There wasn't a Chavez Ravine-like standoff at the Swanner Ranch this past weekend between Ignacio Lujano and the San Juan Capistrano bureaucrats who booted out the 84-year-old Mexican from the orange groves he's tended for four decades. No camp-out, no protesters chained to trees, no need for law enforcement to conduct a raid. Instead, the last chapter of Orange County's citrus heritage closed with a yard sale.
All day Saturday and Sunday, Lujano's family sold off the detritus of 40 years accumulated as a farmer—old saws, orange crates, books, antique signs. Piqued drivers saw the “YARD SALE” banner off Camino Capistrano and stopped in for a peak. Few noticed Lujano, sitting under the shade of a persimmon tree, listening to the existential wails of ranchera icon Cuco Sanchez, alone except for the moments when his sons needed to break 20-dollar bills.
The Weekly first documented the plight of Lujano—who arrived in San Juan Capistrano in 1958 and worked in the city's orchards from that point until this week—last month, and Ignacio's story quickly earned media attention, with profiles in the Orange County Register, Los Angeles Times, local television stations, and even Univisión's Primer Impacto newsmagazine program. It also sparked near-universal public outrage against the city, which plans to bulldoze the 42 acres of orange trees on the Swanner Ranch—nearly half of the remaining total of the county's once-seemingly endless groves—to make way for a maintenance yard.
People have been visiting Lujano since his struggle became public, talking to soak in his wisdom and to join him in walking the Swanner Ranch. “I'm glad most people supported him, but there was nothing they could do—the city would do what they would do to kick Dad out,” said Ignacio's son, Alex. “But we're happy that the public really felt it was injustice.”
City officials didn't care about the outcry. Instead, they painted Lujano as little better than a taxpayer burden and even went to the extraordinary length of issuing a press release to tell their side of the story long after the media asked for comments that were never returned.
Not as cold were members of the Swanner family, who sold their ranch to San Juan Capistrano officials in 1992 under the threat of eminent domain. Alex says one Swanner called the city and offered to pay his dad's salary if the city let Ignacio stay on the property; they never heard back. Instead, the anonymous Swanner will give Ignacio $300 a month until God calls the octogenarian to his reward.
Alex contrasts the way the city treated his dad with the recent death of Jean Lacouague, a longtime orange farmer. Most of Capistrano's elected officials and administrators attended his funeral; none so much as called Lujano. “He was an owner, but Dad was a worker,” Alex sneers in explaining the difference in reverance, adding he had nothing against the show of respect toward Lacouague nor his father. Despite suffering from shot knees, Ignacio attended the funeral and, by a cruel divine joke, sat next to Capistrano Mayor Joe Soto. “Jean and Dad had a mutual respect that doesn't exist anymore,” says Alex. “He would've understood and appreciated what Dad wants.”
Lujano will now spend the rest of his days up Ortega Highway in Lake Elsinore, in a house with a tiny backyard. He's not happy but has accepted his fate.
“We keep on living,” says Lujano. “There is no remedy for life. I did this for many years, did a good job at it, and this is the thanks I get.”