Guide to parts one and two
|After working all week at Daniels Seafood, the women attend Saturday night Spanish Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church. They were spiritual, but they were also strategic. The church service was a magnet for the spring influx of Hispanics, which included eligible young Mexican men. Above, Ana Rosa, Ceci and Guadalupe pray.
[Times photo: Joshua Dautoff]
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Sand dunes, Pizza Hut, dashboard radios, kissing in the dark. All around, summer beckons the women from Palomas.
By ANNE HULL
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 11, 1999
(Third of three parts)
The young men slipped into a pew at Holy Trinity Catholic Church. Earnest, long-lashed, their goatees trimmed desperado-style, they leafed through Spanish hymnals, trying to find their place.
But what they really wanted, beyond eternal salvation and God's hand over their families in Mexico, was a better view of the women in the third row.
The women who'd worked at Daniels Seafood the previous season, the mothers with the round shoulders and somber scarves had been replaced by their daughters, this pageant of crushed velvet and gold crucifixes on bare skin.
Ana Rosa and the Tovar sisters sat in the lilac coolness of the church, exhausted from another six-day work week of shucking crabs.
But they summoned every last ounce of energy for church. Holy Trinity held the keys to their freedom. Not in the outstretched arms of the saints, but in the pews of worshipers.
Every Saturday evening, Holy Trinity celebrated a Spanish Mass for migrant workers.
That included young Mexican men with cars.
Ana Rosa had the habit of casting her eyes down, shyly, as if remembering her mother's words: Be humble before God. When the priest nodded, she walked to the altar.
She read the letter from Paul to the Galatians, unaware that a stocky young man was watching her.
His name was Fermin, one of the hundreds of illegal aliens working the construction boom on North Carolina's Outer Banks.
Fermin had left Guadalajara when he was 15, scrambling through the fence in California, and heading east. Now he was 19, earning $15 an hour under the table. Half of his paycheck he wired to his family in Mexico.
With the rest, he gorged himself on expensive sneakers and shimmering sweat suits. A pair of headphones were usually clamped over his ears. He listened to old-fashioned nortenas that were oddly wistful for a man so young.
After church, Fermin approached Ana Rosa.
From that moment, she knew.
Soon, they were taking drives out to the dunes on Nags Head Beach. His 1986 Toyota was so small the women from Palomas dubbed it El Zapato. The Shoe.
Fermin drove cautiously, using his turn signal at all times, even when changing lanes. The other 19-year-olds on the causeway blew by in their fathers' Jeep Cherokees.
A simple traffic stop could have led to his deportation.
Ana Rosa began making Fermin's lunch. Tortillas, carnitas, black beans, butterflied chicken breasts, something different every day. He would come to Daniels Seafood at noon on his break.
Wearing a hairnet, she looked like a senorita from an old bullfight poster, except her skin was flecked with bits of crab.
Fermin got used to the smell.
"There is no shame in work," he told her.
Employment at Daniels Seafood became a way to fuel their consumer frenzy. They were earning roughly $270 a paycheck and sending almost nothing home. Once a week they were taken to Kmart. They left no aisle unvisited. They were blowing their money like none of this would ever be possible again. Maybe it wouldn't.
The women brought cameras on their last day of work and requested a farewell group photo. From left to right: Delia, Nelida, Ana Rosa, Olga, Alma. (Missing are Ceci and Guadalupe.) In the center is Mickey Daniels Jr., surrounded by his sons, Mickey T. and Miles, and his nephew, Gary Beacham.
[Times photo: Pam Royal]
Still, she managed to send $500 a month to Mexico. Save your money, her father told her, and bring it home where it is most needed. They were building a house with her earnings.
Since arriving from Mexico in May, the women had been exiled in a trailer at the edge of town, filling their nights with TV.
But by late June, they were rescued from the worn radius of Kmart and Family Dollar. The Mass at Holy Trinity had proved fruitful.
Other young suitors were now calling at the trailer, wearing Chicago White Sox ball caps and low-slung jeans. They offered gifts of chorizo, boxes of doughnuts or sacks of Burger King.
Most were undocumented Mexican workers. The young men knew their way around the Outer Banks, and delighted in revealing its secrets: the striped lighthouses, Pizza Hut and the summer carnival at the beach.
"The round wheel?" Guadalupe asked.
The next Friday night, the women scrubbed their skin until the crab smell was gone. They drowned themselves in drugstore perfume and buttoned on their new jeans.
From the road, they could see the twirling colored lights on the beach. It was the summer carnival, the one they'd seen through the windows of the crab house van.
They bought tickets for the Ferris wheel. Up they went, their feet dangling, screaming for the ride operator to slow down. Bajanos, bajanos! they shrieked from the top. Their dark hair flew in the wind. They laughed so hard tears streamed down their cheeks.
The next morning, the crab house van honked at dawn. They were exhausted.
The four elderly black women who still picked crabs at Daniels Seafood possessed none of the newcomers' exotic mystery. They worked quietly, in a far pasture, while the new low-wage thoroughbreds trotted all around.
Ruth Daniels, the meat packer at Daniels Seafood, was taking the Mexican women on Friday nights to La Fogata, a Mexican restaurant.
"They's brave, all I got to say," Ruth observed. "The first time they came over, I picked them up at the bus station. They's just as scared as they could be. My heart went out to them."
Whose heart had ever gone out to the black women? They started picking crabs before minimum wage, before overtime. The years melted in their minds as they tried to remember all the crab house bosses they'd answered to.
"What was the name of that Jew man down to Skyco?" Mary Tillett asked her sister.
"I don't rightly know," Annie said. "They had me cooking for him. They'd take me from the factory and have me cook his dinners."
The very presence of the younger Mexican women reminded the black women of their mortality.
The older women found pride in extracting imperial pearls of crab meat, unbroken and beautiful. Their knives worked in intricate patterns, skillfully lifting the lumps from the fluted compartments of the shells.
The Mexican women were faster, but in the name of speed, they threw away crab carcasses still containing the last hard-to-get bits of meat.
"Vamonos Mary," Guadalupe called out, teasing Mary to hurry.
"Yes, Lord, yes," Mary said, smiling, a dimestore barrette in her gray hair.
But it was just a matter of time for the older women.
"I think Mickey Junior's going to have to replace them with Mexicans," Ruth said.
They lived in Manteo, on the north end of Roanoke Island, in a shaded neighborhood populated by deacons, teachers, shrimpers and garbage men. The occasional loose hen walked across the road. If the windows were open on Sundays at Free Grace Church, organ music drifted out into the muggy air.
One drizzly dawn, the Daniels Seafood van rolled up to Mary Tillett's house on Fernando Street to pick her up for work. A straw hat was nailed to the front door. Mary, 84, was a widow, without children.
Ruth gave two short honks. The women from Palomas were in the back seats, spoons clanking as they ate their mugs of yogurt or cereal. Mary was never late.
But this morning, Ruth had to honk again. The rain started coming down harder. Still, no Mary.
Annie, her 77-year-old sister, sat up, holding her patent leather pocketbook. For 39 years, Annie and Mary had worked side by side at the crab picking table.
"Where is she?" Ruth asked, impatient.
"Maybe I should go see about her," Annie said, her eyes fixed on the door. Annie's face was expressionless, but she began to twist the handle on her pocketbook. Even Delia, who was in the back of the van, took off her headphones and leaned forward to watch the door.
Twelve years earlier, the van had stopped at the home of Mary and Annie's other sister, Esther, who also worked for Daniels Seafood. The van honked and honked. Esther had died in her sleep, her crab knife still in her purse near the door.
Ruth shifted into park and was beginning to climb down from the van when Mary appeared. She was dressed but moving slowly. She wore an orange bandanna and a rain bonnet patched with duct tape. She winced as she pulled herself up into the van. Nothing was said.
At quitting time, Annie carried Mary's crab meat to the scales for her. When she returned, she squeezed Mary's wrist.
"You done real good today," Annie said.
Mary had picked 12.8 pounds, which earned her $21.76 for the day.
Delia had picked 26.4 pounds, earning $44.88. She bought her a $100 pair of Nikes that weekend.
So intense was the summer sun that Mickey Daniels Jr. was crabbing before dawn with a spotlight to avoid the heat. His eyes were blood shot. His skin stung from the wind and salt. The crab season lasted only six months.
"You got to get all you can, while you can," he said.
Around the fishing village of Wanchese, children watched their fathers fall asleep in their supper. The men tossed at night, wondering where the big schools of fish were running.
One Sunday at church, the preacher beseeched the men in Mickey Junior's congregation.
"All the fish out in the sound are not as important as the fish at home," the pastor reminded.
But Mickey Junior had it right: Nature provided a window of opportunity that opened and closed at will.
One of his sons was urging him to forget fishing and cash in on the tourist boom along the Outer Banks.
"Jet Skis are the future," he told his father.
By the middle of the summer, North Carolina was having a strong blue crab season and would surpass the 1997 catch of 56-million pounds. The crabs were plentiful. Nature's window was wide open.
His work force was the problem.
Five of the 12 Mexican women were still picking less than 24 pounds a day, which meant Mickey Junior had to supplement their pay to meet the minimum wage law. He didn't like this. It worked on him. He felt he was giving his money away.
One of his pickers -- a woman from Palomas who'd overstayed her visa from the last season and now lived illegally on Roanoke Island -- got pregnant and began missing work.
"Once they stay," Mickey Junior said, "they become independent, and not as dependable."
He faced a decision. He could send the slowest pickers back to Mexico and order replacements. It would take a month for a new picker to get up to speed. By then it would be August. The season ended in December.
Or he could tough it out and hope his current crew got faster.
Ana Rosa was barely producing 25 pounds a day.
For most women, working six days a week in a crab house sapped every ounce of strength. Ana Rosa had a second job. She was in love.
"She's courtin' pretty heavy," Mickey Junior said. "I don't know if she's staying out half the night or what."
A letter arrived in Palomas, with a North Carolina postmark. It was from Ana Rosa.
Eagerly, Juana Cedillo opened her daughter's letter.
His name is Fermin. He is from Guadalajara. He was getting ready to leave and then we met. He was all packed. I prayed, "If he is for me, let him stay.'
He stayed. He tells me he loves me.
Juana read it again, to make sure she understood the implications.
Juana was the speed king of Daniels Seafood whose visa had been denied for the 1998 blue crab season. Not getting a visa meant more than missing out on $6,000 in potential earnings. It meant her 19-year-old daughter had gone to North Carolina alone. Unguarded.
Juana couldn't get the letter out of her mind. She wanted to talk with Marcos, her husband. But he was 2,500 miles away, working the tobacco harvest in Virginia with their oldest son.
Juana had other worries. Palomas was suffering through a crushing drought. The desert flowers were brown-paper blossoms. Residents lined their roofs with buckets, waiting for rain. The water supply was dangerously low.
Juana sent her 14-year-old son to the communal cistern every few days. The dirt road out to the cistern was a cavalry of wagons and burros lashed with empty containers.
Palomas had a ghostly feeling. Twenty-five percent of the residents were working in the States. To be left behind was a form of financial banishment.
Construction on the new Catholic church in Palomas had come to a halt. It sat in a pit of sand, a half-finished, open-air reminder to Juana. She'd planned on giving her earnings from Daniels Seafood to the church fund.
The existing church was so small and humble that the holy water was kept in a baby food jar.
Juana earned $2 an afternoon wrapping tamales husks for a local factory. The church needed $1,200.
And yet secretly, she felt relief. Daniels Seafood kept her away from her children for six months.
"At first you go because you think you can give them a better life with the money you earn," Juana said. "But then you realize to have a good life, a mother's love is more important than anything money can buy."
One overcast afternoon, an urgent bulletin was passed from house to house: "The Virgin is doing visits."
Suddenly, a large parade rounded a corner. The swaying mass of women and children were led by a barefoot boy carrying a portrait of the Virgin Mary. They were praying for rain.
Early the next morning, Juana was still in bed when she heard the noise. The scent of fresh moisture came off the desert. It was unmistakable. And the sound! Ping, ping, ping as the rain drops pelted the tin roof.
But then it stopped, and the sun rose like a hot coin.
That night, Juana couldn't sleep. Alone in her kitchen, while the children slept, she composed a letter to Ana Rosa.
You are not an orphan. You have a strong family. If he loves you, he should come to Palomas and meet your family.
Juana's family was sprinkled across a map that she couldn't see. The United States had her husband, her oldest son and her oldest daughter.
As Juana finished the letter, the only sound in the kitchen was the hum of the new refrigerator. It was self-defrosting.
While Palomas thirsted, the labor recruiter Jorge del Alamo was spending the weekend at La Posada, an old colonial hotel in the Texas border town of Laredo.
La Posada was an elegant compound in the clutter and desperation of Laredo. Bougainvillea crawled along from balconies overlooking the pool where del Alamo relaxed.
Just over his shoulder was the Rio Grande and the bridge the women from Palomas had crossed as they lugged their suitcases over the border in May.
That muddy divide was how del Alamo made his money.
His company supplied thousands of Mexicans to seasonal jobs in the States, charging each worker $130. Some used their life savings to pay him.
One of del Alamo's biggest clients was the North Carolina Growers Association, which made money by brokering workers to the fields and seafood processing plants in the Southeast.
Del Alamo was 77, with a Cuban accent that grew thicker when he spoke with a reporter asking questions.
"My English is not so good," he'd say, sheepishly receding into smiles, and then closing the door.
The timing was delicate. While welfare reform was turning out thousands of former recipients into the U.S. job market in the summer of 1998, the North Carolina Growers Association was importing thousands of foreign workers for low-wage work.
At the urging of the Growers Association and other farmers, Congress was also considering an expanded foreign guest worker program. Migrant worker advocates called it a return to peonage.
The business of human capital was ruthless.
In early 1998, three lawyers from the federally-funded Farmworkers Legal Services of North Carolina visited 12 Mexican villages to educate migrant workers about their legal rights in the States. One of the lawyers was secretly videotaped.
The tape found its way to members of Congress, who questioned why U.S. tax dollars were being spent on non-U.S. citizens.
Punishment was swift and harsh.
A few months later, Farmworkers Legal Services of North Carolina lost its entire funding.
And in North Carolina, one 19-year-old temporary foreign guest worker sat on the couch in her trailer and studied a calendar.
For Ana Rosa, time was running out. Her visa expired in December. She would have to return to Mexico.
If Fermin went back to Mexico with Ana Rosa, he risked losing his stake in the U.S. economy. He was making good money. His construction boss liked him. If he returned to Mexico, there was no assurance he could later re-enter the States without Immigration catching him.
Ana Rosa and Fermin were only sure of their love, not their future.
She liked his gentleness, his broad shoulders, his backward baseball cap. One night in the trailer, he painted her toenails. A machismo man from Palomas would never do such a thing.
Fermin proposed marriage. Ana Rosa said yes, a thousand times.
Not long after, Juana called from Palomas to speak with Fermin.
"If you want to build the road the right way, you will come here and meet your new family," Juana said.
Fermin had been wandering since he was 15. He wanted to build the road the right way.
In late August, Hurricane Bonnie was aiming for the coast of North Carolina at 115 miles per hour. The chop of the sound pushed foamy water across the causeway. Roads were closing. Dare County was under mandatory evacuation.
Emergency trucks crawled along streets, using a bullhorn to tell residents to leave.
The wind battered the trailer where the women from Palomas lived In the high plains of Mexico, they hardly saw raindrops. Now it was coming sideways. Their tin can groaned. Branches dropped on the roof. Television stations were keeping round-the-clock hurricane watch, but the women couldn't understand a word of it.
Their boyfriends called. Come with us, they said, we'll get a motel.
Delia and Ceci would have rather washed out to sea than to tell their parents they went to a motel with men.
Delia expected to hear from Mickey Junior. He was out in Roanoke Sound, furiously pulling up all 140 of his crab pots.
There were many things the women from Palomas liked about their boss. He went to church regularly. He treated his wife well. Most of all, he'd decided not to send the slower pickers back to Mexico, as he could have.
But a Category Three Hurricane was bearing down on them.
"In America, I guess it's every man for himself," Delia said. A Hispanic family she knew from church called, offering a ride to a hotel.
Hurricane Bonnie wobbled along the coast, waterlogging towns, but not destroying them. After three days, the women returned to the trailer. The yard was trashed. They had no electricity, no water. Their food was spoiled.
"It doesn't matter if my house floats away as long as I have my little knife," Ceci said, referring to her crab knife.
There was a man waiting for Delia on the steps of the trailer. It was Danny. He was 20, a Mexican James Dean, with a delicate stone earring.
When Delia fell into his arms, she was no longer Delia the labor leader fighting Daniels Seafood.
She picked up the phone to call Palomas to tell her mother they'd survived the hurricane. She raised a finger to her lips.
Callate, she told Danny. Be quiet.
It was her parents' worst fear that she or sister Ceci would make a mistake with a man.
In Palomas, they weren't even allowed out after dark.
In North Carolina, Danny was teaching Delia to drive.
As the weeks passed, the leaves began to drop from the trees on Roanoke Island. Sweaters were purchased. Cold weather was usually a signal that the crab season was coming to an end. Some crab house owners said the Mexicans got itchy feet when the weather turned cold.
By November, women began to vanish from the Daniels Seafood crew.
One left for Mexico because she was homesick and missed her children.
Another set out for Houston. It was Esmerelda. Her wit had kept everyone going when they'd first arrived. On a covert mission, she once switched the Christian radio station in the crab house to disco, breaking into a vamy lip-sync, using her crab knife for a microphone.
She left in the middle of the night.
Mickey Junior referred to them as "runaways."
Their last day of work was a day of pale winter sunshine, 58 degrees and mixed emotions. They were escaping the work they hated, and yet they were leaving the freedom it bought them.
In the afternoon, Mickey Daniels Jr. stuck his head into the crab picking room. "Hola," he said. "Happy or sad?"
"Happy, Meeky Yoon-yer," said Guadalupe, who had long since replaced her hairnet with a black Nike cap.
Daniels Seafood kept a Spanish-English dictionary near the cash register, but Mickey Junior rarely cracked it.
"Are your boyfriends sad?" he asked, leaning in the doorway.
Delia understood and smiled. Si. Mickey Junior handed each woman her bonus: a $59 bus ticket to Laredo.
Whatever complicated feelings they had toward their boss had been resolved. They'd heard stories about other crab houses. They considered themselves lucky.
Ana Rosa insisted they inscribe their crab knives before they were stored for the season. She wrapped white adhesive tape around the steel handles and wrote their names with a felt-tip pen, spelling her own name in what she thought was English, with an extra "N.'
The act had nothing to do with sentimentality; the names would help Mickey Junior remember who to ask for when he ordered his Mexican workers again.
As the women from Palomas stood around the crab table that last day, they sang a traditional Mexican song called Las Golondrinas. The Swallows.
Their voices were high and delicate as they sang in Spanish.
Where will they go
swiftly and tired
the swallows who leave from here?
Will they find themselves
lost in the sky
but never finding it?
The black women put down their knives and clapped. They understood none of the words. But they recognized the plaintive tune. They had watched the women from Palomas stuff their shopping bags with shoes and clothes and can openers.
"They ain't got much over there, do they?" Mary said, watching them bring their meat to the scales for the last time.
Pressed against the windows of the crab house van, the women from Palomas bid farewell to everything and everyone on their ride back to the trailer.
Adios, hombre. Adios, bicicleta. Adios, policia. Adios, Santa. Adios, Wanchese. Adios, Mary. "Okay then baby, take care," Mary said, squeezing Ceci's hand. "Y'all young 'uns be good, hear?"
They stripped down the Christmas lights they had strung on the porch. They packed their boxes until the cardboard ripped at the seams. They played Los Temerarios on the stereo and kissed their boyfriends goodbye.
On the ride to the bus station at 4 the next morning, Ceci shivered in the freezing December weather. She wore a new London Fog coat she bought at an outlet mall. The van stunk of crabs.
Along the coast, the moon shone over the water. It was dark, just as it had been when they first arrived in May, when Ruth picked them up from the bus station in Elizabeth City. Now it was December.
Ruth turned up the radio. Doris Day was singing Silver Bells in amber tones. Then the disc jockey's voice.
"The 1950s were the happiest times the U.S. will ever know."
|After four days on buses, Ana Rosa returned through the gates of home. Her mother placed a plate on the counter. No hay nada como aqui, Ana Rosa said, smiling. There's no place like here.|
The bus again. Charlotte, New Orleans, Houston, Laredo.
On the fourth day, the frayed edges of the highway crumbled off into the darkened Sierra Madre. Lone figures of cactus were outlined by thin moonlight. The Mexican city of Matehuala passed on the west, barely visible, and beyond it, the deserted silver mines in the high canyons. They knew they were home.
When they finally reached Palomas at 3 o'clock on a Friday afternoon, Guadalupe ceremoniously removed her new Nike sneakers before stepping into the dust-filled streets.
A cloud of Calvin Klein perfume drifted over the ears of the burros. Families poured out of their concrete houses to greet the returning voyagers. It was Dec. 18. They had been gone almost seven months.
Ana Rosa's father, Marcos, had picked them up from the side of the highway, where a Mexican bus dropped them and their mountain of suitcases and ripped boxes, all 32 pieces.
Marcos himself had just arrived home from the tobacco harvest in Virginia. Greeting his daughter, he shook her hand, formally and gently.
Juana was waiting outside the patio gate. Quenched by rain, her small garden was a tangle of rose bushes and guavas. Like the garden, the house was alive. The men were home. And now Ana Rosa was home.
Her brothers and sister were taller. "They grew because I stayed," Juana said.
In the kitchen, Juana dished up a bowl of chicken soup with limes, and a stack of fresh tortillas.
Ana Rosa smiled. No hay nada como aqui, she said.
There's no place like here.
The children begged Ana Rosa to open her boxes. They crammed into her small bedroom, with Juana watching from the door. There were sneakers, nightgowns, bedspreads, sandals, an electric mixer, snow globes, jeans, rugby shirts, toys, towels, backpacks, Hershey's Kisses, curtains, leotards and satin dresses, all smelling slightly of crabs.
The excess embarrassed Juana. All the hours at the crab table had been converted to this.
"Did you leave anything for the people in the States?" Juana asked. "Is Bill Clinton in there, too?"
Ana Rosa produced a gift set of Obsession cologne. "This is for Papi."
Next she held up a long gown for Juana. "You will look just like the lady in the soap opera."
Ana Rosa had saved only $300 from her entire season.
Juana's earnings from Daniels Seafood one year paid for two new rooms on the house.
For six months of labor, her daughter had only clothes and good times.
Early the next morning, before the house was awake, Juana and Marcos could be heard talking from their bedroom. There were yawns and laughs, and the sound of a belt buckling, and then Marcos went out and started the truck.
Both were thinking about this man whom their daughter said she was going to marry.
Fermin had boarded the Trailways bus with Ana Rosa and the other crew from Palomas, riding all the way back to the border with them. After crossing into Mexico, they split up.
With a $600 Sony stereo and a Kennex tennis racket under his arm -- the gifts he would present to his family he hadn't seen in four years -- Fermin continued on to Guadalajara.
He promised to return to Palomas to marry Ana Rosa.
The next Saturday night, the houses across Palomas were dark and empty. Even Senor Herrera's store was closed. A stray vulture circled in the black sky.
Everyone was somewhere. It was the basketball court. There was a wedding party.
The band Los Nomadas del Norte were pumping pearl-plated accordions under a string of light bulbs. Tottering little cook shacks sold fried pig skin or elote, roasted corn on sticks. All of Palomas was here.
The bride and groom were taking the customary first dance on the basketball court. One by one, well-wishers approached to pin pesos to the bride's veil.
From the fence, Ana Rosa watched the newlyweds. Seeing the couple only made her miss Fermin. She was ready to be the bride. Soon, she told herself. He will be here soon.
Chicas, Ana Rosa called. In the hundreds of people, the young women from Daniels Seafood found each other. They huddled together, shouting above the music.
"Girls, they almost kept my stereo at the border. I said, "No, please, I worked so hard for it."
"We waited in Laredo for 20 hours."
"Where is Fermin?"
"I am not dancing with anyone from here tonight."
Their Spanish was rapid-fire, their sophistication undeniable. They were glamorous outsiders now, with glossy gel in their hair. Other young women eyed them with suspicion.
Juana made her way through the crowd to find her friend, who was selling tamale to raise money for their church. Both women had worked at Daniels Seafood in previous seasons.
Standing at the tamales booth now, Juana and her friend saw Ana Rosa, Delia, Ceci and the other swallows.
It made them consider the future. They were both mothers. The 1999 crab season was not far off.
"I liked North Carolina," her friend said. "It was like our own little world. The work? Well, don't think about the work. I want to go next year. I want my house to be bigger. I want to buy a car. If it's a new car, that would be excellent. A Nissan truck!"
Juana saw Ana Rosa dancing with her father. They danced traditionally, hands clasped, hips never touching.
"I don't really miss it," Juana said. "I just remember it."
Palomas was quiet the next morning. A burro stood near the basketball court. A man was asleep under a mesquite tree, still holding a beer bottle. Grease-stained paper plates tumbled down the desolate street.
At the Tovars' house, an ever-expanding compound of bedrooms, Delia Tovar sat in a rocking chair. She was holding her brother's new baby. She wore her mother's old-fashioned apron. Delia could have been from a painting a hundred years ago.
"When I am here, it's hard to imagine I was ever there," she said.
But it is there she will return.
Once, Delia thought she would be an accountant. Now, her sights were set on quick cash.
A damp Christmas cold had settled over the coast of North Carolina. Mickey Daniels Jr. was waiting on the couch for the doorbell to ring. The table was set with china and silver. Prime rib was in the oven.
|I just thank the good Lord I still got the strength to work, Mary Tillett, 84, said.
Bejeweled and bewigged, the guests arrived at 6 sharp. Mary Tillett wore a dress and a holiday scarf.
When Mary was younger, she would ride by this house in a school bus that brought the women to the crab house. Now she was sitting in a living room aromatic with cinnamon and meat drippings, waiting to be served.
It was Linda Daniels who'd told her husband it was time to pay tribute to the women who'd stuck with Daniels Seafood for three generations.
When everyone was seated at the table, Mickey Junior bowed his head. "Lord, thank you for allowing us to be able to work together, and strengthen and nourish us as we do your work."
"Oh, Jesus," Mary said, her eyes closed. "Jesus, yes."
Mickey Junior was looking down the table at his own life. He was 10 when his father hired Mary. Now he was 50, and the world had changed so much he didn't recognize it any more. Few things still anchored him. These old women did.
He'd once made the observation that his crabbing and their picking were becoming obsolete. Education was everything these days. A book. A formula. "We are the last of it," he said.
Later that night, in her cramped house on Fernando Street, Mary Tillett took off her plastic pearl earrings and set them on her dresser for church.
From her doorstep, she fed the cat a bite of leftovers from dinner.
She pulled the door shut against the cold, and retreated into the dim familiarity of her living room. She walked down the hallway, past the bookshelf, where a ceramic bell painted with the American flag was next to the "I Have a Dream" speech, still wrapped in its original plastic.
In January, Fermin drove up the long dirt road to Palomas. You are from here? he whispered to Ana Rosa. They were married in a Catholic church in Ciudad del Maíz. Juana cooked for three days. The reception was held in their courtyard in Palomas.
If she loves him, then we will love him, Juana said.
Their plan was to return to North Carolina. Fermin would pay a smuggler $1,200 to get across the border. Ana Rosa would ask Mickey Daniels Jr. to order her for the 1999 blue crab season, and hope that the U.S. Consulate would issue her a visa.
Delia Tovar was also married. She wed Danny in late January, in Guadalajara, with her family present. Delia and Danny formed the same shaky plan as Ana Rosa and Fermin. They would journey separately to North Carolina and meet there.
As spring settled in Palomas, the sunflowers came up in the fields. That meant the workers would start leaving for the States again. Ana Rosas father and brother left for Virginia. Her uncle was sidelined, after he came home last year vomiting blood from agricultural pesticides.
Two weeks ago, the phone rang in Señor Herreras store. Once again, Señor Herrera sent word to the 12 women going to Daniels Seafood that it was time.
Four days later, all 12 stepped from the Trailways bus in North Carolina.
There was Ana Rosa, who was two months pregnant. Delia. Ceci. The others from last year.
And best of all, from Mickey Juniors standpoint, the speed king of Daniels Seafood had decided to return for the 1999 crab season. Juana was back.
Juanas church still needed a roof. A daughter needed money for high school tuition. All of the needs dont make the pain of leaving your children any softer, Juana said, from North Carolina.
Mary Tilletts arthritis in her hands was so severe she was unsure whether shed be able to pick crabs this season. If the good Lord wants it, she said.
Parts one and two
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