Sal remembers : Michael Bronner talks with Salvador Hernandez about his many years with Dr. Bronner’s
Salvador Hernandez has been with Dr. Bronner’s the longest of any employee, family or otherwise. He was the plant foreman for many years, and even raised his family on the premises of the old Escondido soap plant, in an adjacent house that would later serve as the head corporate offices. He currently mentors the latest crop of plant supervisors, exercises enough to make a boxing coach proud, and enjoys spending time with his girlfriend and grandchildren.
Where did you grow up and what did you do before you came to America?
I grew up in Michoacán, in a small village called Chavinda. My father was a field worker growing corn and beans, and I worked with him since I was 5 years old. I finished high school and then got permission from my dad to work in my uncle’s grocery store. I didn’t know anything about a grocery store but I learned a lot by working from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. six days a week. We didn’t have any adding machines or registers so you had to learn to do all the transactions in your head. The reason I came to America was to get enough money in two or three years to come back and open my own store.
How did you come to Escondido?
In 1970 I came up on the bus with a cousin of mine who was legal. He had a friend with a grocery store in Oxnard, and said he could give me a job right away. When we got to Tijuana, he left me with friends and said he’d be back in a week. Well, he didn’t come back. So these people, an older lady and her husband, felt sorry for me. I mean, it was my first time I left my hometown, you know, and Tijuana was scary.
Well, after some time I met my ex-wife. She was American and used to come down to Tijuana once a week to visit me, but then all of the sudden she says she doesn’t want to come down anymore. “You have to cross, you have to cross,” she kept telling me. So we paid this guy $30 to cross me over, and it only took an hour.
How did you get introduced to my grandfather?
Every Friday Dr. Bronner used to have a lecture. All the employees would be invited, and he would talk about his labels and other things. After the lecture he used to take everyone to dinner. My mother-in-law at the time worked for him and packed all the powders he used, like barley malt sweetener, carrot calcium, and protein seasoning, so I went along with her.
Dr. Bronner asked me where I was from and how did I come across and all that. He asked me what I could do and I said anything. How about driving a truck? I said, Well, I don’t know how to drive a truck but I can learn. I said, my father-in-law, he’s a truck driver. He can teach me. Dr. Bronner says OK, so then, the following Monday I went to the plant with my father-in-law and away we went.
What were some formative memories you have of my grandfather?
“I’m blind and you’re pretty smart,” he told me. “And I want to help you but you’ve got to help me. I’m going to give you good advice: Don’t ever steal anything from me because sooner or later I’ll find out. Whenever you need something, whenever you want something, come to me and I’ll help you out, but don’t do anything sneaky.” “You don’t really have to tell me that,” I said, “because, you know, thank God I don’t have a habit. And it’s funny because my uncle told me the same thing you’re telling me.”
How did you rise through the ranks to become the plant manager?
When I started working down at the plant, it was just people from Mexico and hardly any of them spoke English, so Phyllis, the manager at the time, started using me as a translator. Little by little she started teaching me to do the paperwork and giving me more responsibility. Sometimes when she was going to be late she would put me in charge to open the gate and tell the guys what to do and stuff like that.
After she retired Dr. Bronner hired another woman, but then a few months later he had to let her go. She was selling the used metal, plastic, and cardboard drums, but wasn’t telling Dr. Bronner and taking the money for herself. Later she was in charge of payroll. All of a sudden Dr. Bronner asks me one day, “You know all the people who work here, I want you to name them to me.” So I named them and his bookkeeper wrote them all down, and he had me check the list. “Anybody else?” he asked and I said, “No.” “Are you sure?” he asks. “Yeah,” I say. You know what she was doing? She was paying her boyfriend by putting him on the payroll but he wasn’t even working here. So after he let her go I asked him, “Now what, are you going to hire somebody else to replace her?” and he says, “No. You’re going to do it.”
I know that you shared a special bond with my grandfather and almost thought of him like your father as well. What made you so close?
Well, he used to tell me stories about when he was young. How it was when he first came to America and got a job in some factory in Chicago. How he used to sleep in cardboard boxes and his pillow was filled with plastic scraps. And then how people, American people, would treat him. Sometimes they would call him names, and if somebody was eating an apple and they didn’t want it anymore, they would throw it at him. So he understood the way sometimes we are treated when we come from Mexico, the names we are called. Some people, they’re racist, they don’t like us. They tell us, “Why don’t you go back where you come from?”
All of us that come from other countries, we come for a dream, to come to America for a better life, for a better everything. We hope that things will get better in our own country, in our hometown, and we can go back. And I’m sure the same thing happened to him. Yeah, he was treated real bad. Just like us.
Any advice for us?
You can’t just live to work or else you’re going to just grind yourself down. You’ve got to give yourselves a break. I’ve got lots of experience — you know you can talk to me whenever you want. I’m your Uncle Sal!