Guanajuato, Mexico is known for its agriculture, an industry which requires a lot of putting things into the ground. However, as the oldest member of the Harvard-Westlake maintenance staff, Gregorio Hernandez has moved on from a life of cultivating central Mexican corn fields to a job in which he spends most of his time picking things up off the ground.
Hernandez cleans everything. Pointing to the quad, the bleachers, the field, he made it clear just how much work he has to do. It is a well-known fact that students tend to leave a lot of trash lying around, but, for Hernandez, it is all in a day’s work.
“I like to work here,” said Hernandez in Spanish. “I am good here, [and], at my age if I do not work, I will get sick.”
Hernandez, who moved from his rural home in Guanajuato to the outskirts of Los Angeles at the end of the 1970s, has been working for the maintenance department at Harvard-Westlake for 12 years, and will turn 72 in May.
He left Mexico because farming did not pay well, and money was tight with a wife and three kids. In fact, he would not have even been able to afford the trip to the states if it were not for his childhood friend Margarito Juarez, whose sister in Mexico City had raised enough money for the two of them to buy bus tickets to the border.
Juarez and Hernandez rode in a Tres Estrellas de Oro, Three Golden Stars bus, a company which prides itself on having the best passenger automobile transport service, for two days. Juarez went first, and Hernandez went a few days later, bringing only the clothes on his back. His wife Feliza and three kids soon followed.
Having spent most of his childhood on a farm rather than in school and without any citizenship papers, it was hard for Hernandez to find work.
He was living in an apartment with Juarez, who was also not making any money. It was not long before the two friends realized they would have to find a way to start making money, otherwise they would be unable to buy food. So Juarez, who played the accordion, and Hernandez, who played the bass, put on some nice clothes, and began making music.
“It’s hard when you don’t have any work,” Hernandez said. “We had to play music to survive.”
And they did play, at parties and events in Van Nuys and Mission Viejo, earning an average of $50 a night, which, back when a Big Mac hardly cost a buck and gas was 36 cents a gallon, was a lot of money.
Along the way, they even picked up four more band members including a singer, a guitar player and two saxophonists. Together, they were Los Texanos del Valle, the Mexicans of the Valley.
Search Los Texanos del Valle in YouTube, Hernandez said, and you will see him there. The group even recorded an album called “Los Texanos del Valle,” which featured classic bandera songs such as “El Angel de mis Alhenos” (the Angel of My Dreams) and “El Corrido de Chihuahua” (The Ballad of Chihuahua) but the band eventually disbanded, as the amount of work they put into their music outweighed the amount of money they were receiving for it.
After quitting the band, Hernandez spent 20 years at a company that sold refurbished cars, and most of the few English words that he can speak are specialized words he picked up at this job, because Hernandez felt no need to formally learn English.
“[The people I was working with] were all Mexican,” he said. “If everyone spoke English, then I would have to learn.”
Finally, Hernandez, in 2001, was given his job at Harvard-Westlake by upper school plant manager Felipe Anguiano, .
Although Hernandez works for 10 hours every school day and on weekends when there is an event, he is only a temporary staff member because he is legally retired and receives a Social Security check each month.
Often seen around the quad and on the steps leading up to Chalmers, Hernandez’s duties are to blow the leaves at the school in the morning, pick up trash, clean around campus and, every other day, hose down the lunch area.
Anguiano describes Hernandez as hard-working, dedicated and very active.
“He’s always here,” Anguiano said. “He’s non-stop. You always see him cleaning.”
Hernandez, who has only returned to Mexico four times since moving, has now been a citizen of the United States for longer than he can remember. Shuffling through his wallet, he pulled out his United States passport card to prove it.
He has six kids ranging in age from 23 to 45. Isabel, Jim, Alberto, Guillermo, Gregorio Jr. and Mario, three of whom were born in the United States, all and now have jobs of their own.
A few of his children, like Alberto and Guillermo, who work for a portable toilet company, and Mario, who installs air conditioners, have maintenance related jobs as well. He still lives with two of his children, Isabel and Alberto, and his wife, who is also retired, in a house in Sylmar.
Between his Social Security check and the money he makes from working at Harvard-Westlake, Hernandez still doesn’t have much cash to spend.
“I have to pay for the house and the car,” he said. “It is expensive to live in California.” But, regardless, Hernandez, who has never had a job at another school, is proud to say that there is nothing he does not like about working at Harvard-Westlake, and he does not plan on ever quitting his job here.
If he were to stop working, he said, he would most likely just stay at home, doing chores and trimming the trees in his yard.