Saldana family’s gift to Sonoma
By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Since 1998 Trina Saldana and her siblings have regularly visited their father’s grave at Sonoma’s four-acre Valley Cemetery. They place fresh flowers, give thanks for the positive path he set them on, and offer silent prayers.
Over the years they couldn’t help but notice as, little by little, the cemetery took on a neglected air, with out-of-control weeds, overgrown bushes, and drifting brush.
“There were huge piles of leaves,” Trina said, “and weeds crowding grave sites. We thought it wasn’t worthy of our father to have the cemetery be this way. He deserves to be in a well-maintained cemetery.”
Which is why she, along with her two brothers John and Jose — co-owners of Llanos Landscape Maintenance —have donated a year of free landscape service at Valley Cemetery to the City of Sonoma.
After months of paperwork to obtain all necessary approvals, the work began on Friday, May 25. That day the Saldana brothers and three employees worked non-stop from 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
“We took eight truck loads of brush to the dump that day,” John said. “Our plan is to put a lot of effort, many days, into the project on this end. Once we have everything cleaned out, we’ll go on a maintenance schedule, about one day a month.”
The Saldana brothers are not only donating their own labor, but they’re covering expenses—including paying wages to their employees.
The City of Sonoma owns and manages three cemeteries: Valley Cemetery on East MacArthur Street, thought to have been established by Gen. Mariano Vallejo in 1835; 60-acre Mountain Cemetery on First Street West, founded in 1841; and the adjacent 1.6-acre Veterans Memorial Cemetery.
But the City cannot afford to fully maintain the cemeteries. All three are nearly full, which means there is little income to be gained from selling plots. At the same time, maintenance costs continue to grow, draining the city’s general fund in the process.
“The City provides a community service with the cemeteries,” said Sonoma Mayor Pro Tem Ken Brown. “But we’re not in the money-making end of it. We don’t provide cremations, mortuary services, caskets, and so on.”
In 2008, trying to deal with the $90,000 deficit caused by maintaining the cemeteries, the Sonoma City Council considered selling them. But public sentiment ran high against the idea, and it was quickly abandoned.
The nonprofit organization Friends of Sonoma Cemeteries emerged from a series of city council meetings. Currently helmed by George McKale (Sonoma’s official city historian), the organization aims to “interpret, preserve and develop for public use” Sonoma’s three cemeteries.
“The goal behind it at the time,” said McKale, “was to assist the city with the cemeteries in various ways, including cleaning them up and providing regular maintenance. We thought if we could alleviate that burden, the city wouldn’t have to run a deficit.”
Trina Saldana was in the audience during one of the city council discussions about the cemetery, and she ended up joining Friends of Sonoma Cemeteries.
“I got involved because I spoke up at a city council meeting about my concerns,” she said. “Ken Brown approached me and invited me to become part of this group George McKale and he were forming.”
As she learned about the city’s financial difficulty in maintaining the cemeteries, Trina talked with her brothers, who offered to help. “It was a way to honor our father,” said John.
Jose Luis Saldana was only 44 when he died, but he left an indelible impression on his five children (the other two siblings are sisters Altagracia and Marina).
“I had just turned 18 when he died,” said Trina. “It was unexpected. He was such a loving father, an advocate for justice. He taught us that there was no shame in working hard.”
Jose Luis Saldana worked hard all his life. His parents emigrated from the Mexican province of Michoacan in the 1960s, settling in Sonoma to work in the vineyards. He attended Altimira Middle School and Sonoma Valley High School. On a visit back to Mexico he fell in love with a young beauty in the same village, courting her long distance for a year. The couple married in 1975 and had their first child in 1977.
Jose Luis worked Sonoma’s vineyards his entire life. As his own children grew up, they worked in the vineyards, too. “There was no other option,” Trina said. “That was the lifestyle we had, we needed to help our parents.”
But being poor didn’t stop Jose Luis from having dreams for his children and doing everything he could to encourage them.
“He always told us that we could do and be anything we wanted,” Trina said. “And he really wanted his girls to be strong individuals and independent. Now one of my sisters is a doctor, and the second is an engineer working at Boeing.”
Trina, who works as an advocate for people with disabilities at Disability Rights California, will soon return to school to earn a legal degree.
Jose estimated that Llano Landscape will provide services worth about $16,000 this year.
“But we are happy to do this because our father is buried here,” he said, “and because it’s a gift to the town and the people we love. We want to contribute. We don’t have much in the way of resources, but this is the way we can give. Our hard work is what we can give, and we are happy to give it.”