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Davis, California

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Groundskeepers speak out about their heritage

A brawny mechanic in an oil-stained suit flings open the door of his boss’ trailer office. As one of the 58 UC Davis Grounds Maintenance employees, Enrique Garcia identifies himself with Dixon, Calif. rather than his home country, Mexico.

Immigrants often work physical jobs such as groundskeeper or custodian. Thirty percent of the grounds laborers are first-generation immigrants, 30 percent second-generation and 40 percent a mix of generations and ethnicities.

Superintendent Cary Avery said that while most of his employees are Hispanic and proud of their heritage, others do not want to be labeled as such. This disparity is probably most attributed to the greater diversity in age, Avery said.

“If you went up and asked the 20-year-olds where they were from, many of them will say ‘California.’ I chuckle and say, ‘Really, are you?’ On the other hand, the 60-year-olds would probably say ‘Mexico,’” Avery said.

Though Avery guessed Garcia would say he is from Mexico because he is “a little bit older and more proud,” Avery also conceded that some of his workers, including Garcia, may be suspicious as to why someone would even ask and would therefore immediately respond, “California.”

It is unlikely that UC Davis Grounds Maintenance has hired any illegal immigrants, according to both Avery and Director of Budget and Planning for Campus Planning and Community Resources Kim Rhodes.

From a bureaucratic end, recruiters go through applications with a fine-toothed comb and quickly flush out any questionable candidates. To keep any job within the UC system, workers must constantly verify that they have a California driver’s license.

“One thing that makes our program unique is that our laborers consider themselves, and actually are, professionals. They know their jobs entail making this campus special,” Rhodes said.

Avery agreed with her statement, but believes his professional workers are in the minority.

“We have several people that have great educations and really just like landscape, but that’s not the majority,” Avery said.

Facilities Management Grounds Supervisor Tyson Mantor, who has supervised the laborers for the past year and a half, said that while all positions have certain requirements, there are a few exceptions.

“Any classification, no matter where it is on campus, has required skill sets. That said, my laborers are not highly educated,” Mantor said.

There are probably three out of five that would never admit they cannot read or write very well, he said. Some were custodians, and through opportunities within the system, Grounds hired them.

Mantor, however, appreciates the tenacity of his team. He himself started out as a casual employee with Grounds and then joined full-time upon graduation, now supervising a large group. Many workers under his wing dream of rising the ranks just as quickly as their boss.

“I have one employee who came in as a laborer and has expressed over and over that he’d like to become a groundskeeper. I have provided him with opportunities to work with our seasoned groundskeeper of 25 years. He has now been able to develop that skill set to apply, and have a good chance at getting that position,” Mantor said.

Those that are immigrants, despite age, are quite proud of their citizenship, in fact.

A 48-year old grounds employee, for example, had been traveling to and from Mexico every week he could just to visit his bride of two years. Only two weeks ago did he walk across the border with her and show their papers so that she too could become a citizen through proof of marriage and eligibility of naturalization.

After finally and literally reaping the fruits of his labor, his greatest complaints weren’t so much about the U.S. immigration laws, but about the Mexican government. All the red tape wasn’t here, but there, he said.

A couple of his co-workers shared his sense of achievement and honor in acquiring their citizenship. They said they would not appreciate someone who is an illegal immigrant only because they themselves worked so hard to gain residency.

“If you asked them who the second president of the United States was, they would thank you for asking them because I’m sure 90 percent of their peers couldn’t answer that question,” Avery said.

UC Davis grounds employees actually do not make minimum wage, which is $8 an hour in California. Rhodes and Avery report that the laborers who pick up and dump trash make about $2,500 to 2,700 per month, groundskeepers about $2,800 to 2,900 per month and garden specialists around $3,000 per month, all including benefits like retirement, medical and dental.

“Like any employee, they probably complain that they’re not paid enough,” Avery said.

The workers are represented by a union, which about half of them like and the other half do not. In California, they are required to pay Fair Share to the union, which comes out of their checks. Whether or not they are a union member or not, they are represented.

“We certainly do take care of them and treat them well,” Rhodes said.

About 25 percent of the workers, though, still have second jobs. Of the 25 percent, 20 percent run their own businesses.

One of the laborers is a woodworker — an artist, you could say. If you approach him about his creations, he will start showing you his latest work in progress and maybe even attempt to write down your order. Garcia, the mechanic, is an accountant and bookkeeper in his spare time.

A few others work at restaurants and some will work with family members at a construction site on the weekend, pouring concrete or attending to general labor needs.

When asked if there was anything he’d like to see change on campus, Garcia was surprised by the enormity of the question. He wasn’t aware he could incite the least bit of transformation.

“Do I even have the power to change anything? Change is always hard and always an issue especially at the University, but still I’ve been here for 29 years doing various jobs. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to Mexico. Life is good in the U.S.”

CHELSEA MEHRA can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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