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.

Two years later, Angel was running a crew in Kennett, using his fluent English to explain the farmer's terms to the migrants and coax 12 tired lonely men to work hard, get along, stay sober, stay the season. For Angel, they'd do it. He had a way of draining the tension, replacing it with his own sweet calm. He looked out for them, too, reminding them that the farmers needed them as much as they needed the work. This was the '80s, before no-till farming, genetically modified seeds and superpotent chemicals, and farmers were so desperate for help that they tried to steal each other's crews. But Angel's dad and cousins ran crews, too, and the migrants all came from east Texas and knew each other. If a farmer wanted watermelons pitched, he had to talk to the Castros.

Angel graduated from high school -- all nine kids did, at their father's insistence -- and even went to technical college in Texas for a while, studying construction. But familiarity pulled like a magnet, and he wound up in the fields, picking apples, peaches, eggplants, cucumbers and melons; working the cotton gin; sowing tree seedlings by the thousands, often leading two crews at a time. He traveled from Florida to the Pacific Northwest, sleeping on cold, wet pine needles, following each year's chances.

It was language that swung a door open: The administrator at the Kennett Migrant Health Clinic -- the only agency for miles with a bilingual staff -- drummed Angel into translating for her. Seeing how easily he moved between established Bootheel culture and the Hispanic influx, Rural Missouri Inc. soon snapped him up to coordinate job-training and college-assistance programs. Now he works for Missouri's Title 1-C Migrant Education Center, which uses federal funds to boost migrant families' chances for education and a decent life.

On a ladder at sunrise, picking peaches in Campbell, Mo.
Jennifer Silverberg
On a ladder at sunrise, picking peaches in Campbell, Mo.
Cheryl White drills Jorge (who's in charge while his parents pick corn), Amy and Gabby.
Jennifer Silverberg
Cheryl White drills Jorge (who's in charge while his parents pick corn), Amy and Gabby.

Angel covers the eastern half of the state, heading north to find families working in chicken factories or city landscaping firms and crisscrossing the Bootheel like a traveling salesman. If he used a roadmap, he could stick flags in it: peaches mainly in Campbell, sweet corn around East Prairie, cotton and watermelons around Kennett and, dotted everywhere, tomatoes, soggy fields of rice, bright-green soybeans, weedy field corn for seed and dark, grassy milo for feed.

What he knows for sure? That about 5,000 migrants come to Missouri each summer, and three-fourths of them work the rich farmland trapped between Arkansas and Kentucky. "Throw any seed and it grows," says Angel, awed by this drained gumbo swampland that's hotter than the rest of Missouri, its air close and humid, its storms violent. Floodways ribbon the farms, but before these government-engineered precautions, the water used to rise halfway up the cypress and tupelo trees. People couldn't even give their dead a proper burial: Graves went on stilts, and only the passion and the grief were buried.

Back in Rio Bravo, a death meant a week of weeping and storytelling and ritual, maybe a mariachi band snaking a procession to the cemetery.

Here in southern Missouri, people cry in private.

On a blazing-hot Wednesday in mid-July, Angel's boss meets him at one of the big melon fields between Kennett and Senath, stepping high over the raised tangle of vines to follow, less surefootedly, his path. A former schoolteacher, Cheryl White has red-gold hair, a warm heart and a patter funny enough for standup. She's been teaching Angel the dug-in ways of the Bootheel and the complexities of educational bureaucracy. In return, he's provided entrée to the migrant world, introducing her to the kids who need testing or tutoring or language drills. They can no longer imagine doing their jobs without each other.

Cheryl stops to wipe sweat from her stinging eyes. Then she sees the young boy driving the tractor, and her fine-boned Scottish face takes on purpose. "He's 12," she predicts as soon as she reaches Angel's side. "Has to be, or it's illegal. So if we ask him, he'll be 12." She raises her voice, and its soft Bootheel twang stretches out flat: "Hi! What's your name?"

Name's Pete, and his dad taught him to drive a tractor; they've come from Florida, and he swears he's in high school down there. "You going to go to college?" Cheryl asks casually. "You know most of it can be free, don't you?" As the tractor passes, she calls, "Stay away from the women!"

"Worst thing that can happen," she mutters to Angel as soon as the boy's out of earshot. "If they get a girl pregnant, they won't make it to college." He just nods; they say these things to each other every day.

They follow the trailer half-a-mile to the melon-packing station. When they pull up, workers are crowding around the just-arrived flatbed, waxy rolls of orange-red produce labels streaming from their fingers. A few men climb on top and clamber across the fruit, stickering willy-nilly. In seconds, the melons are rolling onto a conveyor belt that runs straight into the bowels of a semi. "This grower'd normally have about 100 loads this season, 1,800 melons each," notes Angel, "but it hasn't rained, and the melons had some kind of disease." (Last year was even worse: A bumper crop in Texas dropped prices so low, Missouri farmers let their melons rot on the vine.)

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