Westside’s strawberry farm icon dies at 85 after losing battle with COVID-19

One of Long Beach’s best known strawberry farmers, Rigoberto Ramirez Sr., died last week after losing his battle with COVID-19, leaving behind a legacy of half a century and heartbreak across the community.

He owned the Ramirez Strawberry Ranch in West Long Beach on Santa Fe Avenue and Arlington Street, a place where people from Long Beach and beyond would buy his sweet strawberries for the past 53 years.

He was the “rock of the family,” said his 52-year-old son, Rigoberto Ramirez Jr., who is feeling “extremely heavy” grieving his father’s death.

“It’s kind of life changing,” he said.

Rigoberto Jr. said that his father fractured his back and went to the ER, where he tested positive for COVID-19. He did not feel any symptoms, but the virus was deteriorating his respiratory system—a COVID-related phenomenon identified as “silent hypoxia.” Rigoberto Sr.’s wife then tested positive and is currently hospitalized in a COVID-19 ward, he added.

Rigoberto Jr., a councilman in Stanton, less than 20 miles east of Long Beach, said he will be taking over the farm in his father’s place.

Rigoberto Sr. grew up in a small ranch an hour away from Guadalajara, Jalisco in Mexico and started farming corn with his family at age 7. They lived off the land.

Rigoberto then came to Arizona as a bracero, a migrant worker, where he picked cotton and lettuce. After his three-month contract with the Arizona farm ended, he got a full-time contract with a Japanese strawberry farmer in North Long Beach near the 91 Freeway in the 1950s and started living in the area.

He then grew a niche love for farming strawberries despite the craft requiring lots of sunlight and fertile and moist soil, compared to the other crops he’s grown.

“He likes the challenge of growing strawberries,” said Rigoberto Jr. about his father.

Nicholas Ramirez, 22, the grandson, remembers his grandfather always wearing jeans, work boots, a buttoned-down, long-sleeved and patterned shirt, and his signature beige tejana (cowboy hat) that shaded over his face. He’d bend down and kneel as he carefully picked the berries all day, Nicholas described, carrying a box with him as well. He wasn’t rushed, but he wasn’t slow either, he said.

When Nicholas would pick them, he had trouble keeping up with him, he said.

One of the fondest memories of his grandfather was when he took him to a wrestling match as a child. Watching wrestling was one of his past times, Nicholas said, recalling hearing his grandfather get excited about his favorite luchadores (masked wrestlers).

After the strawberries were planted in the fall, the Ramirez family would take trips together once a year to visit family.

Nicholas enjoyed hearing his Mexican family members describe his father’s demeanor as a “connector” and social with others. When a person gets older, their character changes, but “his never did,” he said.

Rigoberto Sr. was the type of person that would sit down and listen to people, making others feel “like they were the only person in the room,” said Rigoberto Jr.

People came to the field for the strawberries almost as equally as much as they came for the farmer. When Catalina Ramirez, 56, the farmer’s daughter shared the news of his death, hundreds of people came by the field, called and shared condolences on social media. Since his passing, the family is hosting rosaries (prayer ceremonies) every night via Zoom.

“He was just an icon,” said 41-year-old Katherine Sanchez, a Wrigley neighborhood customer for eight years.

She recalled him always cleaning a strawberry for her to taste before she bought any.

“I think he did it for himself, and I think he wanted to watch people enjoy them,” she said.

Both Rigoberto Jr. and Nicholas, an accountant, said they plan on working at the field.

“Nothing brings people together like a strawberry,” Rigoberto Jr. said.

To join the virtual rosaries, email [email protected] to request the Zoom access code and password.

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Crystal Niebla is the West Long Beach reporter through the Report for America program. Philanthropic organizations pledged to cover the local donor portion of her grant-funded position with the Post. If you want to support Crystal's work, you can donate to her Report For America position at lbpost.com/support.
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