A turn in the path
MERCEDES, TEXAS — In 2001, Monitor readers met Michelle Castillo, the daughter of migrant workers. Michelle excelled in high school - when she wasn't working in the fields - and had several college scholarships to choose from. So at 17 she was nearing a crossroads. Would she pick a top university far from home, or a local school so she'd be near her boyfriend? Marriage or a career, the familiar or a promising future?
Today, we see how Michelle's life has changed in the past two years - and what challenges may lie ahead because of her choices.
Michelle Castillo awakes on the morning before her wedding with a jolt familiar to brides-to-be.
"It just hit me," she gasps, wringing her hands in a manner completely at odds with her characteristic calm. "Tomorrow we're getting married!"
Michelle is only 19, but she has been on the path to matrimony for several years. She and fiancé Mario Salazar met in high school in the fall of 1999. It took them a year to work up to a first date, almost two more years to become engaged, and then another year to plan the wedding.
Today they finally stand on the threshold of their new lives together. They're impatient, eager, excited, and - of course - utterly in love.
But for the adults around them, the wedding evokes a more mixed set of emotions. At least a few can't help worrying that, in reaching for one dream, Michelle may be losing her grasp on another.
Michelle is the oldest of three daughters in a family of migrant farm workers. She is the third generation of Castillos to pick vegetables and fruit, sharing with her family seasonal commutes between Illinois and Texas.
The migrant life is a harsh one. It requires grueling physical labor, and in exchange, offers only a subsistence salary, substandard housing, and an unsettled existence.
Michelle is intent on breaking away from this kind of life.
While still in high school, she enrolled in a program designed to channel the children of migrant workers into higher education. Now, on her wedding day, she's a few weeks from finishing her freshman year of college.
It would have been easier to wed after exams, but Michelle's parents must leave for planting season in Illinois.
So Michelle took time from her studies to marry. It's a pause that troubles her mother, Chris.
"It's not a good sign - leaving her classes for the wedding," Chris says unhappily, even as she swathes in tulle a candle that will serve as a wedding decoration.
She and Michelle's father, Nuni, wanted their daughter to finish college before marrying. Chris came to the US from Mexico at the age of 12. She struggled to learn English and worked hard to finally finish high school at the age of 21. Nuni - constantly on the move with his migrant family - never made it past fourth grade.
For them, to see a daughter graduate from college would validate years of struggle.
"But what can we do?" asks Chris, looking weary in the face of young love. "If we tried to stop them, they would have eloped."
"We've asked Michelle: 'Are you sure that this is what you want to do?' " says Marilyn Haggerty, director of the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) at Michelle's school, the University of Texas, Pan American, in Edinburg.
Ms. Haggerty has seen other young scholarship recipients try to balance matrimony and academics. Too often, she says, early marriage "builds up barriers [to graduation]."
But in Michelle's case, her husband-to-be came on the scene early, and once he arrived there was no turning him aside.
Mario remembers precisely what he thought when he first noticed Michelle in the halls of Mercedes High School. It wasn't the waist-length chocolate-colored hair or the soft curve of her smile that intrigued him, he insists.
"There were things about her that set her apart," he says. "When she talked to boys she was serious, not flirting like other girls. She didn't wear makeup or fancy clothes. And she was always carrying a book."
She was only a freshman, and he was already a senior. But she seemed "serious and determined," he says.
Michelle claims now that at first she wasn't sure she liked the young man with the long, dark eyelashes who stared at her so intensely as she chatted with friends at her locker.
But her mother remembers differently. "She came home one day in ninth grade and showed me a Polaroid picture of Mario and said, 'Mommy, this is the boy for me.' And then she never changed."
But she did hesitate. For almost a year she coyly avoided his advances, while he dated her classmates and tried to make her jealous.
One day he succeeded. Michelle saw him slip his arm around the waist of another girl. "All of a sudden I had like this pang, and it really hurt," she recalls.
The preliminary games were over. Relying on tried-and-true teenage methods, she sent messages through her friends to his friends, and shortly thereafter the two became an item.
But the young romance wasn't always smooth. Mario also comes from a migrant family, so he and Michelle were travelling north to different states for six months every year.
That meant several lengthy separations.
There was also a question of divergent life goals. Michelle had already been tapped to participate in Estrella, a federally funded program designed to help migrant students finish high school and move on to college.
She was quickly engaged by the goals of the group and began to dream of becoming a pediatrician. At the time, college didn't appeal to Mario. But he vowed that he'd support Michelle's desire for education - as long as she didn't move out of state or live in a dormitory.
In the end they compromised. She'd attend a local college only 45 minutes from her parents' house and live in a dorm. But first she would announce her engagement to Mario.
By the standards of her world, Michelle is a risk-taker of considerable courage. None of her childhood friends finished high school, much less dared to dream of college.
Yet the gumption that has pushed her this far is still mixed with a large dose of girlish uncertainty.
An aura of poise and adult calm define many of Michelle's movements, but as a college student she is dutiful rather than inspired.
The joy of the first year of her new life in the world of higher education was clearly social. Through CAMP she quickly forged a tightknit network of female friends whose bonds were cemented by a common set of conservative and familial values.
Throughout freshman year there were trips to the mall, long makeup and hairstyling sessions, and sleepover parties, sometimes ending up with several girls curled up asleep together like a litter of puppies.
Michelle is the only engaged woman in the crowd, an accomplishment that gives her stature but also means she'll soon be separated from her friends. Next year she'll be living with her husband and commuting to school just a couple of days a week.
"I'm going to kidnap her and stop her from getting married," says dormmate Idalia with a giggle.
"I'm a little sad" about leaving the dorm, admits Michelle.
But as is often the case with Michelle, there's a reluctance to pursue much introspection. When asked about her emotions or thoughts of the future, she tends to retreat behind her long hair and shrug, answering, "I don't know" or "maybe," or sometimes just giggling.
Her parents tried to give her a house. During the several months a year her family lives in Texas, they have always inhabited a tiny home in a dilapidated development on a rutted dirt road. Recently, however, with the help of friends and relatives, Nuni built a larger house next door and offered the small dwelling to Mario and Michelle.
But she doesn't want it. Inside Michelle, it seems, a constant tug of war takes place. She longs to move ahead but strongly resists any break with the familiar.
She and Mario will live with her parents or his, she insists. "We need to save money."
But what about independence, she is asked.
"I don't know," Michelle says with a shrug. "It doesn't matter."
In some ways, Mario was the one more infused with energy and ideas during his fiancée's freshman year.
He decided he was finished with migrating north. While looking for construction work, he took a temporary job painting in a hospital.
But as he painted he watched - and thought. The hospital workers wore uniforms, carried clipboards, and looked knowledgeable. But most intriguingly to Mario, they did jobs that seemed important and helpful to others. He began asking questions.
He liked the idea of a helping profession, and what he heard about physical therapy seemed particularly appealing.
So he enrolled in a 10-week certification course at a community college. The classes led to a job as an assistant at a local clinic.
The match proved perfect. "I couldn't even imagine a better employee," says William Holmes, a pleasant, low-key man who is a certified physical therapist and Mario's employer.
And for Mario, Mr. Holmes has provided a role model and a clear set of goals. "I want a four-year degree so I can do the same kind of work as the boss," he says.
But even as Mario's goals emerged, Michelle's seemed to subside. Midway through her first semester, pre-med began to seem too hard and too long. So she changed her major to education.
It's all part of a pattern, says Haggerty. "The women start out in pre-med or engineering, but when they think about marriage they switch to something less demanding."
The young couple's plan is to live cheaply with his parents or hers until Michelle finishes college. Then she will teach while he puts himself through school.
But Michelle's mother, Chris, dismisses such notions.
"I doubt it," she says of Mario's dreams of college. "Michelle has a scholarship. He won't have that." By the time Michelle finishes school, Mario will be too old to qualify for the kind of programs that assisted her.
Pregnancy may make all the difference, says Haggerty.
If Mario and Michelle can hold off on having children for several years, they may achieve at least a degree for her.
But once children come along, she says, a young family needs more income, and at that point there is generally a great temptation to quit school.
Mario, however, has the undiminished confidence of the young.
As wedding plans escalated there were many shopping trips from their dusty border town across the river to Mexico. Customs guards came to know the young couple and teased Mario, trying to convince him that marriage would mean the end of his carefree life.
"I never listen," he says, with a happy grin. "I just tell them, 'I know what I want. I've always known what I want.' "
Asked what they'll do if Michelle gets pregnant, the young couple both giggle. "I knew you'd ask about that," Mario says with an embarrassed yet pleased smile.
But neither has an answer.
And now all the talk is over, and the big day has finally arrived.
Michelle's college friends drive from school the night before and hang crepe-paper flowers to help transform a local livestock exhibit hall into a site for a wedding reception. On the wedding morning they are jammed into her parents' living room along with an assortment of Michelle's aunts and female cousins, and her two little sisters.
Cellphones squeal, the large-screen TV blares, and conversation slips rapidly back and forth between Spanish and English. Three hairdressers are hard at work teasing and curling dark tresses, while Chris sits in the middle of the room, her hair dripping with dye.
Finally Michelle emerges from her parents' bedroom. The girl whose natural simplicity stole Mario's heart is today a tower of teased hair, heavy makeup, and billowing white dress.
Almost more quickly than seems possible, she and her dad are coming down the aisle together (in silence - no one remembered to hire an organist). Mario - looking like a young Latino Nehru in his formal white jacket - nervously waits by the altar.
The priest delivers a sermon. The couple exchange vows in hesitant, barely audible tones. Communion is offered. Then suddenly it's done.
The guests - adorned in everything from cowboy boots and jeans to formal evening gowns - spill into the reception hall. Many of them helped fund the wedding with cash contributions, and they are ready to have fun.
The dancing begins, the beans and barbecued pork are served, little children run and shout and bob happily amid the dancing crowd.
The couple's destination for their wedding night is a secret known only to Mario.
But there will be no honeymoon. Sunday the newlyweds move into Michelle's parents' house. Monday Mario must be at his job, and Michelle must prepare for exams.
Quickly, their adult lives will settle down on them. And where those lives will lead them remains to be seen.
"Michelle has already had the drive, the gumption, to move beyond where her family has gone," says Haggerty. "You just have to hope that will continue."