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.

Aug 29, 2001 at 4:00 am
let us carry our roots
with us all the time
let us roll them up and
use them as our pillow
-- from "The Promised Land" by Francisco X. Alarcon

KENNETT, MO -- The trail cools at the crossroads. Angel Castro stops the car and squints in three directions. Finally he spots his quarry, its pale-yellow and mossy-green stripes split wide open, its rosy entrails spilling onto the dirt road. He turns left, following the erratic dotted line of watermelons that have fallen off the truck. When he can smell the fruit's sweetness in the hot air, he'll know the pickers are just a field or two away.

Born 34 years ago in Mexico, Angel's as seasoned as any old-timer in the Missouri Bootheel. Short and sturdy, he has a face that puts people at ease, the Aztec nose too broad and flat to poke into anyone's business, the smile so real it tilts the corners of his warm black eyes. There's not an ounce of judgment in those eyes. When Angel was 15, he, too, picked melons in these fields, following the crop north from Texas and arriving in time for Missouri's midsummer harvest. At 17, he became a crew manager, learned everything there was to know about Bootheel crops. Now he walks both sides of the field, speaking the language of the Anglo farmers as fluently as his native Spanish. Officially he's a recruiter, looking for kids who are stuck in hot fields or rusted trailers when they could be in air-conditioned migrant summer school. But farmers call Angel when they need 10 workers to chop pumpkins in Arkansas; the migrant school calls him when a little girl gets pinkeye and they need to find her family; desperate workers call him when they're stranded on the highway.

The kids don't know to call. So he finds them.

He glides off the road as soon as he spots the dark-shirted figures far out in the field, their bandanas dots of red, their arms blurs. Waving, he makes his way across rows plowed straight as ribbing. Up ahead, lines of five men stretch out straight on both sides of the tractor. Every few seconds, one of the men at the far ends picks up a melon and tosses it to the man next to him, who sends it on toward the flatbed. The melons stay in constant motion, their arcs drawing a lilting, rhythmic line in the air as the tractor creeps forward.

"Hola!" Angel calls once he's in earshot. Recognizing his voice, they wave back like men on a desert island. Continuing toward them, he takes a minute to squat, roll one of the melons over and gauge it. Have the green stripes darkened and the yellow "opened up," spreading like stretchmarks over the fruit's swollen middle? Is the melon fully ripe, caught in that brief window between rawness and rot? He rolls it another half-turn, nods, then takes out a penknife and slices end to end four times, fast as a Japanese chef. The fruit is perfect.

He straightens and keeps walking, the melon rind cool in his hand. Maybe he'll find some kids he can talk into summer school.

Angel's first glimpse of the world was Rio Bravo, a dry, dusty border town in Tamaulipas, Mexico. His father, Zefrino Castro, was a bricklayer -- never went to school at all but could tell people in seconds how many bricks and bags of concrete he'd need to build them a house. Angel's mother, Juana Castro, came from farther south; her people were ejidatarios, "little farmers" who still worked the 40 acres Mexico's president had given poor families back in 1937. They lived bare, day to day, but never dreamed of leaving; it was in the north where Angel's father tasted American money, American stuff, American hope. He first crossed to the U.S. in the bracero temporary-work program, started in World War II because the U.S. had lost its own men's strong arms. When the legal program stopped, he kept coming each summer, walking through the desert for three days, shooting snakes along the way.

Finally, in 1978, Zefrino managed to bring Juana and their nine children with him. Angel heard his father breathe a long "ahhhh" as they crossed the Progresso Bridge into a land that was softer and greener, its trees leafier than scrubby mesquite, its highways smoother than Mexico's potholed roads.

The Castros settled in Edinburg, in Appalachia-poor east Texas. They had a phone, and the younger kids ran scared the few times it rang. Angel, 11, was fascinated by the electricity, delighted that his school served breakfast and lunch, hurt to have no friends. "Back then, it wasn't cool to be Mexican," he says. "Teachers got mad at you if you spoke Spanish." Stung by their scorn, he learned English in a few months and, as the oldest son, became the family translator. "You grow faster, because everybody's depending on you."

In 1980, the Castros drove to El Paso to pick Vidalias for Sonic's onion rings. In 1982, all nine kids jammed into the back of a pickup and the family drove up to Michigan to harvest blueberries. Angel, now 15, preferred pitching watermelons, and when he saw a highway sign for Kennett, Mo., on the way back, he perked up. Wasn't that where their cousins worked the melon fields? His dad swung onto the exit ramp.

Two years later, Angel was running a crew in Kennett, using his fluent English to explain the farmer's terms to the migrants and coax 12 tired lonely men to work hard, get along, stay sober, stay the season. For Angel, they'd do it. He had a way of draining the tension, replacing it with his own sweet calm. He looked out for them, too, reminding them that the farmers needed them as much as they needed the work. This was the '80s, before no-till farming, genetically modified seeds and superpotent chemicals, and farmers were so desperate for help that they tried to steal each other's crews. But Angel's dad and cousins ran crews, too, and the migrants all came from east Texas and knew each other. If a farmer wanted watermelons pitched, he had to talk to the Castros.

Angel graduated from high school -- all nine kids did, at their father's insistence -- and even went to technical college in Texas for a while, studying construction. But familiarity pulled like a magnet, and he wound up in the fields, picking apples, peaches, eggplants, cucumbers and melons; working the cotton gin; sowing tree seedlings by the thousands, often leading two crews at a time. He traveled from Florida to the Pacific Northwest, sleeping on cold, wet pine needles, following each year's chances.

It was language that swung a door open: The administrator at the Kennett Migrant Health Clinic -- the only agency for miles with a bilingual staff -- drummed Angel into translating for her. Seeing how easily he moved between established Bootheel culture and the Hispanic influx, Rural Missouri Inc. soon snapped him up to coordinate job-training and college-assistance programs. Now he works for Missouri's Title 1-C Migrant Education Center, which uses federal funds to boost migrant families' chances for education and a decent life.

Angel covers the eastern half of the state, heading north to find families working in chicken factories or city landscaping firms and crisscrossing the Bootheel like a traveling salesman. If he used a roadmap, he could stick flags in it: peaches mainly in Campbell, sweet corn around East Prairie, cotton and watermelons around Kennett and, dotted everywhere, tomatoes, soggy fields of rice, bright-green soybeans, weedy field corn for seed and dark, grassy milo for feed.

What he knows for sure? That about 5,000 migrants come to Missouri each summer, and three-fourths of them work the rich farmland trapped between Arkansas and Kentucky. "Throw any seed and it grows," says Angel, awed by this drained gumbo swampland that's hotter than the rest of Missouri, its air close and humid, its storms violent. Floodways ribbon the farms, but before these government-engineered precautions, the water used to rise halfway up the cypress and tupelo trees. People couldn't even give their dead a proper burial: Graves went on stilts, and only the passion and the grief were buried.

Back in Rio Bravo, a death meant a week of weeping and storytelling and ritual, maybe a mariachi band snaking a procession to the cemetery.

Here in southern Missouri, people cry in private.

On a blazing-hot Wednesday in mid-July, Angel's boss meets him at one of the big melon fields between Kennett and Senath, stepping high over the raised tangle of vines to follow, less surefootedly, his path. A former schoolteacher, Cheryl White has red-gold hair, a warm heart and a patter funny enough for standup. She's been teaching Angel the dug-in ways of the Bootheel and the complexities of educational bureaucracy. In return, he's provided entrée to the migrant world, introducing her to the kids who need testing or tutoring or language drills. They can no longer imagine doing their jobs without each other.

Cheryl stops to wipe sweat from her stinging eyes. Then she sees the young boy driving the tractor, and her fine-boned Scottish face takes on purpose. "He's 12," she predicts as soon as she reaches Angel's side. "Has to be, or it's illegal. So if we ask him, he'll be 12." She raises her voice, and its soft Bootheel twang stretches out flat: "Hi! What's your name?"

Name's Pete, and his dad taught him to drive a tractor; they've come from Florida, and he swears he's in high school down there. "You going to go to college?" Cheryl asks casually. "You know most of it can be free, don't you?" As the tractor passes, she calls, "Stay away from the women!"

"Worst thing that can happen," she mutters to Angel as soon as the boy's out of earshot. "If they get a girl pregnant, they won't make it to college." He just nods; they say these things to each other every day.

They follow the trailer half-a-mile to the melon-packing station. When they pull up, workers are crowding around the just-arrived flatbed, waxy rolls of orange-red produce labels streaming from their fingers. A few men climb on top and clamber across the fruit, stickering willy-nilly. In seconds, the melons are rolling onto a conveyor belt that runs straight into the bowels of a semi. "This grower'd normally have about 100 loads this season, 1,800 melons each," notes Angel, "but it hasn't rained, and the melons had some kind of disease." (Last year was even worse: A bumper crop in Texas dropped prices so low, Missouri farmers let their melons rot on the vine.)

At break time, the energy shuts off like a blown fuse. Workers collapse in the shade, and Angel walks over to talk to Fernando Lopez, a tall man with a lean, intelligent face who teaches elementary school back in Mexico. "He's always liked to work," relays Angel, translating fast. "The economy in Mexico is not stable. The kids think you come to the U.S. to sweep money. He tells them it's not like that." Angel asks how Lopez encourages them to stay in school. When the teacher answers, Angel's eyes darken. "He says the way the economy is in Mexico, it's really hard for him to tell the kids to stay in school. Where he lives is close to the mountains, and sometimes they don't even go to elementary school. Sometimes their fathers come to the U.S. for a better living and forget about them, start a new family here and let the other one go."

The farmer who runs the melon operation allows photos but won't give his name for publication. "Talk to Angel; Angel knows everything," he says, and lopes off. "There's a few farmers nobody wants to work with -- if you drink too much water, they get mad," says Angel. "But this one's real nice. We've been trying to figure out ways to improve housing for the migrant workers, and he comes to all our meetings." Even the decent farmers turn paranoid, though, scorched alongside the rest by media "exposés" and well-intentioned activist campaigns. "This part of the country's sensitive about all that," Angel says dryly, explaining how big-city reporters swoop in, reformers and union organizers swoop in and everybody threatens and yells and writes melodrama about horrific conditions. Then they leave, and farmers stop offering any housing at all because they're afraid of the liability.

"Rent's real expensive here during summer," adds Angel. "They'll charge $120 a week for an old beat-up trailer, no window, no screens, no air, that rents for $150 a month in the winter. If you have more than four people, it's $50 apiece extra every week. If you lie, the landlord spies on you, tries to see how many people come home dirty and sweaty wearing ballcaps." No ordinances regulate housing in rural areas, and "the migrants won't complain," he finishes. "They say, 'There is no other place, and we don't want to cause any trouble.' More than anything else, they need the work."

Thursday morning, Cheryl walks into the Migrant Education Center in Malden and finds Angel rescuing her fish. "You don't have to do that! You're gonna get all that nasty fish water all over you," she exclaims. He grins and continues stabilizing the tank, raking the rocks gently, trying not to disarrange this little world. Cheryl shakes her head.

They drive together to Kennett to visit the smaller of their two summer schools, hosted gratis in a church. The older kids are sitting around a long table, drawing "migrant life." "I'm going to stay here till I don't know when," an 8-year-old boy informs Angel. "His sister" -- he points to a boy across the table -- "gave me a shirt with bugs on it!"

Red ants they were, the proud mascots of Progresso, Texas. Hometowns matter a lot when you're gone from April till September. And with migrant families pouring into Kennett, looking for work, the days when everybody knew each other from east Texas are long gone. Many come from Florida, or Mexico -- this summer there's even a little boy from Puerto Rico. His name is Ebenezer, and he was stony-quiet the first week. But now they've borrowed storybooks to read and they've made piñatas and studied math and eaten lunch together every day and a nurse came to check their eyes and ears and some kids got eyeglasses for free and even Ebenezer's talking up a storm.

The bilingual-exchange teacher, Rene Orozco, wishes that nurse would come back. Pale, with a sweet face, he blinks rapidly behind his spectacles and explains that he is terribly sick to his tummy. He has eaten nothing but pizza and hamburgers in the four days since he arrived.

Cheryl wonders whether it could be stress -- Rene's wife will deliver their first child next month back in Guadalajara, and Cheryl is already busy planning a baby shower for them. But Rene clings to the food hypothesis, rubbing his stomach woefully. Cheryl makes him an appointment at the clinic, then offers him a taste of deep-fried Bootheel okra, so good it's bound to be medicinal. Too polite to refuse, he chews, winces and changes the subject.

"It is different to teach in this kind of program; the children are so smart," he says. "They are bilingual, they are getting both cultures and they get the knowledge really fast." What they can't do is pay attention, he adds, appalled by the U.S. bribe system. "I am not agreeable that every time they do something good we have to give them candies," he says, his voice sharpening. "They need more discipline, so wherever they go, people will receive them with gladness."

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.

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!"

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."

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.

"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.

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.

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."

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!"

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."

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."