McALLEN — Jesus Almaguer could taste the Rio Grande Valley in oranges.
His oldest granddaughter, Vickie Gomez, said if three oranges were placed in front of him — one from California, another from Florida, and one picked from a local tree — Almaguer could take a bite of each and point to the one grown in a Valley orchard.
These were the fields he spent most of his life caring for.
After a storied career tending to the region’s citrus orchards, the long-time Valley citrus fieldman died at the age of 93 on Sept. 5 due to heart and kidney failures.
“The groves were his heart,” Gomez, 46, said.
Almaguer, who was known as Chuy by his close friends, spent more than seven decades as a grove fieldman, taking on several citrus-care jobs in companies all over the region, companies like Golden Acres, Progressive Groves, and Mission Shippers, which is now owned by Healds Valley Farms.
His first job in the industry was tending to a 40-acre orange orchard in McAllen in 1947, a year after he immigrated to the city from his hometown of Jalisco, Mexico at 19 years old.
Chuy spent the rest of his days nurturing the Valley’s citrus trees and teaching others how to care for them, too. His career saw many stages of the Valley’s industry, including several crippling freezes and years of booming businesses.
At one point, according to Dale Murden, the president of Texas Citrus Mutual, the Valley boasted nearly 300,000 acres of groves. In the late ‘50s, there were about 12 million citrus trees in the region.
“Back then the Valley was maybe 80% groves and the rest were houses, now it’s the other way around,” Rose Pierce, Chuy’s oldest daughter, said.
Chuy and his wife Maria, who died in 2011, raised their four children in a home on Nolana in McAllen, which in the mid-1900s was pastures of citrus orchards. Their house, which is now where a Walmart stands, was surrounded by groves.
Pierce said that her dad could be anywhere in the Valley and tell you where the groves were, where the groves used to be, who owned those groves, and which groves had the sweetest fruit.
“He could tell if it was going to be sweet or not just by squeezing it,” Pierce said.
By the ‘80s, grove owners across the Valley would depend on his advice for maintaining their fields, and waited on his cue to start harvesting their fruit.
Chuy loved caring for citrus trees as much as he loved teaching about it.
“He would take out his pocket knife and open whatever fruit it was and teach you all about it,” Gomez said. “He would show you the color of the skin, he would smell it and of course taste it to see if it was ready, and from the taste he could tell whether it did not get enough water.”
Murden said when he was a new grower in the ‘80s, it was Chuy who showed him the ropes of the citrus industry.
“Chuy had knowledge about everything, from the soil to the roots, the shape of the fruits and tree health,” Murden said. “He just had a real knack for the agronomics of growing citrus… Probably at one point, he had been in every grove in the Valley.”
Gomez says she spent most of her summers as a young girl with her grandparents, and said the best days were the ones she spent on those drives with her grandpa, visiting grove after grove.
“When you got inside his truck, you always had to pick up a grapefruit or orange or whatever fruit there was and toss it to the other seat,” she remembered, laughing. “They were samples of all the groves he was managing and taking care of.”
Chuy would drive around town in his truck, easy to spot because of its Ruby Red Grapefruit vanity plate, talking cattle and horses and rodeos with his friends. His hands were always sticky, Gomez said, from all those grapefruit and oranges.
“I remember him teaching me and showing me and saying, ‘This is a grapefruit, and this is an orange, and this is a tangerine, and these are lime, and these are Valley lemons. It was always fun, and it was always centered around citrus,” Gomez said.
Handing out fruit, Pierce said, was how her dad showed his love.
“His favorite thing to do was to peel an orange for you, with the pocketknife he had he would just peel it and give it to you,” she said. “He was happy doing that, peeling oranges and giving them to people.”
The Valley’s citrus orchards have shrunk since the prime days of the industry. According to the Texas Citrus Mutual, there are only about 30,000 acres of citrus orchards left in the region.
All those groves being gone saddened Chuy. Even after he retired, he’d ride around inspecting the groves, talking eagerly about new groves being planted on the north side of Edinburg.
“He loved telling us about where the groves used to be,” Gomez said. “We would drive and he would say, ‘That Walmart there, that used to be an orange grove, and that block over there, those were ruby reds.’”
Chuy kept on caring for the groves that were left until he just couldn’t anymore.
The day before he was admitted to the hospital because of chest pains and low blood pressure, he did what he’d done nearly every day since the late ‘40s: he drove around in his truck, checking on the trees.
He drove through orchards he’d known for decades, and passed supermarkets and parking lots that now stand where Chuy’s trees once flourished in the heyday of the Valley’s orchard industry.
Chuy, like most of those Valley orchards, is gone now, leaving nothing but fond memories and good fruit.
“He’ll be missed,” Murden said. “You can’t replace that kind of knowledge and that kind of dedication for what he did.”
Gomez recalled how days with her grandpa would always end at Mission Shippers, where each year millions of crates of citrus were packed and shipped all over the world. She said she will never forget the joy her grandpa would have strolling by the fruit.
“He would look at them and say, ‘They’re going everywhere, they’re going all over the United States and they were grown here,’” Gomez said. “He was very proud of the fact that there was some darn good citrus here.”