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.

Angel agrees; he's tried to raise his three sons with the discipline he learned in Rio Bravo. It's harder here; he wants to give them more, because he can. And because he and his wife work such long hours, they're not home to practice the old ways.

The migrant summer school was started for that very reason back in 1986. Not only did the kids need a better foothold in school, their parents ached with worry every time they left them. The rationale was clinched when a little girl scalded her whole body with boiling water as she tried to make lunch. Now there's summer school, and the bus makes good time because the kids are always outside early, waiting.

Angel and Cheryl drive back to Malden, stopping to visit the larger summer school. They arrive at recess, and a dozen basketballs, footballs and neon-pink beach balls fly above their heads as they enter. Most of the kids are running and laughing, but, over on the sidelines, a few worried little girls are clustered around a sobbing 3-year-old. Recognizing one of his million nieces, Angel scoops her up in his arms. Simone doesn't want to go to class without her big brother, Hugo, who is 5 and therefore in a different group. Migrant siblings cling to each other like barnacles because there's rarely a way to make lasting friendships outside the family circle. Angel listens gravely, then sets Simone down and whispers a few words. She swipes at the tears with a sticky fist, gulps and takes her teacher's hand.

Angel Castro at his store, Tienda -- his mind a thousand miles away
Jennifer Silverberg
Angel Castro at his store, Tienda -- his mind a thousand miles away

The teacher's been waiting calmly; in the fields, these kids are angel-quiet, but at school, a few tears are shed every day.

At school, the adults have time to dry them.

Back in the car, Angel takes a long swig of flat, warm Coke. In the Bootheel, people carry bottles of pop or water everywhere -- especially after two weeks of 100-degree temperatures and no rain. The farmers have been saying for weeks that all they need is another inch of rain and the harvest will be ample. Maybe not 213-pound watermelons like the one that broke a world record just north of here, but ample. Instead, the fields lie parched and the huge, expensive irrigation pipes swing like trapezes, spraying where they can.

Angel drives fast for about 10 minutes, the long unbroken stretches of cotton and raggedy field corn blurring green outside his window. Then he turns onto one of the county's hundred lookalike dirt roads and heads out past East Prairie, driving deep into sweet-corn country, far from any town. One of the program's teachers is making a home visit somewhere out here, drilling phonics with migrant kids who live too far for the schoolbus to fetch them. While Angel visits the corn farms, Cheryl wants to check in with the teacher.

They find Jamie Dacus' red car parked outside a gray tin barracks with concrete floors, rusted metal bed frames and a single set of bathrooms for the entire barracks. The family didn't bring much in the way of bed linens (migrants have only what fits in their car, and pillows rarely make the cut) but the uncovered mattresses look fairly clean, a window-unit air conditioner is humming and, Jamie says, the family seems quite content. Her private battle's been with the flies; left home alone, the kids forget to shut the screen door tight, and Jamie has had to teach them to cover food with upside-down plates before the flies cover it for them. She has also brought them a can opener, after seeing the family's little girl opening a can with a butcher knife and a hammer.

"They don't have a TV, so they're my best readers," she remarks. "They eat the books up. And they beat me at memory games; they're obviously intelligent. But every child I've taught this summer is at least two grade levels behind in reading." She pulls out their new favorite, The Horror at Camp Jellyjam. She promised she'd read one chapter aloud every visit, but they always beg for more.

Another family's little girl seemed bratty, pouting and refusing to play word games -- until Jamie realized she didn't know what sounds some letters make. "If only I had more than a month," she says under her breath.

Before heading home for dinner, Angel turns in at a strip mall and parks in front of the Kennett Family Clinic, the cramped storefront where he used to translate. At least 60 migrant patients stream through every day; evenings, the waiting room is packed as tightly as a crate of corn. "The average lifespan for a migrant worker is 49 years," Angel says over his shoulder, sidestepping a pile of cantaloupes, watermelons and peaches someone has brought for the director. "A lot of workers have pesticide poisoning," he adds, his voice dropping to a whisper. "But if you tell them that, they won't come back. They're afraid the farmers will find out and they'll lose their jobs."

Whole families show up at the clinic with parasitic infections picked up in crowded, unsanitary conditions. Women come in and whisper that they'd like to go on birth control but that their husbands see the pill as permission for promiscuity. In late June, one of the translators was called to the hospital to assist a woman who'd just delivered a baby and was now drinking the baby's formula and refusing to sign the birth certificate. Nobody could fathom her behavior, until the translator realized the woman had been on the road 20 hours, driving from Florida, and gone straight into labor, arriving at the hospital too late for a spinal block. Afterward, she'd gotten right up, sleep-deprived to the point of psychosis, incomprehensible English flying over her head, and threw her clothes on under her gown, refusing a sedative and screaming, "I don't take drugs!"

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