San Marcos,
15:00 PM

Life on the Chicken Ranch: Roots Run Deep at University

By Eric Breier

Standing in the courtyard at the McMahan House, Arturo Villalobos looks toward the dirt lot below.

Today, it’s called Lot X, a place where Cal State San Marcos students pay discounted rates to park in exchange for a longer trek to campus.

But nearly 40 years ago, it’s where Villalobos joined other employees of the Prohoroff Poultry Farm to meet with César Chávez, the iconic labor leader and civil rights activist who dedicated his life to improving conditions and pay for farm workers.

Villalobos and his co-workers actually met there twice with Chávez, who demanded a second meeting after the first was interrupted by farm administrators.

“He was a very humble and smart man,” Villalobos said. “He never made a promise he couldn’t deliver.”

Chávez didn’t win a union vote from the Prohoroff farm workers. This was in the late '70s, a time when the farm was still doing well and workers were happy.

Neither the farm workers nor the owners could have foreseen the dramatic changes in store not just for the ranch, but the entire region.

A deep connection

Villalobos’ family has deep ties to the Prohoroff Poultry Farm. His parents both lived and worked on the farm as did many of Villalobos’ seven siblings.

Though the farm has been gone for decades, the connection remains.

On the land where Villalobos used to spend nine hours a day, six days a week working as mechanic on the farm, his daughter and niece come to work each day as employees of CSUSM.

Yvonne Villalobos, Arturo’s daughter, is an assistant to Dean Jim Hamerly and Associate Dean Mohammad Oskoorouchi in the College of Business Administration. Alex Perkins, Arturo’s niece, is an event planner in Event and Conference Services. Both are also graduates of CSUSM, Yvonne with a bachelor’s in economics and Alex in communication.

Long before Yvonne and Alex began working at CSUSM – before anyone even had an inkling that a university would one day exist here – their grandparents and parents spent many a Thanksgiving and Christmas with family and friends on the Prohoroff Poultry Farm in a tiny home that stood close to where CSUSM’s baseball field is located today.

“I can’t explain how so many people fit in the house, eating and laughing,” said Hilda Garcia, Alex’s mother and Arturo’s sister. “Now my daughter works in events and wants every chair very perfect. I say, ‘Do you know we used to have dinners and you wouldn’t even have a chair for every person?’ We didn’t care.”

While Alex and Yvonne are creating lasting memories each day as part of the CSUSM family, members of their own family took time this summer to reminisce about what life was like before a bustling, 300-acre university stood where they once lived and worked.

“My dad frequently shares stories about the farm and I’ll say, ‘Isn’t it amazing to see that I have gained an education and earned a career on the same lands where you once worked!’ ” Yvonne said. “It’s come full circle. My dad often reminds me how lucky I am to work for the University. I nod my head in agreement. It is truly gratifying.”

Citizen without a home

Rogelio Villalobos, Alex and Yvonne’s grandfather, was working as a mechanic in Los Angeles in the 1950s with dreams of finding a job that would put him closer to Tijuana where his wife, Enedina, and eight children lived.

Rogelio was born in Arizona in 1926, but his family was among the more than 1 million people of Mexican descent – the majority of whom, like Rogelio, were United States citizens – forced to leave the country during the Great Depression. Rogelio was just a toddler at the time and spent his formative years in Mexico.

As a young adult, Rogelio took the job in Los Angeles with the promise of greater economic opportunity. His family lived in Guadalajara at the time, and Rogelio only saw Enedina and the children every six months. Eventually, Enedina and the children moved to Tijuana, allowing Rogelio to see them each weekend. But he yearned for a job close enough to be with them every day.

It took time, but he finally found that much sought-after job farther south.

It didn’t matter that it was still 50 miles north of the border. It didn’t matter that he would need to commute an hour in the morning and another hour in the evening each day. It didn’t matter that the workdays were nine-plus hours or that the workweek was six days. It didn’t matter that there was no overtime pay for those long days and weeks.

“For him, it was about being close to the family,” Hilda said. “He wanted to be home with the family every night.”

Rogelio worked as a mechanic on the Prohoroff Poultry Farm, which spanned more than 500 acres near Highway 78 and Twin Oaks Valley Road, including the land upon which CSUSM stands today.

Terenty Prohoroff, a Russian immigrant, opened the farm in 1945 with about 250 chickens. It grew into one of the largest chicken ranches in the world, reportedly home to 2 million chickens at its peak.

Rogelio wasn’t alone in making the daily journey from Tijuana to San Marcos. He typically commuted with five or six other people each day. The long days on the farm could take a toll and there were rare occasions when they would put out a vote among the people in the car: go to work as they usually did or have a day of adventure. The vote had to be unanimous. Once, the group was almost to the farm before the last holdout finally raised his hand to opt for the unscheduled day off. But the thrill of an unplanned day off never lasted long.

“When they saw their check and it was one day less of pay they would say, ‘No more,’ ” Hilda said.

Even with the regular paycheck Rogelio received, his limited income made it difficult to afford moving his family to San Marcos, not to mention the challenge of obtaining green cards for his family members.

“He didn’t want anybody to come over illegally,” Hilda said. “He said, ‘You finish your papers and then you will come.’ ”

Rogelio eventually secured the necessary funds and paperwork to move his family to San Marcos where they made their home on the farm. In fact, it wasn’t long before Enedina landed her first job.

Life on the farm

Enedina was responsible for vaccinating baby chicks on the farm. She worked in barns that were located where the Ralph’s shopping center stands today, directly across Twin Oaks Valley Road from the university. Enedina would take eight chicks at a time – four in each hand – and proceed to administer the vaccinations.

“She was so happy,” Arturo said.

While the work days and weeks were long, Rogelio and Enedina loved life on the farm, even if it meant contending with some unusual living conditions.

Arturo and his wife, Sandra, lived in Tijuana after getting married and visited Arturo’s parents on the weekends. The stench of the farm still resonates for Sandra.

“It was nice to see the family, but I wasn’t disappointed to live somewhere else,” Sandra said.

The farm produced as much as 11 million pounds of manure each month, according to newspaper accounts. The odor of the farm permeated clothes – lingering even after they had been washed.

While those who lived and worked on the farm became accustomed to the smell, it wasn’t unusual for someone who wasn’t familiar with it to get into the car of an employee and ask about the odor. It didn’t matter that they might not actually be near the farm at that moment. The aroma would cling to the inside of the car, an extra passenger that went wherever the driver ventured.

The manure didn’t just bring with it a foul stench. It also brought flies. Thousands of them.

“We used to joke at lunchtime, ‘You want it with or without flies?’ ” Hilda said.

On one of Arturo’s first days as a farm employee, a supervisor asked him to sweep the floor. Arturo began clearing a floor filled with what he thought were tiny pebbles. But he quickly realized that they weren’t pebbles. They were dead flies littered across the floor by the thousands.

Arturo said powerful chemicals were sprayed in the corridors at night to kill the flies and someone had to sweep them up the following day.

Except for a brief two-year period when he left the ranch for another job, Rogelio spent most of his adult life working on the farm. He was almost 60 years old when the ranch was sold to developers in 1985. The farm, once teeming with chickens, was down to about 100,000 fowls. The developers sold a large chunk of their purchase to the state to build Cal State San Marcos. Another large parcel of land was developed into the Campus Marketplace shopping center across the street from the university.

Rogelio found work with a nearby roofing company after the farm closed. Not only was it an increase in pay, but it came with multiple raises within the first few months. Arturo said the quick ascent in pay made his father nervous. Was it a mistake? Would it lead to him being laid off?

“He was afraid that it was too fast,” Arturo said. “But they loved him.”

A new beginning

Hilda and her husband, Pedro, bought a duplex near the ranch after it closed. Rogelio and Enedina lived there for many years, and Alex lives there today with her husband and 19-month-old daughter.

Though Rogelio never learned to speak English, he was well known throughout San Marcos as “El Maestro” for his acumen as a mechanic.

Gabriel Garcia, Alex’s brother, was a teenager when he learned firsthand of his grandfather’s renown as they visited stores to pick up supplies for a home-improvement project. People greeted Rogelio like royalty everywhere they went.

“Here’s somebody who didn’t speak English and everybody knew him. It was amazing,” Gabriel said. “And it was all around town.”

At 38, Gabriel is old enough to remember the farm. He used to watch “The Price Is Right” in the mornings before walking with his grandparents down a dirt hill to Barham Drive to be picked up by a bus for school. The farm is where he learned to ride a bike by going down that same dirt hill. Though the hill is long gone, Gabriel can still pinpoint its location because the last of the original houses along Barham have only recently been taken down.

“I literally used to play with a soccer ball outside on a dirt road and now it’s a full university,” Gabriel said. “It’s amazing to think that my grandparents worked and lived here and were part of the history.”

Enedina died in 2011 at age 81 and Rogelio passed away two years later at 87. Both witnessed the transformation of San Marcos from a sleepy town of a couple thousand people to a population approaching 100,000 and home to a flourishing university.

Though the chicken ranch has been gone for decades, its presence still looms large in the lives of Arturo, Hilda and their relatives.

Recently, Alex’s father, Pedro, was en route to campus to drop something off to Alex at work.

“You know where the mailboxes were? I’ll meet you there,” Pedro told her.

There was just one problem. While the landmarks that were a routine part of her parents’ lives are as vivid now for them as they were 30-plus years ago, Alex had no idea where those mailboxes had been located.

It is memories of those landmarks, friendships and gatherings that the family cherishes from their time working and living on the ranch. But they’re also proud of what has become of the land.

“The poultry farm had a lot of heart,” Arturo said. “People gave a lot of hard work and heart to it. But to see a university here is like a dream. You could not ask for anything better.”

The past as a gateway to the future

Yvonne routinely shares stories of her family’s connection to the university with CSUSM colleagues, even sharing family photos from the farm with Hamerly.

Alex still remembers going through the interview process at CSUSM and meeting with Neal Hoss, then the vice president of University Advancement. He asked where she saw herself in five years should she get the job.

Before she looked to the future, she told him, she had to look to her past.

Her grandparents lived and worked on this land. Though Rogelio sometimes thought about what life might have been like had he not been forced to leave the country during the Great Depression, his love for the United States never wavered.

“He loved to vote,” Hilda said. “He would say, ‘I may not see the change, but my grandchildren will see the difference.’ ”

“He always stuck to his morals and high work ethic,” Gabriel added. “He knew his hard work would pay off, if not for his children then for his grandchildren. He had that vision for the family from the start.”

Rogelio lived to see that vision become reality. Many of his 24 grandchildren – including Alex, Gabriel and Yvonne – have earned a college degree, the first generation in their family to do so.

“I told Neal how meaningful it was that I already had roots here, not just from being a student but also from my grandparents,” Alex said. “Before you think of your future you think about your past, and it was really important in my situation.”

Then she smiled.

“And I got the job.”