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.

Flat, portable icons of home, photos mean the world to most migrant workers. The migrants' presence anywhere is temporary, their work anonymous. So they ham it up for a camera, treasuring any chance to see themselves as individuals, freeze a single moment in their fluid lives, express themselves.

Angel brakes as quickly as he dares on the slippery dirt road. He's just seen a group of his cousins waiting under trees on the edge of a watermelon farm. The grower told them to take a two-hour break, unpaid, because he didn't want the watermelons to get wet. A wet melon's rind softens, and if they rub against each other in the truck, they'll blacken. "If they're black and dirty, they won't sell as well as if they're clean and shiny," explains Angel. "Appearances," he adds wryly, "are everything."

Areli, 16, lights up when she sees Uncle Angel and nudges her mother, Aleida, out of a catnap. Areli's tired, too -- her pretty round face is smudged, and the deep-blue bandanna she chose to match her ballcap is soaking wet -- but she's young enough to think she might miss something if she shuts her eyes. She's picking for the first time this summer, so everything's new, and little of it pleases her. "You have to be fast; they have the watermelons in trailers, and you have to put the stickers on as fast as they go into the box, and your hands get tired, and your back, because you're bending down," she blurts. "But I want the money, and I want to help my parents. My mom's been coming here since before I was born."

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

Aleida understands just enough English to achieve irony. "My honeymoon was here," she inserts, pointing toward the middle of the field.

"Some people sing and whistle Tejano pop songs to keep going," continues Areli, "but I don't." She's determined to hold herself apart from this life. But Aleida insists she enjoys every part -- the boxes, the stickers, even cleaning the box covers. Everything but "the hotness, which gets you kind of grouchy and you don't want people to be talking to you," her daughter translates. "Then she just says, 'Help me, God!' and tries to work even faster." Mother and daughter burst out laughing at the absurdity of this, but then Areli admits, "It does help the day go by. If only we could work under trees, so when we are putting the stickers on it's cooler."

The rain stops, and the sun cuts through the cloud cover like a laser. The workers hurry over to the stickering station, a glaring-white stretch of gravel half-a-mile from any shade. Empty white cardboard boxes wait in neat stacks, each one printed in full color with a blue-green melon field, distant pickers alongside a red tractor and, up close, a white guy in a straw hat, writing in a ledger. Sitting next to him on a truck's running board, a little boy in cap and knickers waves an American flag. "Appearances," repeats Angel softly.

Areli ignores the scenic boxes and concentrates on the money. "He pays you every day before you leave," she reports, not bothering with a name because "he" is always the farmer. When Areli started high school, she wanted passionately to become a doctor, outclass even a farmer. But now, she's decided, "it's too many years of school." Many of her friends back in jobless east Texas will drop out before they graduate. They have to "look for their lives," she says -- and the first place they look will be the fields.

Leaning close to listen, Aleida confides that she's always secretly longed to be a secretary. "People who work as secretaries are always really dressed up," Areli relays for her, "and they are always talking to new people." Their backs don't ache every night, either. Asked what she does about the pain -- chiropractors being out of the question -- Aleida folds her hands as if in prayer, lays them on one cheek and tilts her head, gesturing the unconscious bliss of sleep.

Angel's wife, Kim, sweet-faced and just plump enough to eliminate all hard edges, leans over the store counter, struggling to understand her customer's Spanish. Kim was born and bred in Kennett, and she met Angel there in 1993. She was working at the town Laundromat when Angel brought his sweaty clothes in; they joke that she's been doing his laundry ever since.

This year, the Castros bought their first house, just 12 miles southeast of Kim's hometown in nearby Senath. Billed as "a little town with a big heart," Senath is half-Hispanic, so living there is cheaper. The Castros now have a yard for their three little boys, and they've opened Tienda, a Mexican grocery and taqueria down the street from their house. They sell sweet tamarind soda, candies laced with chili pepper, reams of Mexican tortillas. "American companies use a lot of preservatives and grind the whole cob, not just the kernels," complains Angel, "so their tortillas are hard."

Kim has grasped the finer distinctions in tortillas, and working at the store has done wonders for her Spanish. But the deeper cultural differences continue to flummox her. "My wife gets mad; she says people bother me a lot," says Angel. "I tell her, 'They are not bothering me. If you were in Mexico and you knew only one person who spoke English, you would go to him for everything." He falls silent, other people's troubles in his eyes. "Everybody says, 'They need to learn English; they're in the U.S. now.' But this is a country where everybody has to go to school, so their minds are open. If you never went to school, your mind is not open, and it is harder to learn." He falls silent for a minute, and then a slow smile breaks. "My dad said once, when he was first coming here, they needed to buy milk," Angel recalls. "He told his friend to go, 'Moooooo,' and put his hands up to his temples like horns, and my dad went, 'Squirch, squirch' and moved his hands like he was milking. And the woman still didn't get it!"

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