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Barajas thrives in golf industry

10/14/2013 - Golf

Golf in America has many faces. Tiger Woods and the other men and women who play on the professional tours are the most prominent images of the game. To the casual observer, these players -- with the backing of corporate America -- are the essence of the sport, the engine that drives it forward.

To others, the picture is one of whiteness, elitism and privilege.

Yet none of those portrayals completely captures a game that each of us must see through the lens of our own backgrounds and experiences in the world.

These days, most of the faces of color around golf courses are the Hispanic people on the course maintenance crews that carefully manicure the greens and fairways.

For there to be an accurate portrait of golf in America -- a panoramic view of the game -- it must include these Hispanic men and women who comprise as much as 80 percent of the grounds crews at our more than 17,000 courses.

Rafael Barajas, the 50-year-old head superintendent at the Hacienda Golf Club in La Habra Heights, Calif., is one of these Hispanic faces.

Barajas's story is one of immigration and determination to succeed against great odds in an industry dominated mostly by white men.

The Golf Course Superintendent's Association of America doesn't track membership by ethnicity, but the Lawrence, Kan.-based organization estimates that Barajas is one of only 15 to 20 Hispanic certified golf course superintendents in the United States.

As an immigrant who arrived in the United States from Colima, Mexico, when he was 14 years old, Barajas knew just two words of English. He started his career in 1980 on Cinco de Mayo on the maintenance crew of a San Fernando Valley municipal course. Barajas had followed his brother into the profession and was a course superintendent by the time he was 20, in 1984, at the Recreation Park Golf Course in Long Beach, Calif.

From the very beginning, he loved the game.

"I got hooked on the game of golf," he said. "I wanted to play as much as possible. The more I moved up the ladder, the more opportunities I would have to play.

"Working on a golf course was the only way that I was going to get to play. I wasn't going to work in a factory."

Four years after his first job on a maintenance crew, Barajas became a course superintendent at the Recreation Park Golf Course in Long Beach, Calif, but he lacked any formal education in turfgrass management and agronomy.

After six years of professional development courses and seminars, he became a certified golf course superintendent in 1990.

"Once I became a golf course superintendent, I realized that education was important and I realized that I wasn't going to succeed without it," Barajas said. "Being Hispanic and having no formal education posed challenges, but I never had a chip on my shoulder.

"Back in the day, maybe being Hispanic was not thought of as a good thing. You had to work extremely hard to get opportunities."

Barajas believes that his ethnic heritage has been a great plus to advancement throughout his career.

After working at several courses, he landed the job at Hacienda in the mid-1990s by beating out 20 candidates for the position.

"It's been a real asset for me to be able to speak Spanish and connect with my crew," said Barajas, who oversees a staff of 28. "People want jobs, and they come here looking for a better way of life. They are willing to work and aren't afraid of tackling any kind of labor."

Through his efforts at advancement and openness to assist other Hispanics within the industry, Barajas has become an established leader within his profession.

"[Rafael's] professional path was different, although not unheard of, than others' in that he did not have a college education when he first became a golf course superintendent," said Pat Finlen, the interim general manager at the Olympic Club in San Francisco and the president of GCSAA. "He is a big advocate of professional development and creating opportunities for those who want a career in golf course management, which I believe comes from his career path."

Through the years, Barajas -- who is the only Hispanic member of the GCSAA board of directors -- has been witness to U.S. golf courses becoming largely dependent on Hispanic labor. These mostly male workers can earn between $9 and $15 an hour on average, according to Barajas, a significant upgrade from what they might earn in their home countries.

More than a half million U.S. Hispanics families depend on the landscape industry, which includes work on golf courses, for their livelihoods. According to a 2011 study commissioned by the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the landscape-and-lawn-care-services industry provides disproportionately more income to Latino households than other population groups.

Golf courses use the Federal H-2B seasonal visa program to secure legal employees when they cannot fill the jobs with American workers, who are less interested in the unskilled jobs.

Congress has capped seasonal visas at 66,000 per year. The number of these visas requested by golf facilities has gone down drastically since the industry requested 26,000 (7,700 for golf course maintenance positions) in 2006 during a more robust economy.

With a year-round golf season in Southern California, Barajas said he doesn't need to utilize the visa program to fill his staffing needs.

The Hispanic population in the U.S. is expected to triple by 2050 to 147 million from roughly 50 million. The children and grandchildren of Barajas' workers will come of age in a starkly different America than that of their grandparents.

For immigrants like Barajas, a job taking care of a golf course can put them on a journey to access the American dream.

"I am not sure where I would be without the golf industry," Barajas told Congress in 2010 during National Golf Day. "I know many other individuals who feel the same way.

"That industry has provided me a career and a means to provide a college education for four children."