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.

At break time, the energy shuts off like a blown fuse. Workers collapse in the shade, and Angel walks over to talk to Fernando Lopez, a tall man with a lean, intelligent face who teaches elementary school back in Mexico. "He's always liked to work," relays Angel, translating fast. "The economy in Mexico is not stable. The kids think you come to the U.S. to sweep money. He tells them it's not like that." Angel asks how Lopez encourages them to stay in school. When the teacher answers, Angel's eyes darken. "He says the way the economy is in Mexico, it's really hard for him to tell the kids to stay in school. Where he lives is close to the mountains, and sometimes they don't even go to elementary school. Sometimes their fathers come to the U.S. for a better living and forget about them, start a new family here and let the other one go."

The farmer who runs the melon operation allows photos but won't give his name for publication. "Talk to Angel; Angel knows everything," he says, and lopes off. "There's a few farmers nobody wants to work with -- if you drink too much water, they get mad," says Angel. "But this one's real nice. We've been trying to figure out ways to improve housing for the migrant workers, and he comes to all our meetings." Even the decent farmers turn paranoid, though, scorched alongside the rest by media "exposés" and well-intentioned activist campaigns. "This part of the country's sensitive about all that," Angel says dryly, explaining how big-city reporters swoop in, reformers and union organizers swoop in and everybody threatens and yells and writes melodrama about horrific conditions. Then they leave, and farmers stop offering any housing at all because they're afraid of the liability.

"Rent's real expensive here during summer," adds Angel. "They'll charge $120 a week for an old beat-up trailer, no window, no screens, no air, that rents for $150 a month in the winter. If you have more than four people, it's $50 apiece extra every week. If you lie, the landlord spies on you, tries to see how many people come home dirty and sweaty wearing ballcaps." No ordinances regulate housing in rural areas, and "the migrants won't complain," he finishes. "They say, 'There is no other place, and we don't want to cause any trouble.' More than anything else, they need the work."

Melons pitch and roll, but peaches float softly, submerged in a chilling  bath and then drifted over rollers.
Jennifer Silverberg
Melons pitch and roll, but peaches float softly, submerged in a chilling bath and then drifted over rollers.
Olga Castro's son Arturo plays at the Little Mexico trailer court.
Jennifer Silverberg
Olga Castro's son Arturo plays at the Little Mexico trailer court.

Thursday morning, Cheryl walks into the Migrant Education Center in Malden and finds Angel rescuing her fish. "You don't have to do that! You're gonna get all that nasty fish water all over you," she exclaims. He grins and continues stabilizing the tank, raking the rocks gently, trying not to disarrange this little world. Cheryl shakes her head.

They drive together to Kennett to visit the smaller of their two summer schools, hosted gratis in a church. The older kids are sitting around a long table, drawing "migrant life." "I'm going to stay here till I don't know when," an 8-year-old boy informs Angel. "His sister" -- he points to a boy across the table -- "gave me a shirt with bugs on it!"

Red ants they were, the proud mascots of Progresso, Texas. Hometowns matter a lot when you're gone from April till September. And with migrant families pouring into Kennett, looking for work, the days when everybody knew each other from east Texas are long gone. Many come from Florida, or Mexico -- this summer there's even a little boy from Puerto Rico. His name is Ebenezer, and he was stony-quiet the first week. But now they've borrowed storybooks to read and they've made piñatas and studied math and eaten lunch together every day and a nurse came to check their eyes and ears and some kids got eyeglasses for free and even Ebenezer's talking up a storm.

The bilingual-exchange teacher, Rene Orozco, wishes that nurse would come back. Pale, with a sweet face, he blinks rapidly behind his spectacles and explains that he is terribly sick to his tummy. He has eaten nothing but pizza and hamburgers in the four days since he arrived.

Cheryl wonders whether it could be stress -- Rene's wife will deliver their first child next month back in Guadalajara, and Cheryl is already busy planning a baby shower for them. But Rene clings to the food hypothesis, rubbing his stomach woefully. Cheryl makes him an appointment at the clinic, then offers him a taste of deep-fried Bootheel okra, so good it's bound to be medicinal. Too polite to refuse, he chews, winces and changes the subject.

"It is different to teach in this kind of program; the children are so smart," he says. "They are bilingual, they are getting both cultures and they get the knowledge really fast." What they can't do is pay attention, he adds, appalled by the U.S. bribe system. "I am not agreeable that every time they do something good we have to give them candies," he says, his voice sharpening. "They need more discipline, so wherever they go, people will receive them with gladness."

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