Following the Melons

Angel Castro used to be one of the thousands of migrant workers who pass through Missouri every summer. Now he's trying to interrupt their kids' journey.

 let us carry our roots
with us all the time
let us roll them up and
use them as our pillow
-- from "The Promised Land" by Francisco X. Alarcon

KENNETT, MO -- The trail cools at the crossroads. Angel Castro stops the car and squints in three directions. Finally he spots his quarry, its pale-yellow and mossy-green stripes split wide open, its rosy entrails spilling onto the dirt road. He turns left, following the erratic dotted line of watermelons that have fallen off the truck. When he can smell the fruit's sweetness in the hot air, he'll know the pickers are just a field or two away.

Born 34 years ago in Mexico, Angel's as seasoned as any old-timer in the Missouri Bootheel. Short and sturdy, he has a face that puts people at ease, the Aztec nose too broad and flat to poke into anyone's business, the smile so real it tilts the corners of his warm black eyes. There's not an ounce of judgment in those eyes. When Angel was 15, he, too, picked melons in these fields, following the crop north from Texas and arriving in time for Missouri's midsummer harvest. At 17, he became a crew manager, learned everything there was to know about Bootheel crops. Now he walks both sides of the field, speaking the language of the Anglo farmers as fluently as his native Spanish. Officially he's a recruiter, looking for kids who are stuck in hot fields or rusted trailers when they could be in air-conditioned migrant summer school. But farmers call Angel when they need 10 workers to chop pumpkins in Arkansas; the migrant school calls him when a little girl gets pinkeye and they need to find her family; desperate workers call him when they're stranded on the highway.

Driving the tractor is easy, compared with pitching melons.
Jennifer Silverberg
Driving the tractor is easy, compared with pitching melons.

The kids don't know to call. So he finds them.

He glides off the road as soon as he spots the dark-shirted figures far out in the field, their bandanas dots of red, their arms blurs. Waving, he makes his way across rows plowed straight as ribbing. Up ahead, lines of five men stretch out straight on both sides of the tractor. Every few seconds, one of the men at the far ends picks up a melon and tosses it to the man next to him, who sends it on toward the flatbed. The melons stay in constant motion, their arcs drawing a lilting, rhythmic line in the air as the tractor creeps forward.

"Hola!" Angel calls once he's in earshot. Recognizing his voice, they wave back like men on a desert island. Continuing toward them, he takes a minute to squat, roll one of the melons over and gauge it. Have the green stripes darkened and the yellow "opened up," spreading like stretchmarks over the fruit's swollen middle? Is the melon fully ripe, caught in that brief window between rawness and rot? He rolls it another half-turn, nods, then takes out a penknife and slices end to end four times, fast as a Japanese chef. The fruit is perfect.

He straightens and keeps walking, the melon rind cool in his hand. Maybe he'll find some kids he can talk into summer school.

Angel's first glimpse of the world was Rio Bravo, a dry, dusty border town in Tamaulipas, Mexico. His father, Zefrino Castro, was a bricklayer -- never went to school at all but could tell people in seconds how many bricks and bags of concrete he'd need to build them a house. Angel's mother, Juana Castro, came from farther south; her people were ejidatarios, "little farmers" who still worked the 40 acres Mexico's president had given poor families back in 1937. They lived bare, day to day, but never dreamed of leaving; it was in the north where Angel's father tasted American money, American stuff, American hope. He first crossed to the U.S. in the bracero temporary-work program, started in World War II because the U.S. had lost its own men's strong arms. When the legal program stopped, he kept coming each summer, walking through the desert for three days, shooting snakes along the way.

Finally, in 1978, Zefrino managed to bring Juana and their nine children with him. Angel heard his father breathe a long "ahhhh" as they crossed the Progresso Bridge into a land that was softer and greener, its trees leafier than scrubby mesquite, its highways smoother than Mexico's potholed roads.

The Castros settled in Edinburg, in Appalachia-poor east Texas. They had a phone, and the younger kids ran scared the few times it rang. Angel, 11, was fascinated by the electricity, delighted that his school served breakfast and lunch, hurt to have no friends. "Back then, it wasn't cool to be Mexican," he says. "Teachers got mad at you if you spoke Spanish." Stung by their scorn, he learned English in a few months and, as the oldest son, became the family translator. "You grow faster, because everybody's depending on you."

In 1980, the Castros drove to El Paso to pick Vidalias for Sonic's onion rings. In 1982, all nine kids jammed into the back of a pickup and the family drove up to Michigan to harvest blueberries. Angel, now 15, preferred pitching watermelons, and when he saw a highway sign for Kennett, Mo., on the way back, he perked up. Wasn't that where their cousins worked the melon fields? His dad swung onto the exit ramp.

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