They are human capital, ordered like product and shipped in for a season. A handful of women from a windblown village in Mexico set out for a better life - una vida mejor - on the back roads of the new world economy.
Still clutching their pillows from home, hungry and tired, Ceci Tovar, left, and her sister Delia navigate their 2,600-mile odyssey from Mexico to North Carolina without speaking English. At a bus station in Dallas, they guess which Greyhound to board.
[Times photo: JOSHUA DAUTOFF]
By ANNE HULL
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 9, 1999
It was early afternoon when the girl stepped into the shade of Señor Herrera's small store. She unfolded her mother's shopping list and set it on the wooden counter. A hot wind blew outside.
Señor Herrera was cutting down a rope of chorizo for her when the telephone rang. "Ay," he said, wiping his knife.
Señor Herrera owned the only telephone in Palomas. When news came, he would step outside and shout the bulletin through cupped hands, knowing it would be passed from house to house. The priest is delayed. The medicine for the sick horse is coming.
But this time, he leaned on the counter and spoke to the young girl.
Ve dile a las señoras que ya es hora.
Go tell the ladies it is time.
The girl ran into the daylight, past the mesquite fences and the burro braying in the dusty street. She stopped at a blue iron gate, where a woman was pinning laundry to a clothesline.
The girl called out. Señora, señora, teléfono.
Juana Cedillo stood in her patio, blown with the powdery shale of the desert highlands. She'd been expecting the message. Now it had arrived. There would be no more waiting with the empty suitcase under the bed.
She went inside and gave her daughter the news.
Ya es hora de irnos.
The hour has come for us to go.
More than 2,600 miles away, on the upper coast of North Carolina, a man slurped down his cereal at the kitchen counter and walked out his back door. By the time he poured a quart of oil into his smoking Johnson outboard, it was 5:30 and already hot.
At 50, Mickey Daniels Jr. was sandy-haired and muscular, with pale blue eyes reddened by the sun. He guided his 21-foot boat out of the harbor.
Along the grassy banks were the rusted-out hulks of trawlers that history had washed aside. Six mornings a week, Mickey Junior passed through the tunnel of dead ships.
He had 140 crab pots sunk in the shallow waters of Roanoke Sound, each marked by a green and white buoy with the name DANIELS. Most seafood operators wore tan slacks to the office. The owner of Daniels Seafood still idled from buoy to buoy himself.
"I s'pose I'm the last of it," he said, without nostalgia.
By midmorning, he'd hauled in 500 pounds of blue crabs. Drenched in sweat, Mickey Junior opened up the throttle and aimed for home. The fishing village of Wanchese lay before him, on the south end of Roanoke Island, just in from North Carolina's Outer Banks.
Unworldly and sheltered, Roanoke Island had been isolated for so long that natives like Mickey Daniels Jr. spoke with a dialect from the English settlers of the 1600s. "I sat down" sounded like "I set doon."
But Mickey Junior was thoroughly modern in one regard.
In early 1998, he telephoned the North Carolina Growers Association and placed an order for 12 women from Mexico. He needed them for the May start of the 1998 blue crab season. They cost $130 apiece.
As a boy in the 1950s, Mickey Junior saw the old school buses drive past his house each morning carrying black women. They would unload at the doors of the crab houses. Inside, the women took their places at iced metal tables piled with hundreds of pounds of cooked blue crabs.
Using their bare hands and short steel knives, they extracted the precious tablespoons of meat.
At the end of the day, the women were loaded back on the buses and returned to their tilting porches along Good Luck Street in Manteo, on the other end of Roanoke Island.
The pickers had a saying: "Lord, you don't retire. You just die."
Which is what began to happen in the early 1990s. As Mickey Daniels Jr. said, "The blacks was dyin' off and we didn't have no replacements."
Crab picking was a job that Americans on the eve of the 21st century considered too low-paying and foul.
The saviors were across the border.
In 1998, almost 3,000 Mexican women were allowed into the United States as "guest workers" for the annual blue crab season.
Mickey Daniels Jr.'s workers came from a place called Palomas. The details of their lives mattered little to him; it was their speed at the crab picking table that counted. The women raced against the clock like no one he'd ever seen.
They were human capital, ordered like product and shipped in for a season of labor.
When the women of Palomas set out on the back roads of the new global economy, they placed their lives with whoever had bought the rights to their work.
They had a name for the United States. La tortilla grande, they called it, for its spectacular moneymaking opportunities.
They begged and bribed their way into jobs in the crab houses.
With a Greyhound bus ticket and a $145 work visa, a pipeline was laid between a buzzardy ranch in central Mexico and a 300-year-old fishing village off the coast of North Carolina.
In the end, the women from Palomas were what allowed the eighth-generation fisherman to keep his world from dying off.
"With the Mexicans, you can get all you want, when you want," Mickey Daniels Jr. said.
But the bargain worked both ways, something Mickey Junior didn't yet understand as he leaned on his dock, calculating the arrival of the women from Palomas.
If America was going to take a piece of them, they were going to take a piece of it.
* * *
In the high plains of central Mexico, in the state of San Luis Potosí, Highway 80 is abandoned for a dirt road. Palomas is reached by hitching a ride in the back of a sagging truck and climbing 9 miles through steep hills.
No one passes through Palomas. One road leads in. Still, a bright sign welcomes visitors. ¡Bienvenido!
On the town square, the evening game of soccer was played with a deflated old ball, amid shouts of "Uncle!" or "Professor!" The field was a swirl of white powder, and the shirtless young men looked as if they had been rolled in flour.
The game was presided over by a bronze statue of Saturnino Cedillo, the rebel general who in the early 1900s established Palomas as an ejido, a peasant landholding cooperative. The general built a hacienda with mahogany doors and a vista of the hills. Legend says his wife wanted the house painted white, so it was called Palomas, the Spanish word for doves.
The house was now crumbling, the general's bullring overgrown with weeds, his body entombed. But stretching out beneath the old hacienda was a grid of concrete block homes and a few leaning adobes, where 2,100 residents fought the dust and the desolation.
The ranch was camouflaged in brown and gray: the unpainted concrete, the tin roofs, the choke of grit, the mesquite sticks bundled for fences, the wandering packs of burros. Color was saved for the insides of houses. A bowl of limes in a turquoise kitchen. Pomegranates cut open on yellow tile.
There was no government in Palomas. Law and order were upheld by watchful grandmothers and household statues of the Virgin Mary. Wedding parties took place beneath a string of light bulbs on the empty basketball court near Señor Herrera's store.
Economically, Palomas spun on its own forgotten axis. The daily wage for picking corn or tomatoes was 35 pesos, the equivalent of about $4.
In 1992, a woman drove up to Palomas and knocked on the gates of several houses. Her skin was fair, not the burnished copper of the ranchers, and her chestnut hair was fashionably trimmed at the shoulders. She worked for a Texas labor recruiter named Jorge del Alamo.
Close to 20 percent of the men in Palomas were already leaving each spring for agricultural work in the southeastern United States, many brokered through del Alamo.
But the job recruiter who visited Palomas that day wasn't interested in men.
She asked for women.
And when she had their attention -- when they'd stopped drying their hands on their aprons and offering their visitor a glass of sweet rice milk -- she made an astonishing pitch.
Any woman willing to leave home for six months could earn $6,000 working in a U.S. crab house.
The idea -- and the sum of money -- were impossible to grasp. Women were the backbone of domestic life. And now suddenly, a wife or daughter could earn 10 times what the men earned in the fields around Palomas.
A small group left that first year for seafood processing plants in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland.
The women proved to be excellent savers. The Western Union money orders flowed back to Palomas. Señor Herrera began stocking his shelves with pumpkin bread, sardines, Pantene shampoo.
The warriors returned after six months. Grandmothers held their ears against the high-pitched whir of new electric blenders. Children begged their mothers for TVs to watch Los Simpsons.
The women paid for new roofs on their houses, replacing tin and mud with beams and concrete. The new capitalists carried gold-clasp purses and walked the unpaved streets of Palomas like urban sophisticates.
But the money brought trouble. Husbands and wives may have squabbled in the past, they may have sulked in separate beds, but divorce was unheard of. Men began to complain that financial independence was ruining the women.
When one woman came home from North Carolina wearing pants, her husband stormed out of the house, returning with a new dress.
"Here," he said, demanding she revert to the wife he knew.
In a place that still used roosters for alarm clocks, the feminist revolution had arrived.
By the spring of 1998, nearly 50 women -- one in 15 -- were leaving for the start of the blue crab season.
Daughters were begging their mothers for permission to go. Some young women would never come home when the crab season ended.
The United States was a thief. It stole. It always had. But it had never taken the women of Palomas before.
Among the last to leave were the 12 bound for Daniels Seafood in North Carolina.
* * *
Juana Cedillo woke early and braided her hair. In the kitchen, she lit a breakfast fire. Then the tortillas, slap, slap, slap, the morning music drifting from every open shutter in Palomas. Juana made a stack of 60 and stirred a cup of Sanka.
She was 35, barely 5 feet tall in her sandals. Her pans of tamales had gradually found their way to her hips. For a mother of eight, she was unusually mild-mannered. A hen would fall asleep in her hand as she drew the hatchet back to chop its neck.
Juana Cedillo was the fastest crab picker Daniels Seafood had ever seen. But in the weeks leading up to her departure, her stomach churned. It would be her third season. She began drinking Maalox.
Her L-shaped house in Palomas -- the concrete was still wet from the expansion -- was a shrine built by crab money. A new toilet gleamed in the outhouse in the yard. Silver faucets sparkled in the kitchen sink.
"What else do we need?" Juana's husband had asked.
"You never know when the U.S. doesn't want you anymore," Juana said. "We must go while we can."
Construction on the new Catholic church in Palomas had stalled. One more season at Daniels Seafood, Juana reasoned, could finance finishing the church, buying new Bibles and most of all, sending a daughter to high school in a nearby city.
That morning, Alejandro, 8, and Eduardo, 6, slept like fragile soldiers in the bed they shared. Juana implored them with a wake-up call from the kitchen. "Get up, it's time for school," she ordered, as Eduardo covered his head with the sheet.
She never watched them, but she watched them now from the doorway. She would not see them for six months. Did they understand why she was doing this?
The boys pulled on their wrinkled clothes from a pile and stumbled to the small kitchen table. Eduardo pouted over the plate of scrambled eggs and tortillas Juana placed before him. He wanted cornflakes.
"Eat," Juana said.
After breakfast, he sat at the edge of Juana's bed, watching her pack. "Where are my vitamins?" Juana asked. "I must be strong." She wrapped her Bible in plastic, and bundled her passport and identification papers in a rubber band.
The house was emptying out. The children were going next door to her mother's. Juana's husband and oldest son had already left for their $6.50-an-hour spring jobs in Virginia hanging tobacco.
In the bedroom next to Juana's, the last family member to pack her suitcase was Ana Rosa. Juana's 19-year-old daughter was following her mother to Daniels Seafood.
Ana Rosa gathered her nail polish and holy cards. Carefully, she wiped the dust of Palomas from her good leather shoes and wrapped them in plastic so they would arrive in North Carolina clean.
Ana Rosa had studied accounting for 18 months in Mexico City. When her parents could no longer afford the tuition, she returned to Palomas, taking her place at the wash basin. The accounting student finally convinced her parents that an American crab house held more of a future than Palomas.
They agreed to let her work at Daniels Seafood, only because Juana would also be there.
Ana Rosa was pious, shy and beautiful. Carved lips and skin like dark honey. Dutifully, she wrapped her sister's warm lunch in an embroidered cloth and delivered it to the school each noon. She swept and mopped and cooked. Her hazel eyes filled with tears when she prayed.
But Ana Rosa was 19 years old. She packed her best blue jeans for the trip to America.
On her last day, Ana Rosa looked around Palomas and felt not a scrap of regret for want-ing to leave.
* * *
When electricity came to Palomas in the late 1970s, Ana Rosa's generation was the first to have television. The reception was snowy, and the dented aluminum antennas had to be pointing in the right direction. But what she saw was enough.
Ana Rosa imagined what $6,000 could buy.
She conspired with her 20-year-old cousin, Delia Tovar, who was also going to Daniels Seafood.
On the afternoon before her departure, Delia was in the kitchen, her fingers stained with jalapeño. Delia chopped and fried, sidestepping her sisters in a synchronized ballet over the bare concrete floor. Her older brother, Luis, came in through the screen door and washed his hands in a bucket in the sink. He sat at the table, waiting for his plate. He objected to his sisters' going to work in the States.
"The distance is very hard on families," he said, his wife standing behind his chair while he ate. "When they come back, the families are not as close. Life is not the same. The women come home with ideas."
Delia said nothing.
She had liquid black eyes, watchful and cautious. When she pulled back her hair, lifting it from her delicate neck in the heat, a small gold elephant rode on each of her earlobes. The earrings should have been a warning. Delia Tovar was no pushover.
She had worked at Daniels Seafood the previous year, along with her mother. But this year, she was going with her younger sister, Cecilia.
Ceci, as she was known, was 18, fearless and sharp-witted. But Delia wondered how she could prepare her young sister for what awaited them. Ceci had never even seen a crab before, let alone thousands piled on table tops.
On their last night, the Tovar sisters took their evening baths, and rifled through their closets for pleated skirts and silk blouses. They combed out their hair and arranged plastic patio chairs on the sidewalk. Young men on bicycles positioned themselves outside Señor Herrera's store across the street to watch them. Delia barely glanced their way.
When darkness fell, their mother signaled them inside. Unmarried women on the streets after dark invited gossip.
Just when Delia and Ceci thought they would escape Palomas without a farewell lecture, their mother came into their pink bedroom.
"It's easy to fall in love," their mother said, "but the ground needs to be firm beneath your feet."
Then she put it more bluntly: "I trust you and God that you won't get pregnant and stay in the U.S."
* * *
The job recruiter had left specific instructions for the women going to Daniels Seafood: Be at the bus station in Ciudad del Maíz by 6 p.m. on Friday.
Juana spent her last hours baking corn bread in her outdoor kiln. Ana Rosa wrapped warm gorditas in a plastic garbage bag. It would be a long bus ride to North Carolina, and they did not want to go hungry.
Juana's youngest sons, ages 6 and 8, played soccer in the sandy courtyard, unable to bear the sight of their mother's suitcase near the door.
At 4:30, Juana called the children inside. Her long hair was still wet from her shower. The van was due. She asked everyone to kneel.
Ana Rosa knelt on the bare concrete floor and joined hands with her brothers and sisters. The children's voices were high and metallic, but it was Juana who could be heard above all. She asked one favor of God.
"I leave them with you, Lord," she cried, her eyes closed. "Gracias, Señor Jesus, gracias. Gracias, mi padre."
Tears rolled down Ana Rosa's smooth cheeks. The 11-year-old, Claudia, brushed her eyes. Eduardo looked at his bare feet.
When the van honked outside, Juana was the first to stand.
The oldest boy loaded the suitcases. At the patio gate, near her rosebush, Juana hugged the children goodbye, saying each of their names aloud.
"Maria de los Angeles."
Instinctively, Juana hugged her youngest child once more. As she boarded the van and pulled the door closed, Eduardo's screams shook her. "Mami, mami!" he cried. A burro at the gate began braying, and Eduardo flailed at the animal before throwing himself on the ground, sobbing.
"Hurry!" Juana begged the driver. Her shoulders heaved. Someone reached for the roll of toilet paper jammed into the dusty dashboard. Ana Rosa passed it to her mother, but first wiped away her own tears. The van pushed through the streets of Palomas.
Three suitcases were waiting in front of a house across from Señor Herrera's store. As
the driver honked, the door opened, and eight family members spilled out into the street in a jumble of hugs and goodbyes. Delia and Ceci Tovar were in the middle.
Their mother hung back. "The rich need the poor and the poor need the rich," she often said, justifying why Mexicans were always saying goodbye in the name of a better life. But she whispered no great words of wisdom into her daughters' ears now. When she held them tightly one last time, tears streamed down her cheeks.
The van sagged with the weight of 18 passengers. Suitcases were shoved in corners and piled to the ceiling. Just lifting a hand to wipe a brow was impossible. Sweat trickled between breasts. The air was thick and sweet from body odor, hard to breathe.
The dashboard radio was nothing more than a rusted shell of antique parts, but the driver leaned forward and twisted the knobs, desperate to break the silence. No one spoke as the van picked up speed. An accordion canción played. Delia turned around once, to look back, but Palomas was gone.
* * *
In 1998, more than 200 Mexicans died trying to sneak across the 1,951-mile U.S. border. They suffocated in car trunks or died in the desert trying to evade immigration control laws.
But the women from Palomas were golden.
They were "guest workers."
Migrant farm workers had been coming to the States for years under a program called H2A.
The H2B program allowed U.S. employers to hire foreigners for non-agricultural seasonal jobs if Americans were unavailable.
These "guest workers" cleaned motel rooms in South Carolina or processed crawfish in Louisiana. Most were Mexican. When their season of labor ended, they were expected to return home or risk deportation.
In 1992, the U.S. Department of Labor allowed roughly 8,000 H2Bs into the country. By 1997, the number had tripled to 25,250.
Most of the jobs were low-paying, greasy, bloody, grimy and tedious, sometimes hazardous.
In a boom economy, Americans weren't rushing to pluck feathers from electrocuted chickens for $6 an hour.
Poor Mexicans were. For many, one man held the keys: a Texas labor recruiter named Jorge del Alamo.
Del Alamo built a lucrative empire funneling Mexicans to legal contract work in the United States. One of his biggest customers was the North Carolina Growers Association, which brokered labor out to farms, fields and seafood processing plants.
Del Alamo charged each Mexican $85 in recruiting fees. His local recruiters -- del Alamo had 12 satellite offices scattered across rural Mexico -- charged an additional $35. No small sum to a Mexican whose daily average income was $4.
Cuban-born and courtly, del Alamo looked like a white-haired grandfather as he drove his Volvo to work each morning, on the fifth floor of a bank building with a marble lobby in San Antonio, Texas.
Lawyers at Texas Rural Legal Aid estimated del Alamo moved more than 18,000 Mexicans across the border in 1998, pulling in more than $1.6-million.
Paying del Alamo was just the first cash outlay for the women from Palomas. For work visas, bus tickets and customs fees, they ended up paying close to $400 for one season of work at Daniels Seafood.
Smugglers were charging up to $1,000 to get Mexicans across the tightened U.S. border.
At $400, del Alamo was a bargain.
All they needed was the visa.
* * *
After leaving Palomas, the women waited for several hours in Ciudad del Maíz before catching the 11 p.m. bus to the industrial city of Monterrey.
"Sleep every chance you can," Delia warned her sister, arranging her pillow.
Ana Rosa rested against Juana. The gorditas she'd baked in her kiln in Palomas gave off a floury aroma, the last traces of home.
They arrived at the sprawling Monterrey bus terminal at 6:15 a.m., stiff and dazed from the all-night ride.
When their eyes adjusted to the fluorescent glare, they could see there were hundreds of others like them: exhausted travelers from the interior of Mexico, slumped next to worn suitcases and plastic water jugs.
Jorge del Alamo's labor pipeline was calibrated for efficiency and volume. He could orchestrate the border crossing of a thousand workers in a night. His company, Del Al Associates, kept an office at the Monterrey bus terminal.
Small and windowless, no larger than 8 by 14 feet, the office was a formidable processing center. Visa applications and Mexican passports were stacked on desks.
The process was simple. The U.S. consulate was 3 miles from the bus station. A del Alamo associate would hand-carry the visa applications to the consulate for processing. A few hours later, the associate returned to the bus terminal with a box of visas. The workers would then board buses for the border, 147 miles to the north.
The women from Palomas knew what to do. They found the office, at the end of an underground hallway. Juana was resigned. Her goodbyes had been said. Her Maalox bottle was tucked in her purse. In six months, she would return to Palomas with enough money to finish the church.
The del Alamo representative appeared at the door. In her sleek beige blazer and heels, she towered over the women from Palomas, whose dark clothes had been washed on a stone. Her tone was curt. Something was wrong. She pointed to names on a list.
"You must come back Tuesday for an interview at the consulate," she said.
Juana, Ana Rosa, and three other women from Palomas were told to return for a face-to-face interview at the consulate Tuesday.
It was Saturday morning. They had barely slept. They had traveled all night to reach Monterrey. They had no money for a hotel. But they accepted the news without protest, with a deep familiarity of accepting someone else's plans.
Juana slumped. She could not endure another round of goodbyes with her children. And yet the church was counting on her money.
Ana Rosa sat down. Without the visa, she faced a long summer in Palomas.
Two visas had been granted. "Who, who?" the women asked.
They went to Delia and Ceci Tovar.
The Tovar sisters grabbed their suitcases. The bus to the border was waiting. Delia called back to Ana Rosa. "You'll make it in a few days, cousin."
* * *
Three hours later, Delia and Ceci reached the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo. Delia could see Border Patrol vehicles cruising the fence line in the shimmering bands of heat. Why hadn't the others been granted visas, she wondered. A U.S. helicopter whooshed overhead.
They were dropped off at an old colonial plaza, joined by two other women, both del Alamo recruits also being sent to Daniels Seafood.
Except for Delia, all were first-timers, and the fear showed.
"Andale," Delia said, leading the charge. It was 97 degrees. The streets burned through their shoes. They would cross into Texas by walking across the Rio Grande on International Bridge 1.
Nuevo Laredo was a crush of Americans carrying piñatas and clanking bottles of duty-free tequila. "These Mexicans get you coming and going, don't they?" said a tourist, dropping 35 cents into the turnstiles of the bridge.
Delia and Ceci followed, lugging their suitcases. They were on the bridge. Delia could see the brown bathwater of the Rio Grande rushing below the grates of the steel span. U.S. Border Patrol guards were straight ahead, waiting at the end of the bridge.
At customs, drug-sniffing dogs pulled at short leashes. Ceci's eyes flashed nervously as she dug for her passport. Car trunks were searched as the undersides of vehicles were swept with mirrors. In 1998, U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended 103,441 illegal migrants in the Laredo sector alone.
Delia gave her younger sister a look. Don't worry, she seemed to say, we have the paperwork.
On the Texas side, they found the Laredo Greyhound station, five blocks from the Rio Grande. They had a seven-hour wait for their bus, passing the time on metal chairs in the glow of the candy machines.
With their $99 tickets to Elizabeth City, N.C., they left on the 11 p.m. coach.
* * *
Time becomes liquid on a 2,000-mile bus ride. Fevered hallucinations jolt the body awake in trembling fits. Just as deep sleep seems possible, the mighty hydraulic brakes of the Greyhound gasp, and the overhead lights blast on for a 3 a.m. bus transfer.
Before dawn, the Greyhound peeled by Waco and its prefab prairie wood structures. The bus was dark and cold as it flew along the interstate like a low bird. To stay warm, Ceci and Delia curled around each other, breathing softly as they slept, folded into the years of familiarity.
In the leaden sky of daybreak, the winged evangelical churches of Dallas appeared like space ships that had landed along the Texas interstate.
From the window, Ceci noticed a Chevrolet dealership. It was larger than Palomas. "Grande," she whispered.
The bus driver's voice crept into the silence, like a lonely night-shift disc jockey. "It's not even right about 7 o'clock, what with the light traffic of Sunday morning, we should be early into Dallas," he announced.
From Interstate 20, Louisiana and its oil refineries rolled past. The road made a tunnel through the green. The noon church bells of downtown Shreveport chimed in the muggy Sunday air.
On the back roads, Vidalia onion stands along the bayous were tended by old men at rickety card tables. The bus tore past them and their forgotten regions.
Somewhere in Mississippi, a man in the 15th row opened a brown paper sack, filling the bus with a smoky-orange smell, the way mesquite smelled when it burned in Palomas. The scent was so familiar that Ceci turned around, only to see a man in a straw hat eating barbecued ribs.
She closed her eyes.
And dreamt. On her last night in Palomas, a young man had called her on the phone at Señor Herrera's store. Goodbye for the summer, Ceci had told him, blowing a kiss into the receiver. They met at high school. Graduation. The diploma. Her parents watching. Her white dress. Sleep. Her bed. The rising noise of the animals each morning: the roosters dropping down from the branches of the mesquite trees, the quarreling burros, the horses that nickered to each other across fences. The smell of the breakfast fire. The sound of cartoons. Her nephew.
Ceci awakened. A sign outside the window said Spartanburg. The bus was gliding through a chute of trees.
Sitting behind her were three Mexican men bound for the tobacco fields of North Carolina. They were fantasizing about food, using tones reserved for a beautiful woman.
Eggs with chorizo, one of the men said, speaking in Spanish.
My mother's tortillas, said another.
Ah, said the third friend, tamales with green sauce.
Delia and Ceci listened, their mouths watering.
As the miles rolled by, the men kept topping each other, until their imaginary banquet in Mexico was spilling over. Then there was silence.
On the third day, they crossed into North Carolina.
* * *
Inside the crab picking room at Daniels Seafood, an announcement was made:
"The Spanish ladies are coming."
Mary Tillett's plastic apron was splattered with bits of crab and shell. She'd been expecting the news.
In the spring of 1998, four black women still worked as crab pickers for Daniels Seafood. They were all that remained of the original 13. The youngest was 63.
They sat around a silver-topped table heaped with steamed blue crabs, trading gossip or supermarket prices, pushing their eyeglasses back up their noses with their wrists.
Sometimes, they sang. Highway to Heaven was a favorite.
"It sounds like church in there," a tourist from Michigan said one day, stopping in Daniels Seafood to buy a pound of crab meat. "May I take their picture?"
At 84, Mary Tillett was the oldest. Her hair was the color of metal filings, pressed the old-fashioned way, with an iron she heated on her stove. Her skin was as smooth as pecan shells. Her hands were large and strong.
She started working in a crab house in 1929.
"I'm doing fairly, by and by," she'd say, her tongue engraved with the relic dialect spoken by natives of Roanoke Island.
But lately, her head would drop and her crab knife would go slack in her hand. She'd doze off.
The arrival of the Mexicans brought pressure. The black women stopped taking a lunch break. Instead, they nibbled corn bread or potted meat they brought from home, wrapped in paper towels in their patent leather pocketbooks.
Mary Tillett wasn't even sure where Mexico was, only that it was far.
"Lord knows, they must need it mighty bad to come all this way," she said.
The crab house had been her pitiful domain for so long it never occurred to her that someone else would want it.
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