She sat in a barren wooden room dimly lit by a single ceiling bulb, her eyes swollen and red. Surrounded by four migrant friends who came to share her grief, the 30-year-old Mexican mother explained that she wasn't angry, for anger could not bring the dead back to life. Neither was there anyone really to blame, she insisted.
It was just God's will, Epigmenia Bedolla murmured softly. Salvador, her 9-month-old baby, was suddenly dead. And there was nothing any soul could do. "I feel a lot of pain and sadness," she said, cradling her face in her hands as dusk fell at the Westover Migrant Labor Camp 20 miles south of here. "What will I get out of it being mad? We are poor. The future I wanted for my son was here, but God didn't grant me that wish."
Salvador Bedolla died Tuesday morning in his mother's arms as she and her husband raced in an automobile to Peninsula General Hospital here. For four days the infant had suffered spells of fever and diarrhea that culminated in a seizure that turned his skin yellow. Yesterday, after performing an autopsy, the state medical examiner's office in Baltimore reported that the child had died of natural causes and dehydration.
Many people in Westover, Marion and here in Salisbury tried to save Salvador Bedolla. His life, like any other migrant child's, was hard from the beginning and the significance of his death goes far beyond the limits of any coroner's report. It symbolizes the sweat, work and dreams of the Bedolla family and of all migrant workers on the Delmarva Peninsula as they sojourn and toil in the sweltering fields for another summer, thousands of miles from home. As Salvador's mother put it, "Before I came I thought I would love it here. I thought I would have a good time and earn enough money to live better. But I don't like the United States," she said. "I don't think this is a life."
The farms of Delmarva supply many parts of the world with tomatoes, cucumbers and peaches. And many parts of the world provide Delmarva with the labor necessary to keep the farms going. The Bedollas' own odyssey began in April 1981 when they flew from their home in Guanajuato, Mexico, to Florida, planning to spend several years in the United States. At that time, Epigmenia Bedolla was pregnant with Salvador. They hoped to earn some money and give their children an education here before returning to Mexico. Like most East Coast migrant workers, they started the season in May, working fields in Florida and South Carolina, before heading in mid-summer to the tomato and cucumber farms of Delmarva. This year, the Bedollas arrived at Westover on July 14, after traveling in a crew leader's truck from Charleston, S.C.
Their home was a single room in a wooden barracks on the southeastern edge of the camp, which was refurbished this year after health officials found clogged latrines, stagnant pools of water and dank mattresses there last summer. Epigmenia Bedolla, her husband, Salvador Sr., the infant, and their two daughters, Ninfa, 5, and Juana, 6, slept in the room at night. While their parents picked tomatoes during the day, the children were sent by bus along with the other farmworkers' children to a federally funded migrant school five miles away in Marion.
Salvador was enrolled in the school's day care center last Thursday. It was that day that Salvador first showed signs of diarrhea, according to his mother. However, school officials said they noticed nothing wrong with the child. "He was a little cranky," said teacher Doris Campbell, "but not any more so than the other babies."
According to Anita Gagnon, coordinator of a nearby migrant workers medical clinic who found out about Salvador's illness Tuesday morning when it was too late to help, Salvador continued to suffer from diarrhea throughout the weekend. At the day care center on Monday, Campbell noticed the diarrhea. She bathed him and another case worker carried him outside and walked around in the sunshine with him. By Monday night, with the baby's condition worsening, Gagnon said, the parents took Salvador to the emergency room. Translators from the camp were with them. A blood test was taken and Salvador's condition was diagnosed as an intestinal virus. He was given an antibiotic and paregoric. He was released at 11 p.m. and his parents were given a prescription for more of the same to be filled the next morning. Doctors advised the Bedollas not to give the infant any food, drink or medicine during the night.
Before morning, Salvador started having seizures. The parents filled the prescription, gave the baby more ampicillin and peragoric, but the seizures continued. Shortly after 9 a.m. they raced with Salvador to the office of the camp manager, where they phoned the hospital for an ambulance. The hospital advised the parents that it would take 15 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.
"One of our caseworkers was there at the time," said Gagnon, who has been counseling the Bedollas since Salvador's death. "That was when we first heard of the case. The case worker phoned me and I headed down there."
Meantime, according to Gagnon, the parents phoned the hospital again and were informed that the ambulance would be an additional 15 minutes, so the Bedollas borrowed the car of another migrant family and drove to the hospital themselves. Salvador died on the way.
Yesterday, her husband traveled to migrant camps in nearby Virginia to borrow money from friends for airfare back to Mexico for himself and his son's body. And Epigmenia Bedolla, surrounded by a footlocker, a few dresses hanging over a rafter, an assortment of dishes and baby bottles, a rattletrap fan, a large box of disposable diapers, a toddler's cart and a family snapshot of her husband holding Salvador on his shoulder, mourned with migrant friends in her makeshift wooden home.
Sanjuanita Guerra, a woman with a face as round and smooth as a glossy fruit, was among the friends. "A fan, our clothes and some dishes is what we have for our lives," she said, as Bedolla's daughters frolicked on the floor planks. "Some have a little house in Mexico or Texas or Florida, but not everyone is so lucky. We work only sometimes, then if the frost kills the crops we're out of luck."
It's a gypsy existence, with no dancing under the moonlight. Most Mexicans cross the border into Texas any way they can, fly to Miami and join the Eastern seaboard migrant stream in the orchards of Northern Florida.
In Delmarva, the workers are known by the growers who hire them as "illegals," "migrants," or "coloreds." Edwin Long, president of the Somerset County Growers' Association, which owns the Westover camp, said, "Hell, if I were a young man today and I wanted to make some money, I'd be a migrant laborer." Long, a gray-haired farmer with a sun-wrinkled face, said the association spent more than $250,000 "just to comply with regulations" at Westover, Delmarva's largest camp with migrants.
"We're providing jobs for these people," said Edwin Long, cousin of state Del. R. C. Biggy Long, one of 12 owners of the camp. "We got migrants from all over. They can work inside the packing plant too, all the ones that aren't colored."
When asked about blacks who were operating forklifts around the plant, Long explained, "These are American boys."
The growers and the migrants live in an odd, distant intimacy. At the peak of the season, when the packing factory is turning out 35,000 25-pound boxes of tomatoes a day, Long, a retired infantry colonel, works 20-hour days. He is everywhere: at the factory, in the fields, in his makeshift, air conditioned office in a trailer parked in front of the factory. Few migrants know him by name.
For him, the lives of the migrants who stoop over his tomatoes day after day are masked behind the anonimity of their brown and black faces. "I got 600 people out there, 600 problems," he says querulously. "Am I supposed to know everything that's going on?"
Every year, before the beginning of the season, Long gets in touch with officials at Maryland State Employment Services and tells them how many workers he'll need. The service contacts crew leaders, many of whom live with their families in Immokalee, Fla., during the idle winter.
By late May the migrants are on the road, and their first stop is usually South Carolina. Up and east and north and down again: the families pack and unpack, load and unload off the trucks owned by the crew leaders--"trockeros" as they are known in a hybrid tongue known as Spanglish.
In Spanglish, the migrants communicate with authorities --health officials, immigration officers, teachers. In Spanglish they sometimes try to protest or negotiate their wages.
"This year there was a lot of protest at the beginning because wages are down," a worker at Westover said. "Last year we were getting 40 cents a bucket, now we're getting 35. But the growers just say, 'You can leave if you don't like it. There's more of you than we need.' "
"I don't think it's justice to live like this," said another. "We work hard. Of course we have a stove, and a refrigerator, but we've worked very hard for it. It's not justice to have to battle so much for that."
Some camps are worse than others, and the migrants rate Westover about middling. "The work is not so bad here," a skinny woman said. "The lettuce fields in Florida are really difficult for our men. They have to stoop like this," she explained, crouching low on the floor, "all day like that, while we pack."
With some embarrassment, a man admitted that "what is really bad here are the latrines. They smell so bad we prefer to walk into the fields for our necessities."
There was no way of knowing whether these conditions contributed to the death of Salvador Bedolla. Forty-eight hours after the infant died, hospital officials in Salisbury and the growers in Westover declined to comment on the tragedy.
Meantime, life and work at Westover continued. After a sweltering day, dusk arrived like a blessing. On the outskirts of the camp the cooling air was fragrant. The men gathered in clusters, expert in the art of hanging out with a beer and a few tall tales, with harmonicas and radios for sound. To the side of the barracks, one man gave another a haircut. Dozens of children played close to the rooms where their mothers were cleaning up after dinner. In a tin structure nearby, a man sang a mournful lament from the highlands of central Mexico. In another barracks, a child cried.