In the anonymous darkness, with only the yellow moon guiding the way through the marsh grass and the loblolly pines, the women on the bus, so far from home, began to sing.

"Tu estas siempre en mi mente," came the soft Mexican bolero. "You are always on my mind."

"How did you manage to forget me? Help me forget. You are always, always, you, you, you, always on my mind."

Rosa Espinoza sat silent as the others sang. She leaned her head against the window and looked over the passing swampland toward the night-cloaked Chesapeake Bay to a small island where she works at a stainless steel table, slicing open steamed crabs with a thin knife and picking out the meat.

The women of Hoopers Island have returned, most of them Mexicans in their twenties and thirties who waited for weeks this summer while the fate of their jobs -- and Maryland's crab industry -- was debated in Congress. They have come back to do the work others left behind, and back to the weekly bus trips into town that offer them a rare respite from isolation.

But now, their hairnets and plastic aprons have been replaced with handbags and perfume, sleeveless white shirts, gold necklaces and pressed black pants. When the bus driver honks twice, they walk from their group homes and dormitories to ride 30 curving miles along Maryland's Eastern Shore to the nearest city, Cambridge, where they dip their scarred hands in the holy water of St. Mary's Refuge of Sinners Catholic Church. After the Saturday evening Mass, some will be met by boyfriends with cars for a night of dancing, and the rest will take the long bus ride home for a quiet Sunday.

"And I try to forget you. I want to forget you. And I don't know how to forget you. Always on my mind."

"They are missing their husbands," Espinoza said as the other women sang on the ride back to the island.

"Me? Everything," she said. "My kids, my food, my other life. I miss everything."

It was 1990 when Jay Newcomb decided enough was enough. As manager of the A.E. Phillips & Son crab plant on the island -- owned by the same family that operates the Phillips seafood restaurants in Washington, Baltimore and Ocean City, among other locations -- Newcomb faced a predicament: 200 bushels of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs and two people to pick them.

Desperate for labor, Newcomb looked to Mexico. At the time, the Census Bureau reported 166 Hispanics in Dorchester County.

In that first year, after navigating the immigration bureaucracy for temporary work visas, he put 12 Mexican women up in a hotel in Cambridge and bused them to the plant. Newcomb said he encountered hostility from some on the island, including other crab plant owners who were suspicious of bringing in a Latino workforce to an island that for generations was home to white watermen.

The nine crab houses that remain here all rely on Mexican women for the monotonous, sometimes painful job of removing meat from crabs. At full strength, Phillips employs about 35 people, comparable to the other crab houses on the island.

There are now an estimated 1,200 full-time Hispanic residents in the county, excluding the scores of seasonal employees. The demand for Latino labor was so high this year across the country that the national cap of 66,000 temporary visas was reached before many Chesapeake processors submitted applications. It took an emergency amendment to an unrelated military spending bill to allow hundreds of Mexicans to return to Maryland. After a six-week delay, it put the crab houses on Hoopers back in business.

A Painful Shift

By 6 a.m., the sky over the Phillips crab plant had lightened. Angelica Calderon, 30, had been awake for two hours. She sat facing her sister, Olga, 22, two of 16 women -- 14 of them Mexican -- who began working at 5 a.m.

They will work, with deft movements and few breaks, until 4:30 p.m., when their bare hands are raw and inflamed from the sharp spines of the crab shells and their backs are aching from the straight-backed metal chairs. A stereo plays Latino folk music, but the women go long stretches without talking, some rhythmically rocking, lost in thought.

The neck-high pile of crabs the Calderon sisters face each morning have been caught the previous day, cooked in a vapor heated to a minimum of 240 degrees for 10 minutes, then cooled overnight. Angelica Calderon put tape on her left thumb and right index finger; gloves are optional but few use them -- they just slow the pace.

She grabbed a crab, ripped off its claws. She stabbed the paring knife into the buster line, pried off the top shell. She sliced off the four walking and swimming legs on one side. Quick twist. Off came the other four. She gouged out the gills, raked away the stomach. With a scoop, she had the prize: the cotton-ball-size "jumbo lump" of swimming muscle, which she placed in a 16-ounce plastic cup. When full, it will sell for $18 wholesale. With the knife, she scraped out the remaining flakes of "backfin" meat ($10 a pound) from the carcass and legs. The entire process took her 16 seconds. She has been doing this for five years now.

In a day, the crab house will pick about 500 pounds of meat. On Friday, Angelica Calderon picked more than anyone in the room -- 42.18 lbs. She is paid $2 a pound for a seasonal salary of about $9,000 to $15,000, much of which she will send to a village in San Luis Potosi, in the southwest part of Mexico, where her father is a corn farmer. The women say they can make more here in a week than in a month in Mexico.

By 4:20 p.m., the women have washed down the tables and hosed out the trash cans of crab refuse and weighed the day's take. Upstairs is their four-bedroom dormitory. In these rooms, decorated with dried roses, teddy bears and photos from home, they curl up for long phone calls to Mexico, cut each other's hair, eat and gossip together, and abide by the one strict rule of the house: No men, except plant workers, are allowed inside.

After dinner, as they cleaned the kitchen, Angelica Calderon sang along to the theme song of the Venezuelan soap opera "Sonar No Cuesta Nada" ("It Costs Nothing to Dream"). She wiped a table while she watched two lovers whisper on the television romance.

Calderon stared silently, then picked up the chairs and set them atop the table. The lovers kissed. She went to get the mop.

Quest for Fairness

The women at Phillips Seafood say that they have a good boss -- that Newcomb pays them fairly and treats them well. Other workers on Hoopers Island feel differently. Just down the street at Three Anne's Seafood, seven women each pay $25 a week to share a single bedroom; there is no bathroom in the apartment, and they shower downstairs at the crab plant. Sometimes there is hot water, they say, most of the time there is not. Sometimes the toilet works, sometimes they use the outhouse.

"It's not right to be exploiting people that don't have the resources to defend themselves," said Patricia Hernandez, 22, of Tlaxcala, Mexico.

When Leticia Sanchez asked for a second refrigerator, she said owner Ronnie Jones threatened to send her back to Mexico.

Jones denied saying this, called Sanchez "a troublemaker" and said the business is not lucrative enough anymore to put additional money into their housing. He said in his 12 years employing Mexican workers, these are the first to complain. "They're just not working, sitting there for eight hours, drawing their $5.22 an hour," he said. "They're griping and going on like this. I can't satisfy them; you can't satisfy them. For $25 a week, you can't live in the Hilton.''

The U.S. Department of Labor has begun an investigation into the living conditions at Three Anne's Seafood after a complaint from one of the residents.

Beyond the living conditions, perhaps the most difficult adjustment for the women is to the island's isolation.

Once a week, employers drive the women to Cambridge for groceries. This month, the bus comes on Wednesday nights to take some women to an English class, but more ride the Saturday night shuttle to church.

"There are moments when you want to just run out the door screaming because it's so boring," Hernandez said.

The bus service to the island began about four years ago at the request of Sister Dorothy Prettyman, a nun at St. Mary's Refuge of Sinners.

"How would you like to be 21 and out here with no car for months?" she asked as she drove over a bridge to the island.

No Turning Back

At 22, Jacqueline Munoz is the last of six siblings to come to Hoopers Island. Her eldest sister, Minerva, was 14 when she left the village of Neblinas with her aunt and swam the Rio Grande. That trip now has a dreamlike quality to her: She remembers the smuggler urging them along.

Her aunt's frightened talk of an unknown concept: "I finally asked her, what is immigration?" Minerva said.

For three years, she was paid $25 a week as a nanny in Brownsville, Tex., then returned to Mexico. She was in Mexico City when she heard about a contractor who could arrange to send her to some island in Maryland for, as Minerva recalls, "some kind of job." Her father asked her to stay.

She spent 10 years at Phillips Seafood. Her siblings followed: two brothers, two sisters, all of whom still live on the Eastern Shore and support their parents, who live alone. Minerva now works at the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge, with life centered on the Catholic Church. She must watch her parents age in nine-month gaps, hear about her father's heart troubles and kidney stones over the phone. It fell to Jay Newcomb, the boss, to tell Minerva when her grandmother died.

Still, what is the alternative, back in the cornfields of Neblinas? Jacqueline, the youngest, made up her mind early and waited impatiently through high school until the day she could get on that bus.

"I miss my family very much," she said. "But we have to be here. What we could make in Mexico is not sufficient to live."

After working a 12-hour shift picking crab, Angelica Calderon looks at her raw, cut hands. Using gloves slows the job down, some workers say. Calderon lives in a four-bedroom dormitory above the plant with several other female workers and sends much of her salary to her family back in Mexico.After Saturday night Mass, the workers go to their new home. Others who work elsewhere have complained about their cramped living conditions.A bus takes the workers to St. Mary's Refuge of Sinners Catholic Church in Cambridge, which offers a weekend Mass in Spanish. A nun there started the bus service to church and stores.Olga Calderon, left, and sister Angelica pick crabs at the Phillips plant on Hoopers Island, Md.