Work the land ... or break new ground?

Seventeen-year old Michelle Castillo spends half the year in a Texas border town and the other in Illinois, where she picks vegetables with her family.

Her high grades lead her to hope for better things - college, opportunities to break the cycle of migrant work. But family life, and a serious boyfriend, tug hard at her ambitions.

It's been a typically long day for high school junior Michelle Castillo.

First there is school, with its usual round of activities - a meeting with an academic counselor, time spent alone in the school library pecking away at a laptop computer, a composition to be written in English class, a hurried lunch.

Then by noon it's time to board a bus and hustle off to work at the roadside produce stand run by the farmers who employ her father. There she presides over stacks of squash and onions that gleam in the crisp autumnal sunshine, rapidly dispenses change at the cash register, and smiles politely at customers piling out of their SUVs.

But at day's end, when Michelle returns to the trailer where she and her parents and two sisters live each summer and fall, there is a reward waiting: a letter from Mario.

Like teenage sweethearts everywhere, Michelle eagerly tears at the envelope, spins her back toward her family, and huddles over the lines her boyfriend has penned. The letter is steeped in love, she divulges later - he misses her, he dreams of her, he's full of plans for the family they will have and the future they will make.

But Michelle's future, at this point, is anything but clear.

Michelle is the third generation in a family of migrant farm workers.

The traveling life of such a family is one that some Americans imagine no longer exists, an existence they believe faded away with grainy black-and-white photo images from the Depression. But for families like the Castillos, the experience is only too contemporary.

There are an estimated 1.3 million migrant workers in the United States today. According to the Labor Department's National Agricultural Workers Survey, about half of these hired farm workers are illegal immigrants. Many others, however, like the Castillos, are US citizens.

Patterns have changed for migrant workers. Instead of crisscrossing the country, going wherever work may be found, many of today's migrants - like Michelle's family - divide the year between two fixed points.

But despite an increase in stability, the lifestyle is not necessarily less bruising. The work is still physically demanding. Constant exposure to pesticides is dangerous. Living conditions are uncomfortable at best.

The trailer the Castillos rent on the Illinois farm where Nuni - Michelle's father - works from May through October each year has no heat and no plumbing.

The family must use an outhouse and lug their water in pails. On cold fall days, Michelle's sisters keep warm by leaning over the trailer's stovetop.

There is also a certain amount of loneliness and prejudice to contend with. Even though the extended Castillo family has spent half of every year at the same farm for decades, they are still in most respects outsiders in this part of the country.

Michelle has attended the Beecher, Ill., public schools for a few months every fall and every spring since kindergarten, and yet one has only to glimpse her lonely passage down a crowded high-school hallway to know that she - the only Latina and the only migrant child in the school - is not really part of life here.

"I have friends, but [they're] not really friends," she says. "They mostly just think of me as the shy one, the one who's apart."

There is no bitterness in Michelle's voice as she explains. She has long ago become accustomed -although not necessarily contented - with her situation.

Michelle is a conscientious student who has earned A's on her report cards ever since she was a little girl, and there are scholarships available. Michelle will go to college - on that point Michelle, her parents, and her high-school advisers are all agreed.

What seems less clear is how far the young woman will ever be comfortable stepping out from the world she has come to know.

***

Michelle can be warm and playful at moments, but she is also a young woman capable of taking in the adults around her and subjecting them to a shrewd, quiet analysis. That people are not always as nice as they seem, that family members are not looked upon as equals by many of the people they meet in Illinois, that some who smile and act encouraging don't really mean it - all these things she knows, yet does not brood upon. Most of the time she radiates an air of calm, steady maturity. She wears her long, dark hair swirling loosely around her waist, and when she's happy and relaxed her face lights up with a high-voltage smile.

In Beecher, however, that smile is rarely on display. There, Michelle is most often judged to be dutiful and diligent, cooperative and quiet. "She seems to make the best of a tough situation," says one of her teachers.

And yet life in Illinois makes up only half of the year. As soon as the fall harvest is done, the Castillos will return to Texas. It requires only the briefest mention of the state to make Michelle's eyes open wide.

From November through April, the family lives in a dusty border town near Brownsville. There's nothing pretty about her hometown of Mercedes, Michelle is quick to acknowledge.

"Most people would probably say it's nicer here," she says, gesturing around her at the burgeoning cornfields and tidy white church steeples of Beecher. But back home, the weather is mild, Mexico is just across the river, and the town is full of people who look like her.

Getting to Mercedes involves a three-day car trip down the middle of the United States. The Castillos generally drive in a caravan including Michelle's aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins, all of whom work on the same farm in Illinois. Inevitably, each year, some of the cars are in poor shape and the trip means dealing with constant breakdowns.

Their Texas home -a small building perched on cinder blocks facing a deeply pitted dirt road -is far from glamorous, but for the family it's a cherished sight come October. And for Michelle, a large part of the joy of returning is knowing that Mario and his family will be making the return trip to Texas at the same time.

Mario Salazar, also the child of a Mexican-American migrant family, met Michelle through a cousin. He graduated from Michelle's high school in Mercedes a couple of years ago. A serious, steady worker in the fields who is devoted to his own family, there has never been any doubt about the nature of his intentions with respect to Michelle.

"Fill in here the number of children you want us to have," he writes in one of the many love letters from Michigan.

But Michelle's stated goal in life is to become a doctor. Mario is not aiming for college. Whether he would be patient about postponing a family through a lengthy education for Michelle is not clear.

Some of those who surround Michelle worry that attraction to this handsome young man - and the promise of family and familiarity that he brings - will prevent the girl from fully developing her talents and potential.

Cynthia Guajardo holds a position at Michelle's high school in Mercedes as a federally funded guidance counselor, dedicated to supporting the children of migrant workers through high school and hopefully on into college.

She loves Michelle's strong academic record and her excellent work habits, but she shakes her head on the subject of her romance. "I don't think Michelle will [be prevented from going to college] because of the boyfriend," Ms. Guajardo says. "I think she has enough drive." But what might happen, she worries, is that Michelle will turn down a chance for a better school and stay home to attend a local college to preserve the relationship with Mario.

Guajardo sees this all the time. Opportunities abound for bright young Hispanic students, and some are particularly designed to aid migrant families.

Michigan State University, for instance, offers a full scholarship plus stipend for freshman year for academically gifted children of migrant workers. She has a boy this year with an excellent shot at the scholarship, but he's already told her he'll probably turn it down because of his high school girlfriend.

It's not at all unusual, she says. One of the strengths of the Hispanic culture is its strong devotion to family. Hispanic boys, Guajardo says, are so romantic that they often break into tears at the mere mention of leaving their teenage girlfriends.

"It's so hard for these kids because the nuclear family is stressed to them all of their lives and their romantic attachments are so strong," she says.

Guajardo grew up in a migrant family, too, and is grateful that a college scholarship intervened and that her own daughter will not pick cherries in Michigan as she did as a little girl. Her only regret today is that she stayed home to attend a local college.

There's a whole world out there waiting to be discovered, and Guajardo now wishes she had tasted a bit more of it. "I only wish I could make these kids see things the way I do," she says.

Mercedes High School is located in the eighth-poorest district in Texas. But it is a school well equipped to support Michelle.

A quarter of the 1,200 students at the school come from migrant families. Special academic advisers work to help the migrant students as they move from one school and one state to another.

A program called Estrella - funded by the federal government and administered by the Illinois Migrant Council - offers Michelle additional support.

Thanks to Estrella, Michelle has a laptop and has been able to take a couple of classes online, and without interruption. Estrella also means there are additional adults to take an interest in Michelle and help keep her focused on future possibilities.

Everything about Michelle changes the moment she's back in Mercedes. She navigates the hallways of the high school there with a confidence unseen in Beecher. She stands taller, plants her feet more firmly, and laughs harder.

Here she's surrounded by dark-complexioned girls with names like Carmen and Maura. The more conservative dress code and tighter discipline at the school feel comfortable to her. Her friends are considerably more traditional than the girls in Beecher -and so are the cultural messages that surround her.

An after-school homemaker's club Michelle belongs to gathers one afternoon for a special treat of banana splits. As they scoop ice cream, the girls giggle and gossip about romance. One sighs longingly as she licks at a spoon. "When you're in love, nothing else matters," she proclaims.

It's a theme Michelle hears often in Mercedes.

Michelle's parents - Nuni and Chris - first met working in the fields in Beecher. Nuni was born in the US and spent his boyhood as a migrant, missing months of school at a stretch. Chris arrived in the US from Mexico at the age of 12 and soon fell into the migrant lifestyle. Between knowing no English and frequently traveling, it took her until she was 21 to finish high school.

When she finally finished, she recalls regretfully, the trip up north prevented her from attending graduation.

Chris is small and bouncy, both gregarious and convoluted in conversation. Nuni - who was named Jose after his father but uses a nickname that means "junior" -sports a dark ponytail and has the physique of a bear. He speaks only when necessary, and then as directly as possible.

The two dote on their three daughters.

As the oldest, Michelle is clearly the family star and serves as a role model for her two little sisters.

Both the small house in Texas and the trailer in Beecher are environments full of familial love and warmth. Cash may be short at times, but the TV blares, conversation flows easily in a tangled mix of Spanish and English, and a festive atmosphere often reigns.

Happy-go-lucky Becky is a fourth-grader who most loves to turn up the volume on the radio and dance around the house. Little Joselynn is an intense and endearing child who carefully inscribes remarkably intricate patterns on a tiny Etch-a-Sketch and dreams of finding a profession that will allow her to rescue animals in trouble.

Family- and not economics -drives the Castillo family decisionmaking. Nuni could make more money as a migrant if he traveled more and were willing to house the family in worker dormitories. But he's heard stories of young girls being molested in such camps by adult men and won't even consider it.

Chris has passed up her own opportunities. In Beecher she works as the health coordinator for the Illinois Migrant Head Start program. She is able to keep her job when the family returns to Texas, working half the year out of the program's office in McAllen. But her employers would love to keep her in Illinois year-round, and she could earn more by doing so.

But the Castillos find the climate in Illinois too cold. It's also too far from Mexico and the rest of their extended families.

It is not easy for the adult migrants to find work when they return to Texas. Some simply collect unemployment until they return to the fields.

Mario thinks she should stay as close to home as possible and lobbies constantly against any notion of her living in a college dorm. Her parents say they will support any choice that she makes. Her mom frequently works to counter Mario's persuasions, reminding Michelle that marrying him is not her only option in life.

Nuni is able to help Chris with her work by driving her to distant appointments. But in many ways the conditions the Castillos come home to in Texas are harsh, little more luxurious than the ones they leave behind up north.

But the climate is warm, the culture is familiar, and their children don't feel the sting of prejudice. That's why some of the families initiated into the migrant lifestyle -unlike the Castillos - don't push their children to leave it. "Some like what they are doing," says Estrella Acosta, an academic counselor at Mercedes High School who also grew up in a migrant family. "We keep asking why, but they have gotten comfortable with it."

***

This spring Michelle began looking at colleges.

To leave the state or not to leave the state. To live in the dorms or to stay at home. These are the questions she faces.

The signals she's being given are mixed. Her counselors think she should aim at a stronger school than the local colleges, maybe Michigan State. Mario thinks she should stay as close to home as possible and lobbies constantly against any notion of her living in a college dorm. (Sometimes, when she asks a favor, his response is, "I'll do it if you promise not to live in the dorms.")

Her parents say they will support any choice that she makes. Chris frequently works to counter Mario's persuasions, reminding Michelle that marrying him is not her only option in life.

And yet even Chris and Nuni's messages are less than clear. If Michelle wants to attend a college up north, Nuni says, the family will move and live nearby to keep her out of the permissive atmosphere of the dorms. Chris loves to speak of Michelle's opportunities in college one moment, and then the next enthusiastically predicts that she will marry Mario and move in next door to her parents.

The young man eventually plans to renounce the migrant life. Someday, he and his father hope to remain in Texas year-round and work mowing lawns.

If Michele picks a local college, they would no longer endure separations.

"I'm definitely going to college," Michelle says. But she's less clear about whether she could accept life away from her family and Mario. "It seems hard," she says.

The next moment she is bounding into the tiny bedroom where she and Becky share bunk beds to show a visitor her souvenirs of days spent with Mario - dried flowers, small gifts, their names spelled out in Scrabble tiles across her bureau top.

"I don't know," she says again softly as she thinks about her future. "I want to go but I don't want to go."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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