Calloused hands and care

Donny Manzo, 14, paints the base of several new prune trees as

Some mornings, Marlene Orsetti Manzo still sees her father
walking up the driveway, dressed in his big work boots and old hat,
newspaper in hand.
Some mornings, Marlene Orsetti Manzo still sees her father walking up the driveway, dressed in his big work boots and old hat, newspaper in hand.

Emilio Aladino Orsetti has been gone for a few years now, but his legacy lives on in his grandchildren’s work ethic, in that certain way the afternoon light washes over his meticulously planted prune orchard and, most vividly, in his daughter’s memory.

“I used to see him a lot when he first died,” Marlene said, grabbing a tissue as tears welled in her eyes. “He’d be coming up the road. We’d be on our way to work. And he’d wave.”

Planted 98 years ago, the orchard has a vibrant personality, just like the family that’s farmed it all these years. Dormant in the winter, the spindly trees contrast with several feet of vibrant yellow mustard blowing in the breeze. In the spring, surrounded by the bright green hills, the branches of the prune trees are covered with green buds on the verge of bursting. In a week or so, a shock of feathery white blossoms will coat each branch, their sweet fragrance perfuming the air. Come summer, the blossoms give way to glossy green leaves and fresh fruit the Orsetti family has been enjoying since the turn of the 20th century. Harvest is late August and it brings the entire family out.

The Orsetti family’s story in America begins with Marlene’s grandfather, Emilio Paulo Orsetti. At 16, Emilio Paulo left Italy for a better way of life. After trying to make a living in Brazil, then Argentina, he decided on America. He arrived in 1902 and made his way to Gilroy. For 99 cents a day, Emilio Paulo toiled from dawn to dusk for Miller and Lux, a company headquartered in Los Banos that was once the largest producer of cattle in California.

Hardworking Emilio Paulo met his match in Louise Garbarino, a packer of prunes and other dried fruit at Biscegli Cannery who, at 15, was 13 years his junior. They married in a modest ceremony and, in addition to the vows they exchanged with each other, made themselves one promise: to overcome poverty.

In 1911, Emilio Paulo and Louise purchased 11.75 acres for $175 per acre on a fertile tract of land just south of Buena Vista Avenue in north Gilroy. The down payment: a $50 gold piece with the stipulation that the couple plant prune trees.

“My grandparents started this,” Marlene said, gazing out the large picture windows in her living room. “They got married and they had nothing. This was their livelihood.”

Nine years later, Emilio Paulo and Louise purchased another 10-acre parcel. The price of land had more than doubled by then. They built a small ranch house, the first of three houses to be built on the property, which would eventually house four generations of Orsettis. They welcomed their only son, Marlene’s father, into the world soon after and raised him to be a hard worker like themselves.

“He grew up working,” Marlene said of her father, Emilio Aladino. “He didn’t even know how to play.”

When the elder Emilio got too old to keep up the orchard on his own, he considered putting the land up for sale.

“Dad said no,” Marlene said. “He wanted to keep their heritage going.”

The younger Emilio committed to keep his parents’ dream alive and, after coming home from long hours as a teacher, changed into his work clothes and headed into the orchard. With his wife, Teresa, Emilio Aladino built his dream home behind the house where he grew up.

Years later, when Emilio Aladino’s children – Marlene and her brother, Mark – were grown, Mark moved into his grandparent’s house, and Marlene and her husband, Don Manzo, built their own home on the property. To this day, the family farms five acres of prunes – a variety of plum with a higher sugar content that lends itself to drying – and sells their crop to Sunsweet. Mark is a teacher at Brownell Middle School, like his father, and Marlene is a teacher at Rucker Elementary School, which she attended as a child. But every summer, they reach back to their roots and celebrate the harvest with their families.

When Marlene and Don grow too old to farm the land, their son, Donny, a 14-year-old eighth grader at Ascencion Solorsano Middle School, will take over, Donny said.

“Driving the forklift is my favorite,” he said.

“Hey! That’s my job,” his mother interjected.

From the time she was a teen, Marlene has manned the forklift. But she took over the job from her mother and Donny will do the same, he reminded Marlene.

Like their parents, Don and Marlene’s children can’t imagine living anywhere else.

“I remember going out in the mustard and tramping it down to build a fort,” said Kim, 16.

“Or a trap,” her brother said with a mischievous grin.

By tying two stalks of mustard together, Donny has set a trap on more than one occasion for an unsuspecting sister or parent.

Just shy of celebrating the orchard’s centennial, the Orsettis received news that their land might not make it. The high speed rail project for which voters approved a $10 billion bond in November 2008 could very well send bullet trains zipping up a corridor that would cut through the family’s driveway, along the exact spot Marlene waved to her father every morning.

“After all your parents and grandparents did to preserve that land and those homes, and the blood, sweat and tears your parents shed,” Ron Stefani, a cousin of Marlene’s wrote in an e-mail to her. “I am outraged. It just isn’t fair.”

Marlene and her family agree. Educators and engineers by day, farmers by evening and weekends, the family won’t relinquish the land without a fight worthy of their ancestors. The train would wipe out the family homes, each a story of a generation of the Orsetti family. It would obliterate the few acres of orchard still left. It would raze 100 years of history with which the family can’t bear to part.

“My parents’ words reel through my head,” Marlene wrote in a letter to the Gilroy Dispatch. “‘Change is the law of life. There will be a lot of changes in your lifetime. The city will come to you, the town is growing, hold on to our home place, sell the rest if you have to, but hold on to our homes. Our little peace of heaven. Save it for you. Save it for the kids.'”

For once, Marlene said she is glad her parents are gone. They wouldn’t be able to bear the heartbreak of losing their land, their homes, their history.

The last few years have been difficult for the remaining Orsettis. She and Don lost three parents, two to cancer. If the train runs through their home, heartbreak will strike again, this time, in a different form.

“I think of the saying, ‘I feel like I’ve been hit by a train,’ which is usually meant as exaggeration, something that generally doesn’t happen,” Marlene said. “Or does it? This country community might literally be hit by a train, and the impact of the blow is insurmountable. We need to stop this train before it derails all our hopes, our dreams and our histories.”

As one of the last surviving prune orchards in the Santa Clara Valley, the Orsettis’ trees are a landmark. For years, people have stopped to take photos of their children in front of the orchard or swipe a prune or two.

“And then some people blow right past and never see it,” Marlene said.

She hopes the bullet train will do the same, somewhere other than down her family’s property.

Even though she doesn’t have any photos hanging up in her house of the orchard over the years, Marlene said she didn’t need them.

“The picture has always been outside our window,” she said. “I look outside and I see my parents. I see my history.”

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