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Wednesday, November 26, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Family Thankful For Bountiful Land -- Little By Little, Life Is Improving For The Alvarezes In Eastern Washington

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

MABTON, Yakima County - If you drive around this small farm town in the lower Yakima Valley, you will find streets with pretty, tidy homes. Big, wide windows. White, fluffy dogs. Rows of tiny hedges.

The Alvarez place on Murray Road is a worn-down, double-wide trailer. If it were a hand, it would have stained fingernails and calluses.

On occasion, Maria Alvarez explains, a daughter will sigh about the home, wishing it were roomier. She'll tell her daughter: Be patient; remember what we once had. That's enough to quiet any groaning.

People like the Alvarezes are today's Pilgrims. They've survived a trip to a new land. They've found plenty.

For that, they are thankful.

Hilario Alvarez, a healthy-bellied man with a mustache and a sturdy back, has spent most of his 45 years working on farms - first in his native Mexico, then as a migrant worker in Wapato, Yakima County.

He now picks and packs vegetables on three farms in Mabton, except now the land and everything on it are his.

Alvarez came to the United States with nothing. He rented land. He sold his cows and everything else back home in Mexico for a down payment on land here.

First, he bought 20 acres; then, years later, an additional 15, and last year, 10 more.

He grows peppers (75 varieties), squash (15 kinds), corn (10), okra (five), peas (four), eggplant, peanuts, alfalfa, beets, green onions, cabbage and, on a half-acre plot, garlic.

"Any kind of vegetable - that's me," said Alvarez, who sells some of his produce at the Pike Place Market.

He is standing on his front porch. Above his head are peppers threaded on fishing line, the kind of ornament found in kitchens with brave tongues. He pulls one down. "Real easy to dry. Good for all year."

He grew up in Michoacan, Mexico, one of eight children. Dad was a farmer. Mom made the home. Hilario went to school for only three years.

He worked on the family farm because his father needed help, but farming there meant mostly growing food for the family to eat. They lived so far out in the countryside, even if they had any food to spare, they couldn't get it to market.

In his late teens, Alvarez moved near Tijuana to work on a feed lot, where his daily salary equaled $5.

He saw the future across the border, and at a friend's urging - "You're young, you're single, you should go" - he came here in his 20s.

The first time, he came alone. The second time, he brought his new wife, Maria. Both times, Alvarez was here illegally. Since then, the couple have applied for and received permanent U.S. residency.

To grow up poor dreaming of a better life is one thing. To work in the U.S. earning in one month more than you would have earned in Mexico in one year is to realize dreams might be possible.

Alvarez dreamed of making a nice home in Mexico. His work in the U.S. was meant to be temporary, and that's how he explained it to Maria.

But children, as anyone can tell you, change things. Ruben was born, then Alicia, Eduardo, Elena, Oralia. . . . Eventually, there were nine.

As he worked, Alvarez learned English in this way: He got a book. He would write words on the back of his hand with the English translations underneath.

After working on a vegetable farm in Wapato, then a plot of rented land on the Yakama Indian Reservation, Alvarez found his way into a real-estate office where an agent told him he had just what Alvarez needed - and the agent was right.

The 20-acre plot, framed in part by peach and plum trees, was sandy, which made it good for growing vegetables. Alvarez looked at the land, felt the dirt, looked at his neighbor's fields where the squash was growing "very beautiful" and thought, yes, maybe this is good land.

He talked the price down to $19,000 but still didn't have enough for the down payment. That's when Realtor Kenny Libsack helped out. Libsack liked Alvarez and loaned him $3,000.

"I have a good feeling about people," he said. "I'm German. I know how hard it is for new people to make it in the U.S."

Now a landowner, but with a debt to pay off, Alvarez kept telling himself and his wife that he knew vegetables, that he could really work the land, and that, yes, things would be good.

That first year, Alvarez struggled, but he repaid Libsack.

He bought a tractor, then another. The family bought a car. He hired workers. He planted peas in March, corn in early April, then zucchini and beans, then okra on the first of May. Peanuts don't like cold weather, so he grew them in a greenhouse until they were maybe a half-hand high and could be put in the ground.

"The land was an opportunity," Alvarez says.

At this time of year, when trees are naked and the landscape is a study in browns, the soil is mostly bare. A few roots and limbs peek out; rejected eggplants lie abandoned; scraggly peppers sit in untidy piles.

Alvarez works the soil with the toe of his boot, revealing just how deeply brown the soil is, the color of the richest chocolate truffle.

He stoops over and picks up a neon orange pepper, and others that are the size of peas and the color of blueberries.

Over there, Alvarez points, is zucchini, and that little patch at the end - red beets.

The growing season is over and most of his soil is bare, but when Alvarez looks at it, he sees his accomplishments and his future.

Over there where the peppers grow, he says, he wants to build a new, bigger house.

`I feel so happy to give'

If you come to Mabton and visit his farm, Alvarez is likely to open a van, open a bag, pull out ears of dried red, blue and yellow corn - "Good for popcorn!" - and give you some. "Here, take some apples."

Alvarez gives away samples of his crops with the enthusiasm of a kid showing off his Halloween candy.

"I feel so happy to give," he says.

The land, Alvarez explains, has yielded much for him and his family. "And you know, in the Bible it says you should give more than you receive."

As he picked and pruned and packed, Alvarez learned how to grow things, and if you ask him for farming advice, he will happily offer some. People grumble about competition, he says. "I don't."

One measure of success is how much you have. Hilario Alvarez and his family now make $45,000 to $50,000 a year. They have, by U.S. standards, fared well.

Another measure of success is how far you've come. The Alvarezes have come farther than most people can dream.

Florangela Davila's phone message number is 206-464-2916. Her e-mail address is: fdav-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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