’Natural Leader’ Finds Greener Pastures in U.S., as a Boss and Role Model

By Cathy Lickteig Makofski Special to The Washington Post Oct 3, 2002.

Carlos Alarcon knelt next to a tree and dug his fingers into the mulch. Cultivating around the base is one of the most important things a landscaper can do, but especially during a drought, he explained. Turning over the mulch allows oxygen and water to reach the roots.

“My work is helping plants grow,” he said, surveying the landscaping at the Kings Contrivance Village Center. With so little rain, Alarcon and his crews have struggled this year to keep everything looking green in Howard County, which is well-known for its manicured office parks and residential neighborhoods.

“We put mellow colors — white, pink, yellow — in areas where we know people will walk by,” said Alarcon, a maintenance superintendent for Brickman Group Ltd., a commercial landscape maintenance company. “In places where they drive by, we use plants with flashy colors, like red and purple, to catch the eye in a quick glance.

“When you look across the village center, we want you to see a burst of color or an unusual pattern of flowers that make you stop and say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty.’ It makes me feel good.”

Alarcon, 31, has spent his entire life nurturing nature. He grew up on a farm in Guatemala, raising corn and beans. He worked with his parents, five brothers and four sisters in the fields all year.

But in a country torn by internal fighting, his future looked bleak. So in 1989, Alarcon moved to California to work on big U.S. farms. Not long afterward, he heard from Guatemalan friends living in Hyattsville that he could make more money working in Maryland.

In 1990, he moved to the Columbia area and became a mower with Brickman. He quickly learned all he could about pruning, trimming, edging, tree and flower maintenance and equipment repair.

“I wanted to be known as someone who can do lots of things,” said Alarcon, a trim man with a gentle face.

Early on, Alarcon was recognized as someone with a strong work ethic and high energy, said John Smith, manager of the Columbia branch of Brickman. “From the first day, he worked hard and wanted to learn how to do things our way,” he said.

Smith was particularly impressed with Alarcon’s commitment to learn English. After working eight hours a day, he attended English classes at one of the county’s high schools. Brickman pays for language classes for its employees.

“The language was the hardest part,” Alarcon said. “I’m used to physical work and long hours, but learning English was difficult.”

He went to classes for two years, but it took almost four years before he really felt comfortable with the language, Alarcon said.

It wasn’t long before Smith realized that making things grow wasn’t Alarcon’s only talent.

“He is a natural leader and a teacher, and all the guys on his crews like him and learn from him,” he said.

One afternoon, three years ago, Alarcon was called into Smith’s office, where others were gathered. He was awarded the white shirt (camisa blanca) and welcomed into the ranks of management.

“I am very proud to wear the camisa blanca,” Alarcon said with a broad smile. “It took lots of hard work, but I proved to myself and to everyone else that I can do good things.”

“But you know,” he said, “it was very hard to leave the crew and become a boss.”

He supervises 30 to 40 people who are paid hourly wages and work in five- and six-person crews. One humid morning in late summer, with temperatures topping 95 degrees, Alarcon drove his pickup to meet a crew at a local office park.

A tiny soft soccer ball dangled from the rearview mirror. In the back of the truck was a regular-size soccer ball along with several bags of mulch. Alarcon is an avid soccer player, playing in leagues including one that Brickman sponsors for its crew members.

A pair of well-worn pruning shears in a pouch was attached to his belt along with a two-way radio linking him to the main office and his workers.

“Como estan?” (How are you?) “Beben agua?” (Are you drinking enough water?) he asks them at the work site.

There are huge containers of water on Brickman’s trucks.

“Is Carlos a good boss?” the men are asked.

“Si. Tratara alguien bien.” Yes. He treats us very well, answers Irene Melendres, with a shy laugh.

The crew’s work looks good, Alarcon said. The shrubs have been cleaned out, the weeds removed and the edging finished. But he can’t resist trimming a little here and snipping a little there on a large oval shaped bush.

“Pruning is my favorite task,” he said. “I like to see everything well shaped and evenly balanced.”

By running his hand over the shrub, Alarcon can feel where it needs to be pruned. “That way we trim only whats really needed. Too much pruning during the drought may send the plants into shock,” he said.

It’s a difficult balancing act, he said, respecting the water restrictions while trying to protect the clients’ investment in plants and shrubs. Hearty plants, such as vinca, can withstand the drought, he said. Others are more susceptible.

As a farmer, Alarcon knows there’s a time for every season. His crews have recently removed the impatiens and petunias, making way for the pansies. During the winter, they will remove snow and ice for clients and tune up the landscaping equipment.

Someday, another crew member will earn the camisa blanca.

“There are several [who can be leaders], but they don’t feel it yet themselves,” he said. “It takes a while to get the experience, to learn English and to gain the confidence to want to move ahead.

“I am lucky to be in this job and this community where I can prove myself and get ahead,” he said. “I know others will do the same.”

Alarcon and his wife, Alicia, were married last year. Her son and daughter live with them, and the couple is expecting another child in February. Alarcon, who is preparing to become a U.S. citizen, supports his father in Guatemala and hopes to bring him to Maryland to visit soon.

Alarcon left Guatemala to make a better life for himself, and those around him say he’s also made life better for people who live here.

“When the land looks good, everyone feels good,” he said.