Latino workers find greener landscape


  • Photo 1 of 4

    From left, Alex Torres, Rene Mena and Pedro Angel Martinez gather up the fallen leaves and fruit from a zapote tree they just finished pruning.

    - Dan Grech/Marketplace

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    University of Southern California researcher Hernan Ramirez (left) studies a subject close to his heart: immigrant gardeners. Here he stands in front of his family's South Gate, Calif., home with his father, Antipatro Ramirez, a professional gardener for 36 years.

    - Brian Morri/211 Photography

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    Rene Mena, an immigrant from Honduras, runs his own gardening and lawn care business in Miami.

    - Dan Grech/Marketplace

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    Attorney Frank McPhillips prefers to outsource his lawn care and gardening to Raul Mena, so he can spend more time with his son, Frank III.

    - Dan Grech/Marketplace

University of Southern California researcher Hernan Ramirez (left) studies a subject close to his heart: immigrant gardeners. Here he stands in front of his family's South Gate, Calif., home with his father, Antipatro Ramirez, a professional gardener for 36 years.

Rene Mena, an immigrant from Honduras, runs his own gardening and lawn care business in Miami.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: The recession so far has hit people in virtually every ethnic group at almost all income levels. The latest figures from the Labor Department show more Hispanic workers have lost their jobs than people in other groups. And their earnings are lower to boot. There is one line of work that's holding up surprisingly well for Hispanics, though. From the Marketplace Americas Desk at WLRN in Miami, Dan Grech reports.


DAN GRECH: For more than a decade, Rene Mena has run a gardening business among the manicured lawns and squared hedges of suburban Miami. Before that, he was a farmer in Honduras. In Miami, he's seen good times and bad. During good times, he earned up to $2,000 dollars a month. These days, he says, it's become harder to making a living off the land.

RENE MENA: I had 120, 130 clients last year. But a lot of people have moved out of state, or sold their homes, or had their homes taken by the bank. I'm down to 100 clients.

People are getting their lawns cut every two weeks now instead of once a week. And they're cutting back on seasonal flowers such as impatiens, begonias and marigolds, which once were an important source of profit for Mena. But one thing has not happened.

FRANK MCPHILLIPS: I can't remember the last time I saw someone cutting their own lawn on this block.

Attorney Frank McPhillips lives across from a golf course in Coral Gables. He pays Mena $80 to cut his lawn, another $40 to trim the hedges. Today he hired Mena to prune a zapote tree.

MCPHILLIPS: If you have hedges and bushes and grass, it's just overwhelming to try to take that on yourself when there are so many other items competing for our time.

While Mena and his crew use machetes to chop fallen branches, McPhillips plays with his two children in the pool. Over the past decade, mowing the lawn has become like getting a haircut. It's something you hire others to do for you. The National Gardening Association says Americans spent $45 billion in 2006 on gardening and landscaping. That's nearly double what was spent five years earlier.

Hernan Ramirez is a researcher at the University of Southern California. He says Hispanic gardeners are a regular feature in the suburbs of big American cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta and San Antonio.

HERNAN RAMIREZ: So you drive through these neighborhoods, and you see these trucks filled with Mexican men, or brown-skinned men from different countries. So they're the ones who maintain this really green aesthetic.

The boom in construction led to a bubble in jobs for Hispanic men. With the bust, thousands of Hispanic construction workers have been laid off. But Hispanic gardeners have held their own.

Mark Hugo Lopez is with the Pew Hispanic Center. He says over the past year, repair and maintenance professions, which include landscaping, actually gained 12,000 Latino workers.

MARK HUGO LOPEZ: For landscapers, because much of their work is tied to several different small contracts, several different small employment opportunities if you want to think of it that way, that losing one is not going to mean an entire loss of your income.

Lopez says people who were in construction are now crowding into gardening. That's led to a proliferation of fliers in mailboxes and under doors across suburban America. And it's led to a kind of price competition that was once considered taboo.

It may have never been this cheap to hire someone else to cut your lawn.

In Coral Gables, I'm Dan Grech for Marketplace.

University of Southern California researcher Hernan Ramirez (left) studies a subject close to his heart: immigrant gardeners. Here he stands in front of his family's South Gate, Calif., home with his father, Antipatro Ramirez, a professional gardener for 36 years.

Rene Mena, an immigrant from Honduras, runs his own gardening and lawn care business in Miami.

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