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.

For Kim, it's the language of obligation that's hard to comprehend. In June, when Angel's 96-year-old grandmother fell ill, his sister called from Mexico to see whether the couple could send some money. "Why can't her sons take care of that?" burst Kim.

"If somebody's in trouble, everybody gets together and we pitch in and find a way to solve the problem," Angel reminded her patiently. "You live in the U.S.; you have Medicaid. You don't need to pitch in."

From anyone else, the words might sound bitter. But Angel has never resented people who are born to ease, insulated by money: "It's all how you were raised, and I was raised that we had to work. My dad never said, 'Well I'm going to go out and buy you this.'" Angel describes his father's attitude with respect -- then admits that if his sons want something he can provide, he does so immediately. "I don't want them to go through what we went through."

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

Besides, money's too tight for spoiling. Earlier this summer, when the eldest, 12-year-old Justin, wanted a bike, Angel sent him to work stickering for his Aunt Mary, who's a crew leader. "He worked one week, got his $100 and quit," chuckles Angel. "Didn't wake up the whole next day. My kids are used to air conditioning! When I say, 'Come and help me at the store,' Justin says, 'I don't want to.' I say, 'When I was 12, I was already picking oranges, carrying 120 pounds in my bag,' and he says, 'You going to start again, Dad?' or 'We don't believe you, Dad.'"

He feigns hurt, but he's glad they don't believe him. The dropout rate for migrant kids averages 80 percent, and Angel has spent years trying to figure out what interrupts the cycle. He's heard friends, even cousins, insist they'd be different, they'd finish school -- then grow discouraged and drop out after all, deciding to try their luck in the very fields that haunted their childhood. Ready money's always the first reason; familiarity and parental example tie for second. "I tell them, 'You don't have to be an engineer for NASA; just get a good job, try to stay away from the fields,'" says Angel. "They say, 'My dad works in the fields, so that's what I want to do.'"

Angel's 27-year-old sister was the first Castro to walk away from migrant work; now she works for a banana importer, flying to Mexico in a private plane with the owners and buying whole crops at a time. Another sister, Mary, became a secretary for a respected judge, but when he retired, she went back to the watermelon fields. Angel and Olga used their bilingual skills as a springboard, yet both landed close to the migrant world that shaped them.

He thinks, off and on, about going back to construction, studying computers, even becoming a nurse, one of those practical, in-demand careers he lists for the kids in the migrant program. But he doesn't do it. "This," he says, reaching for his ringing cell phone, "is what I know."

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