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.

"I will always feel like a migrant, always," she finishes, voice fierce. Then she looks up at the photo of her parents she keeps with her everywhere she goes, and her eyes well with tears. Reaching for a sheet of silky purple tissue paper, she swiftly interleaves it with hot pink and starts to fold, slowing her hand just in time to avoid tearing the layers. A jumbo trash bag sits at her feet, catching the flowers that, on Aug. 11, will brighten Kennett's American Legion hall. Everyone will dress up, and they'll dance to a Tejano band, swipe at a tiger piñata, cover Mexican bingo cards with bean counters, eat corn on the cob smeared with mayonnaise and chili powder. Every child will get a bookbag crammed with school supplies. Adults will win Wal-Mart TVs or 25-pound hams or paper bags of kitchen gadgets. They'll all relax, celebrate, remember. And the Anglos from town will join them.

The other waiting room at the clinic is even more crowded. Angel's sister, Olga Castro, bends over an appointment book, trying to find a time for a root canal on a little girl's baby tooth. The clinic only started offering dentistry this year, and it's already booked solid for the next three months. Tomorrow Olga must drive three children to Cape Girardeau so they can be anesthetized. "Their teeth are what we call 'all bombed out,' black all the way inside," she explains, wincing.

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

Olga's liquid brown eyes show instant sympathy, and a man could easily forget she's an Amazon. She was pitching watermelons the day she delivered her first son, dark-ringleted Arturo. She gave her ex-husband as good as she got before she finally left him. She ran a crew with her father, and after he had open-heart surgery, she took his place at the cotton gin. "It was kind of like a video game, loud with all the machines, and I'd be sitting way up about 15 feet, moving a joystick and sucking cotton into a big tube," she recalls. "But one day I was driving a forklift, and I was all the way inside a truck with the first four bales. The truck started moving; its air brakes failed. I dropped about five feet, and the propane tank was right behind me. It's a miracle it didn't blow up."

To Angel's delight, the forklift miracle convinced Olga to return to dental-assistant studies. Now, when she's not spraying and flossing, she does outreach, visiting undocumented migrants who don't dare risk their employer's wrath by coming to the clinic. A few months back, Olga managed to get into a tightly guarded migrant camp in a nearby town; she says she saw pesticide burns all over the men's bodies. "The farmer pays a coyote $1,500 per person to bring them here from Veracruz," she says, explaining that their illegal status keeps them virtual prisoners, easily cheated of their rights and vulnerable to coercion.

"I told them to leave at 3 a.m. and call me from the road, and they did," she continues. "But first they walked seven hours. So by the time they called, they didn't know where they were. I said, 'Read the street signs to me,' but they didn't even know what town they were in." Olga says one of the clinic translators went out looking but never found them.

Her voice is grim, but there's an odd nonchalance, too, and, beneath that, cold anger. Migrants get lost so very often. Mild-hearted Angel tiptoes around these issues so he doesn't lose access to their workers' children, but Olga speaks her mind.

"People get depressed a lot, but they won't admit it," she says, recalling one man who tried to cut his throat and another she took to the hospital with an anxiety attack after his girlfriend back in Mexico married someone else. Sometimes the enemy is pure loneliness; sometimes it's the alcohol a migrant thought was his friend. Sometimes the impossible demands of machismo twist their hearts and minds apart. But it's not only the men; when Olga worked at the cotton gin, she watched a girl walk right in front of a car, trying to get hit. "Why?" demanded Olga, running up to her. The girl shrugged helplessly, said she didn't know. She got into Olga's car, then tried to jump out. Olga grabbed a rope from the gin and tied their arms together. "Look, I'm going to take you to this church," she said, and drove straight to the Iglesia Evangelica Cristiani Espirituel, a tiny whitewashed oblong on the edge of the Little Mexico trailer court.

"That's the first thing we think of," she explains, "when something like that happens."

Overnight, the temperature free-falls from the 100s to 62 degrees, and the morning's dark, with cracks of lightning. Angel turns the ignition gingerly, still terrified of the Bootheel's violent storms. The farmers will get their inch of rainfall all at once, a week too late. And the fruit will rot even faster in the steamy heat that follows.

"A lot of people, this is the season they wait for, and everything depends on the weather," Angel worries aloud, his hands tight on the steering wheel. "They can make $100 a day, and if they work six days a week for seven weeks, that's $4,200; they can save a little, take it home to Mexico. But they can't let a day go by." Thunder rolls, and the skies let loose a torrent of rain, the drops pelting so hard the soft-leaved cotton plants bow almost to the ground. "For the crew leaders, this is nightmare weather," he adds. "When it rains, the single men in their crews have nothing to do." Unable to buy a movie ticket in English, make a friend in town or ask a local girl out on a date, they wander the aisles at Wal-Mart. Eventually they buy a six-pack of cheap beer and take it back to their trailers. They sit and drink and stare at the worn photos in their wallets.

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