The house at 14 Darling Road on Hilton Head Island didn’t look anything like the pristine ones Mario Martinez was used to landscaping.
But that’s where he found himself on a day in March 2015, after turning onto the dirt driveway from William Hilton Parkway, his pickup truck sagging in and out of the north-end road’s deep trenches.
Through his windshield, he surveyed the one-story, stucco house, which showed every one of its 47 years. The yard was littered with musty old furniture, broken glass and trash — all laid on top of damp festering carpets. To one side, a jungle of bushes and vines wrestled with a chain-link fence.
That, Mario thought, is where his wife would plant her new garden.
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This was to be his and his family’s new home. It’s all he could afford now that his neighborhood, Chimney Cove, was being sold to new owners. They were forcing out the 40 families who lived there — all of them Hispanic and most working in Hilton Head’s tourism and hospitality industry. That included Mario, owner of the landscaping company, Garden Angel.
Many Hilton Head workers have moved to Bluffton and beyond in recent years where it’s cheaper to live. Rent and mortgage payments on Hilton Head Island are 9 percent higher than the national average and at least 30 percent more expensive than in Greenville, Columbia or Myrtle Beach, according to an annual cost-of-living index compiled by the S.C. Department of Commerce.
But some island workers, like Mario, 39, are fighting to stay on the island. Moving to Bluffton would just feel wrong.
“I don’t know anything about Bluffton,” Mario said, who moved from Mexico about 18 years ago. “It’s changing every day. When I see the sign to Hilton Head, I’m home already.”
And with that in mind, he signed a year lease on the four-bedroom home on Darling Road for $1,300 per month — up to 65 percent of what he brings home in a typical month. The price was a shock after the $750 monthly rent he was used to paying the last 10 years at Chimney Cove, one of the island’s original workforce housing communities located just outside of Palmetto Dunes.
But the units in Chimney Cove had crumbled in recent years as the owners looked to sell. Mario suspected the purchase of the neighborhood would mean eviction for Chimney Cove’s residents — a fear that was confirmed in December.
It was time for a new beginning somewhere else on his beloved island.
“It's a nice home,” thought Mario as he surveyed the Darling Road home . “It just needs taking care of.”
From coast to coast
Good humor comes naturally to Martinez.
Heavy, round cheeks support his steady smile. And when he laughs, usually at himself, his shoulders shake.
The son of a salesman, he was just a boy when he learned how charm and manners could help close a deal.
“Nobody wants to see an angry face,” he says.
By 10, Martinez was riding the family’s donkey to the closest major road, then busing the rest of the way to coastal Veracruz, where he would buy sodas, snacks and other essentials to sell door-to-door in his village.
Other days, he would tag along with his father in the fields — where the man had done most of his work since moving the family from Mexico City — or chase after the night's meal with his brothers. The armadillos and rabbits would burrow into the dirt to escape the boys’ hands and knives.
Martinez loved being outside, but he was also practical, and remembered that his father’s life was easier in the city. So he studied business and administration in college, envisioning himself a professional salesmen.
He never finished the degree.
In February 1999, a friend convinced him to move to South Carolina, where tobacco farmers in Lynchburg were paying planters well for a few weeks’ work.
By that fall, Mario was traveling to landscaping jobs between Florida and Delaware. He wasn’t sure if it was normal to make the 30-hour round trips — “It was my first time” — but the work didn’t last.
On one trip, his truck broke down on I-95 just outside Hardeeville. Needing money to fix it, he and his friends ventured into Beaufort County where, in a bittersweet twist, there was plenty of work to be had. Hurricane Floyd had turned Hilton Head into a landscaper’s dream.
Sharing the dream
In the early 90s, living and working on Hilton Head was relatively cheap, if not glamorous, for immigrants.
Martinez shared a two-bedroom apartment in Chimney Cove with seven other men, who slept on mattresses and couches and spent their free Sundays outside, where there was room to breathe.
He met a girl, Anastacia Hipolito, in the kitchen at Old Oyster Factory on Marshland Road, and asked her to spend that Saturday at the mall in Savannah.
She said yes.
Later, they married and moved to an apartment into a tiny, efficiency apartment in Woodhaven Villas off Pope Avenue. When Mario Jr. was born 12 years ago, they moved to Cotton Hope on Dillon Road.
Anastacia cleaned as many homes as she could between her restaurant job, finally saving enough to send for her 6-year-old daughter, Monserrat, in Acapulco.
Mario moved his family back to Chimney Cover where they could afford another bedroom. But this time, Mario’s home had a woman’s touch. They painted the walls dark red and Anastacia kept the space clean and beautiful, filling the walls with trinkets, photos and paintings.
Their numbers grew — Hermione was born 11 years ago, Nicky six years after that. And Mario learned that even with six people — along with Chicharito the Chihuaha and Delilah the Shih Tzu — his cramped apartment had enough room.
It had room for joy.
While his family was growing, Martinez was gaining skills and sharpening his business sense.
He could design and lay pavers in a driveway, recommend the right plants to ward off hungry deer and fix an irrigation problem with a trip to the hardware store and his own ingenuity.
One week about nine years ago, he asked a waitress at a restaurant to spread the word that he was free for landscaping jobs on Sundays, his only day off.
Her parents, a couple of teachers who’d just retired to Sea Pines, bit.
Mario and Anastacia drove their pickup to the house toting a push lawn mower and some other cheap tools. They spruced the front yard and planned out trees, bushes and flowers to make it pop on Club Course Drive.
The quality of the couple’s work, and their ethic, impressed Donna and Don Jones.
A few years later, after dozens of visits from Mario, Donna Jones wrote a Christmas letter to thank the landscaper for his service.
“Mario, you’re like our garden angel because you’ve made our house so pretty,” it read.
His company had a name.
“Next thing I know, here’s his truck,” Donna Jones said with a laugh, recalling the day Mario drove up with a new logo on the side of his pickup.
The same image was stitched on his new, red T-shirt — a tiny, winged man pushing a lawn mower.
Christmas at Chimney Cove smells like pazole verde.
The soup of tomatillos, onions and chiles simmers on an electric stove in Mario’s apartment alongside pots of tomale sauce and dozens of fresh corn tortillas grilled flat on the ceramic burners.
Anastacia’s specialty, the Acapulco-style pazole, elevates nutty hominy and finely diced chicken and pork with a long list of spices. She’s the only one in Chimney Cove who knows how to make the traditional dish, popular in her home state of Guerrero on the southern Pacific coast of Mexico.
She left her home about 17 years ago, leaving behind her daughters, 1-year-old Monserrat and an 8 year old who she hasn’t been able to see since. But each Christmas, her apartment feels a little closer than 2,200 miles from home.
Multicolored lights hang from the tan, vinyl siding and pitched roof, giving off a rainbow glow that rivals the effect of her vibrant garden. And Spanish music booms from stereos as neighbors march the street, house to house, until they finally settle into mismatched chairs in front yards and at dining tables to talk and feast.
It’s Mario’s favorite time of year, and he’s proud to share his neighborhood. He invites his first clients, the Jones, who the Martinez’ once gave Don a Western-style belt stitched with his name, and to Donna, a handmade, traditional Mexican dress, embroidered pillowcases and a pair of slippers.
In return, the Jones’ brought books, toys and clothes for the children.
They always come with empty stomachs.
“When you get to Mario’s house, you’re gonna eat,” Don Jones says.
Come January, the neighborhood returns to normal, and it’s less easy to ignore the changes years of neglect have wrought on every home in the neighborhood — Monserrat recalls drywall Swiss-cheesed by termites, ceilings that leak in every room and a moldy smell that lingers despite Anastacia’s cleaning regimen.
The roaches diving in and out of cracks were the worst.
But they also made it easier to drive away from the community one warm day last March.
Mario used his humor to get through it.
“It felt like leaving something behind,” he says, his eyes already crinkling as he prepares to deliver the punch line. “It was my cats. But I came back and picked them up.”
Anastacia was more stoic about the move to Darling Road. She’d hated the way they had lived, sticking pots and bowls under leaks and chasing bugs from the kitchen.
But she was wary about the new home too. When she arrived, she bee-lined to the bathroom, armed with bleach.
“She's a little picky,” Mario says with a laugh. “She likes things clean.”
After that, Anastacia hung a picture of the Virgin Mary on the wall. The rest of the decorations cascaded from boxes into display cases, windows and walk hooks.
Trophies and mementos of Hermione’s soccer games. Photos of toothy toddler grins. And for luck, a garland of plastic garlic by the door.
The rising cost of Hilton Head
The Martinez family has managed to fill their new, larger home to the brim.
On Father’s Day, there was no room at the cluttered table for Mario so he stood to dole out IHOP pancakes, Burger King breakfast sandwiches and fresh tamales. They washed it down with orange juice and champurrado, a corn-based chocolate drink.
Dressed for his day off, Martinez wore a black Superman T-shirt tucked into a leather belt embroidered with rangers and horses.
Still, there’s room to breathe and fleeting quiet moments between the clamour of 6-year-old Nicky — who likes to kick his big sister and takes off running — and the dogs, the parakeets on the sunny screened porch and the chickens and ducks in their coop.
It helps that he and Anastacia can retreat to their own garden as well.
The sprawling, wild bed is a monument to others’ castoffs. The cracked and weathered ceramic figurines and wilting plants that Mario inherits from his clients find new homes with Anastacia, who’s welcomed each one since her husband brought home the first: a pretty, kneeling geisha.
Everything, that is, but the second flattop grill Mario trucked home.
Anastacia quickly dismissed it, pointing to an even bigger grill Mario keeps under an overhang. But on June 18, the old appliance still sits on the edge of the garden, next to a Budweiser bucket, a Winnie the Pooh flag and a miniature street lamp.
If the family is lucky, she’ll have to start over one more time.
Mario wants to own a property on Wild Horse Road, a clear space where he can put a trailer or build a home of his own. To make it work, the family has been eating a lot more meals of rice and beans, and they won’t be planning any more trips to Walt Disney World in Orlando.
The new house also means that Mario probably won’t be able to help his older children pay for college.
Monserrat knows that. She started working long shifts at Starbucks this summer, her last before graduation..
“You just have to keep saving, I guess. That's just the way it is,” Mario says. “Eventually, it's going to happen.”
Waiting for his time
A few days before July 4, Mario and a small crew arrive at a Sea Pines home to spruce the yard and trim back palms.
One of his workers is a graphic designer and professor from Mexico, who’s never gardened a day in his life. Miguel Angel Lopez, 44, says he doesn't have a garden or a lawn outside his home, just dirt and concrete.
But Lopez and Mario need each other. It could take more than 100 bales of pine straw to fill in the home's expansive landscaping, which stretches from the front yard to a pool in the back.
And it's never been harder for Mario to maintain a crew of just a dozen people to call on any given day because so many of his former employees have moved off the island. Most of them used to be just a few doors away at Chimney Cove, which after extensive renovations, is now home to seasonal housing for international workers.
They work through the hottest hours of the day. Martio doesn't wear gloves because his rough hands are used to the sharp edges of the bundled grass, and he keeps a knife on his belt to slash palm leaves off at their base.
After 18 years, he’s used to getting up at 5 or 6 a.m. to spend the whole day in the island’s gated communities, helping keep homes of luxury looking their best. By 7 p.m., he should be heading home to the north end, and his own version of paradise. But for now, there are still dozens of bales to unload and plenty of pine straw dunes to smooth.
Martinez’ plants his shovel again and again along the driveway, creating a neat edge for his work. Metal scrapes sharply against concrete.
“When other people drive by and say, ‘It looks nice.’ Well, I did it. So that's one thing. I can have pride,” he said. “We just have to wait for our time, I guess.”