, enjoying a quick lunch as Garcia waited for his brother-in-law to enter with a new shipment of marigolds. It was a dead time for them.

On weekends and into Wednesday, lines formed at Garcia’s businesses from sunrise until late at night as people came to buy flowers and other items for their altars. Demand is so strong that Garcia plans to double his crop of marigolds next year.

Garcia had one more reason to celebrate the culture of Oaxaca. There was the question of what he politely called “bullying.”

Even in a feel-good story about flowers, the ugliness of a secretly taped conversation that captured powerful Latino politicians trashing LA’s multicultural heartland wasn’t far from our conversation.

On the leaked tape, Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez described Oaxacan residents as “little, short, dark people.” Outgoing board member Gil Cedillo laughed and called them “little ones.” Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera dismissed them as “indians– Indians. Council member Kevin de León marveled at how “some of them wear shoes.”

Martinez closed their ugly repartee with “¡‘tan feos!” – they are ugly.

As an Oaxacan in Los Angeles, Garcia had long been accustomed to other Mexicans discriminating against him, just like in Mexico. But he was still discouraged to hear such enmity.

“The Creator saw the strength we brought here [to the United States]”, García said. His voice was soft, but he spoke with conviction. “Something positive, and with heart. We Oaxacans are very diverse. We are small, we are tall, we are black, we are natives. [tape] awakens our enthusiasm to show who we are to the world.

He pulled out a song from his iPhone: a waltz he composed in the brassy style of oaxaqueña strip as a gift for her daughter’s recent quinceañera.

“Remember you come from,” he crooned plaintively over the recording, “from a pueblo with values.”

“Who doesn’t work with the Oaxacas in Los Angeles?” Garcia said, putting her phone away. “We are strong people, but it seems like even other Mexicans don’t know that. We must therefore show ourselves even more, proud and strong.

We headed to La Mayordomia, named after the one-day festivals that are an integral part of Oaxaca’s cultural life and have continued in Los Angeles. Workers had set up tables outside the market for Garcia, his wife and others to wrap bouquets of marigolds and cockscomb in plastic.

El Mayordomia #2 Los Angeles gallo ridge

Maria Francisco and Zeferino Garcia prepare gallo crest (cockscomb) for Día de Muertos in his company La Mayordomia #2. The flower is traditional for Day of the Dead in parts of Mexico.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Customers grabbed flowers almost as soon as Garcia and Francisco laid them out. Margarita and Lalo Leyva, both from Oaxaca, left with two bouquets.

“It’s part of who we are,” Margarita said.

“These are just as beautiful as ours,” Lalo said. “Bigger too!”

Garcia chatted with clients and asked her social media manager to take pictures. The season of worries, he said, is the perfect time to take the temperature of his compatriots in Oaxaca.

“But the last two years have been tough,” he said. “I’m going to ask a regular: ‘And Fidencio?’ And they’ll be like, “Oh, he died of COVID.” ‘What about the compass?’ “He died too.

“It’s sad,” he continued, “but it gives us more reason to do what we do.”

Los Angeles Times

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