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 is listening to her story so intently that he jumps when a staffer sticks her head in the door. "There's a family here that just walked three hours from Clarkton," she murmurs. He glances out into the waiting room, where a woman sits slumped in a chair, ballcap over her face, her arms crossed on the bar of a baby stroller. Both she and the infant are fast asleep in the air conditioning; her husband holds a glass of water for their two toddlers, whose high energy has slowed to molasses in the heat.

Farm workers aren't magically immune to heat; an ambulance bumped its way into the fields just the week before, after an older man collapsed from dehydration. "They don't want to go to the doctor; they will work anyway and not tell anyone they are sick," explains Angel. "There is a saying, 'Mexicanos no se rajan' -- Mexicans never give up." At the clinic, doctors try to counter this fierce pride by urging, "Do it for your family." But the work's for their families.

Angel's cell phone rings: It's Cheryl, alerting him to a family that's stranded in Portageville, 50 miles away. He turns to go but is stopped halfway to the door: A mother wants to know whether her two girls, who have asthma, can go to summer school instead of working in the fields. "Their chests tighten up with the heat and the pollen," she explains, her own face tight with worry. "Danielle gets migraines so bad she cries."

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

Angel smiles at Danielle, a shy, thin 11-year-old with legs as long as raft poles. Danielle's mom, who was 11 when she came to the U.S. from Reynosa, Mexico, and started picking, has worked the fields for 21 years now. This year the family has been in South Carolina, Virginia (no work), Tennessee (pumpkins for Halloween), Florida and Georgia (cucumbers and eggplants) and, now, Missouri. "In Georgia, we worked in the rain -- my feet were all wrinkled," says the mother, riffling through a neat plastic wallet of ID so Angel can write them a one-time food voucher, good for the first week a family arrives in Missouri. "Now the truck is messed up -- when you're driving, it goes to the side -- and Armando -- that's my husband -- has high blood pressure and chest pains. We try to save money; I say, 'Let's work late so we can earn more,' but the minute we have $200 or $300 saved, something happens. It's like witchcraft, like we have a curse on us.

"Sometimes I just want to give up," she admits. "But when Armando sees me like that, he starts getting sicker, and I start fighting with the kids. If we could just get the truck fixed, or" -- her real dream -- "stay in one place."

Danielle thinks it would feel more like home if they could just have Whiskers, the improbable Chihuahua/German shepherd pup they found in Florida and had to leave behind. Danielle's eldest sister wrote to Montel Williams, asking for a house.

They haven't heard back yet.

Each member of the family tells a part of the story, and Angel hears them out without interruption. By the time he's finished their voucher, the mother's face is smooth again, her voice light as she teases Danielle about how well she'll do in summer school. Armed with phone numbers and information, they leave. Angel's mind flips back to the family in Portageville, and he heads again for the door. He stops only for a second, to arch an eyebrow at translator Minerva Perez, whose desk is overflowing with fluffy oversized tissue-paper flowers. "They're for Fiesta," she informs him.

Kennett's annual harvest festival is still a month away, and they both know it. But Minerva would rather spend her dinner hour this way than go outside.

She's had enough of the heat.

Born in Angel's hometown, Rio Bravo, she sneaked across the border when she was 10. She came with her two sisters, ages 9 and 11, and they worked as live-in maids in Texas. Each made $5 a week; the three sent $10 home every 15 days to their parents and six brothers and sisters. Four years later, Minerva switched to cutting cabbage but lived in fear of getting caught: "The INS officers used to think I was a boy because I was wearing my hair short!"

Legal or not, after years of bending between cornstalks as high as her ears, whacking a machete at the weeds' pesticide-soaked roots and longing for a place to wash her hands, she grew feisty. "One time I just walked off the field, because the farmer wanted us to work while he was still spraying. I said, 'Do you know this is against the law?'"

Fifteen years ago, Minerva got her legal papers. Asked what she misses about Mexico, she retorts, "Besides my childhood, which I didn't have much of?" Then her voice softens. "The freedom. We had a little wood house across the railroad in a bayou, and we were poor, but we were free. When I became a resident alien, it was like I became a slave to the clock: responsibilities, obligations, work, work, work. There are a lot of materialistic thoughts here, and they affect everyone who comes, because if you have something, people will treat you nice, but if you don't have all that, you are just a bum.

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