When San Juan Capistrano Boots Ignacio Lujano From His Orange Groves, OC's Citrus Era Will End

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When San Juan Capistrano boots Ignacio Lujano from his orange groves, OC's Citrus Era will officially end

Summer is almost here, which means county residents are enjoying anew their most fundamental pleasure: the sight and smell of Valencia orange trees ready for harvesting.

Sure, the days when they occupied thousands of acres in uniform rows are long gone, but it doesn't matter if you're in North County or South, Seal Beach or Rancho Santa Margarita: Drive around for a bit, and you'll undoubtedly spot one. Across the land, from private back yards to community parks, fenced-off lots to arboretums, the large, irregularly shaped trees spread across the sky, their waxy leaves reflecting the sun, creating a halo around the fruits hanging from branches, swollen with juice.

Ignacio Lujano
Keith May
Ignacio Lujano

Perhaps the unlikeliest locale is 150 feet to the west of Interstate 5, just north of the Junipero Serra Road exit. Here, in defiance of development and modernity, Ignacio Lujano has tended about 40 acres for the past 38 years.

"This place would've been nice around this time of year," says Alex Lujano. He's giving a personal tour of his father's farm, a stunning expanse called the Swanner Ranch that is currently owned by the city of San Juan Capistrano and hidden by foliage from Santa Ana Freeway commuters. Around him are fruit trees, and not just citrus. Pears, avocados and figs are ripe for picking next to Ignacio's house, a wooden structure painted in a retina-searing color Alex generously refers to as "Tijuana blue." Grasslands stretch toward soft, rolling hills, their tops crested by million-dollar Laguna Niguel homes. Separating the groves from the hills is Oso Creek; at night, Alex swears, you can hear the moans and wails of the White Lady, the mournful ghost who wanders the city, San Juan Capistrano's version of La Llorona.

Alex sits in the shade of a patio topped with blooming vines. The roar of cars on I-5 is so close he has to speak at club-worthy decibels. On a table, Alex has meticulously placed dockets of leases, deeds and contracts that bind his papi to the property.

Ignacio waddles by a couple of minutes later. Eighty-five years on the planet have cost him the cartilage in both of his knees, but otherwise, the viejito is surprisingly fit. His skin is a deep brown, with the ruddiness that only decades working under the sun can bestow. Thick, gray locks of hair sprout from his head. Ignacio's midsection is round, plump and healthy, his eyes lucid and penetrating.

He was busy giving a tour of his beloved Valencias to a visitor, but Ignacio Lujano's mood is dour, almost apologetic. The trees are at various stages of life: Some are mature and laden with fruit, others are young saplings. But the majority of Lujano's botanical wards are dying: yellowing leaves, decayed branches. On the ground are rotting oranges whose sweet scent fills the afternoon air. Weeds choke the path where irrigation canals once nourished.

"It makes me embarrassed to see these trees die, but there's nothing I can do," Lujano grumbles.

Despite the Lujano family's protestations, San Juan Capistrano officials are preparing to uproot the orange groves to build a maintenance yard. They've given him 90 days to vacate the Swanner Ranch. And when Lujano leaves, Orange County's orange-growing industry will have finally, truly ended—not with a bang, but with withered, forgotten trees.

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Orange County owes its riches, its national repute, almost everything to the Citrus sinensis: the orange tree, specifically the Valencia variety. It's the county's heritage, in the foreground of the county seal, on ugly concrete pillars that connect sound walls along the 22 Freeway. It was their sweet pulp that enticed a nation with visions of Southern California at the turn of the 19th Century, their crate labels that mythologized this place as a perpetual Eden to the rest of the United States, its industry that employed thousands and brought in millions of dollars in revenue to the county, their picturesque beauty that greeted tens of thousands of servicemen who arrived in Orange County during World War II, their paved-over acres that allowed developers to build the American Dream for the Greatest Generation. The need for workers to pick oranges addicted Orange County to cheap Mexican labor (including this writer's great-grandfather and grandfather, who arrived in Anaheim in 1918) and triggered the 1936 Citrus War, the closest the county has had to a civil war. Orange fortunes created religious movements, funded politicians, influenced lives. If it weren't for oranges, we'd be Fresno.

And now, there are fewer than 100 acres left, almost all boutique orchards kept by owners as some perverse living historical monument. Thirty acres stand near Featherly Regional Park in Anaheim; five acres at Santiago Oaks; about six to 10 in Irvine. Small groves are fenced off across the street from the Anaheim Police Station, the Kimberly-Clark campus in Fullerton, and next to the San Juan Capistrano Mission Inn. The rest are scattered across Orange County, mostly out of sight, mostly out of mind.

County residents have long-forgotten the days of King Citrus, if ever they experienced the era. But the orange tree still weighs heavily on the county's character.

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