The Family Ties at Luis' Nursery in Visalia
Deep RootsApril 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Josiah Alter
When Luis Gonzalez moved to Visalia, he came with little more than his wife and a vision. He had no connections, no family or friends waiting for him, no roots planted – not yet, anyway. Then in 1990, Luis planted seeds and built a nursery from the ground up. Twenty-five years later, Luis’ Nursery is still a Visalia fixture.
Gonzalez’s journey began long before he heard the word Visalia, long before he imagined leaving Mexico. The first steps of that path were laid by a U.S. government program that imported Mexican fieldworkers to supplement the shortage of working-age men caused by the war. Those workers, called Braceros, Spanish for “those who use their arms,” first arrived in 1942 to harvest sugar beets in Stockton. For 22 years, millions of Braceros came to work throughout the United States, Gonzalez’s father among them.
Through a thick accent, Gonzalez tells how he first came to the United States in 1970. “It was my 20s, and I don’t mind that you put in the magazine that I was an immigrant when I come from Mexico,” he says proudly. “He came with a bag full of inspiration and motivation,” adds his son-in-law, Larry Espinoza. “He had nothing.”
Gonzalez’s father came to Los Angeles through the Bracero program, and later asked him to follow. “I didn’t want to work for the nurseries,” Gonzalez says. “I want to do something else, but I find out there was nothing else but the nursery for me, because I didn’t speak the language.”
Gonzalez’s first years in L.A. were especially difficult. “Over there, I just worked and go straight home, seven days a week,” he says. Compounding his schedule, Gonzalez neither had roots in L.A. or a desire to work in the nursery. “Since I was young I wanted to drive a truck bad or work the factory,” he says.
Despite these difficulties, Gonzalez flourished. “He moved up the ladder very quickly without knowing that field,” says Espinoza. “He’s very charismatic, and his English wasn’t that strong but people loved being around him.”
“Every day I’d learn one plant. In 30 days I learned 30 plants. I never learned my English,” Gonzalez says with a laugh, “but I learned my plants.”
After nine years in L.A., a business acquaintance asked Gonzalez to help him build a nursery in Visalia. “The guy offered him good money to help him come over here,” Espinoza explains, and for the next decade, “Luis ran the place.”
“He had so much of a following those days,” says his son-in-law, “and he had some strong supporters to help him start his own place.” So in 1990, with financial investors, Gonzalez was finally able to build his own nursery. Three years later, “he was able to buy it outright,” says Espinoza.
When Gonzalez first came to the United States 45 years ago, he had to put his own dreams aside. There’s a subtle irony that for Gonzalez, his immigration story was the frustration of his dream, when for so many others the United States represents the fruition of those dreams. But for Gonzalez, L.A. meant mere survival, the uprooting from his home.
Visalia, though, “was easy, right away,” says Gonzalez. Visalians were kinder, more welcoming, and for the first time since Mexico, Gonzalez found community. Soon, family and friends from L.A. followed in his footsteps. “A lot of people followed him here,” Espinoza says. “He has his mark in a lot of things here.”
The most noticeable mark is the nursery itself, the fruit of Gonzalez’s labor. A one-stop shop for shade and fruit trees, plants and flowers, tools, soil and fertilizer, Gonzalez’s nursery is also much more. He wanted to create a fun atmosphere for families, so he built a fish pond, waterfall and aviary; there are live desert tortoises, as well as (not so live) Bigfoot and dinosaurs.
“At the end of the day, we want to be here for the community and we want to make this an experience,” says Espinoza. “Some people just want to walk around and get their minds off things. It’s a peaceful place.”
While Gonzalez’s most noticeable mark is the nursery itself, his roots grow even deeper. He came to Visalia with only his wife, but now his family is three generations deep, and his brothers, daughters and son-in-law work at the nursery too. “I’m really proud,” says Espinoza. “He made it easy for me to work here … because he built such a rapport with people.”
As for Gonzalez, “he’s here every day of the week, and I don’t know if he’ll ever leave this place,” says Espinoza. But Gonzalez says with a laugh, “I don’t do nothing.” While that’s probably untrue, after all his work, sacrifice, and commitment to this community, who would begrudge him the rest?
Luis’ Nursery • 139 South Mariposa Ave., Visalia • (559) 747-5015
Daily: Mon-Sat 7am-5pm, Sun 8am-4pm
www.luisnursery.com • Find them on Facebook