Many people who are arriving in Courtenay for the first time drive north along Highway 19.
They exit onto the Comox Valley Parkway and are welcomed by the sight of a Snowbird jet in permanent flight atop a pedestal at the Vancouver Island Visitor Centre.
The jet is the focal point, but the next time you visit we ask you to take a moment to enjoy the manicured lawns and tended gardens that frame the monument and visitor building.
Juan Calero and his small team care for these plants, grasses, and soil. As the owner/operator of HJ Landscaping, he also tends to landscaping at the Crown Isle Shopping Centre and for other businesses in the Valley.
His journey to working in the soil here began in the soil in Nicaragua, where Calero grew up on his family’s carrot farm. To understand why Calero left requires at least a brief understanding of the Nicaraguan Revolution and Contra War. In 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front had taken power from the Somoza family that had ruled by dictatorship for decades. Then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan saw the Sandinistas as a front for the Soviet Union and the spread of communism, and provided support to an armed counter-revolutionary group known as the Contras.
Calero explains that the U.S. saw Latin America as part of their backyard. When he was a teen, he says, his family lost the use of their farmland due to the conflict. If one side decided they wanted to stay at a family’s farm, he says, “[You] have no choice – they have to stay there, they have the guns … It was tough.”
Tens of thousands of people died during the Contra War, including Calero’s older brother who worked for the Nicaraguan government.
“When I left the country I promised I’d never go back,” Calero says.
In the mid-90s and in his mid-20s, he obtained his passport and flew to Mexico, and then on to Texas with the help of his sister, who worked with lawyers to arrange their immigration. His sister settled in the U.S. but he decided to continue to Canada at the suggestion of an employee at a Houston immigration centre.
“I am grateful to be here because the system, at least if you do anything bad, you have the right to a hearing. Over there if the government decides to put you in jail, that’s it, you’re done,” Calero says.
He landed in Saskatchewan and moved to Calgary shortly after (Saskatchewan is “beautiful in the summer” but too cold in the winter) and landed his first job trimming trees around high voltage power lines. He took some courses at a college on tree pruning and safety for the job.
After a few years of gaining experience in tree trimming, he decided to start a landscaping business. He and his family eventually resettled in Vancouver where he raised three daughters (all continue to live in Vancouver, and attend or graduated from the University of B.C.). About 10 years ago, a landscaping client told Calero he had retired and had a Denman Island oyster farm lease for sale. Calero had visited the Comox Valley before and found Island life appealing. He decided to go for it, and he and his partner moved to the Island.
He ran the oyster farm from 2012 to 2014 but realized labour-intensive shellfish farming is a young person’s job – or at least a job for a spry back and shoulders. He sold it and went back to landscaping, staying in the Valley and starting HJ Landscaping.
“I like to be outside,” he says matter-of-factly.
He says he receives most of his business through referrals and word-of-mouth, forgoing a heavy online presence (HJ Landscaping can be reached at 250-898-7545). Approaching 60 and with three employees, he is content with where his business is at although he also notes that it can be a challenge to find new employees willing to do hard physical work.
When asked if he has any advice for newcomers to the Valley, Calero says, “It’s a good city to start …. I like the people here. If you work hard and learn, anything – whatever you want to do, you can do [it].”
This article is the fourth in a March-long series contributed by The Immigrant Welcome Centre’s Welcoming Communities Coalition that shares the experiences of newcomer entrepreneurs in the Comox Valley. The coalition is funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). Listen to more of Juan Calero’s story at holdingheritage.com or download the episode from Holding Heritage wherever you get your podcasts.