PALM BEACH POST

June 12, 2005

 

Los Tres Niños

Link, if any, may be chemicals

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

 

SOUTHERN MEXICO — In the winter of the great bad luck, when life flickered and dimmed for three families here because of the babies born up North, the news crossed the border by telephone.

First one call. Then another. And another.

In December, a baby boy was born in Florida, to field worker parents, a young couple from Mexico who had toiled in the tomato fields of Immokalee in Southwest Florida and also on the fertile farms of North Carolina.

His name was Carlos Manuel Candelario Herrera — Carlitos for short — and he had no arms or legs. None at all. Just soft, short stumps where his limbs should be, as if a dollmaker had cut them off and then sewn up the openings. His body was a perfect rectangle.

Amazingly, he cried much less than other babies; he was still so young he had no idea of all that was wrong with him.

In the hills of Huehuetonoc, a remote mountain pueblo too small for most maps, a shopkeeper called for the baby's abuelitas, and the grandmothers with their short, rounded formscame scurrying down the red hills like busy ants. Their hand-sewn dresses, in brilliant blues and yellows, billowed up and flared out like banners behind them.

When they heard the details, when they squeezed their eyes shut and imagined the geometric shape of their newest grandson, the abuelitas wept — then held their secret tight.

For who in their tiny, indigenous enclave, set deep in the southern state of Guerrero, would believe such a thing? A baby born without arms and legs? It was unheard of. And, of all places, in "Huehue,"where from a very young age boys must work: pulling up corn, riding donkeys laden with wood, pushing brick-filled wheelbarrows.

A limbless boy? Here?

What strange, wicked trick of nature was this?

The people of Huehue, simple, hard-working, practically forgotten in their little corner of the world, lacking much information of places beyond, did not understand what had led them down this path.

And neither, it seemed, did anyone else.

Back in Florida, doctors and social workers quizzed the baby's parents, Francisca Herrera, 19, and Abraham Candelario, 20.

Did they come from a family or a village where people had deformities? Was anybody missing arms or legs? Had they perhaps intermarried, mixing the blood of a single line to disastrous results?

No, no, no, the parents said.

Nunca. Never.

Never before in their pueblo tucked like a secret in the hills that burn before each planting season had they encountered a child who was not . . . whole.

"When I was carrying him," Francisca says, "the doctors, at about 4 months, told me they did not see a leg. Later, they told me they didn't see anything — no arms, no legs, nothing.

"But I did not understand, really, until Carlitos was born. I did not believe it."

•••

On Feb. 4, a second baby was born to another set of field worker parents, a pair who had worked in the same tomato fields and lived in the same plain farmworker camp as the first couple.

The camp, Tower Rentals, is not a tower at all. It is not even an apartment complex, just a collection of squat, spare cabins that sit like a dusty checkerboard in a rundown patch of Collier County known both for its tomatoes and the impoverished Mexicans recruited to pick them.

It is a baffling system, this recruiting network, at once secretive and startlingly out in the open.

Each season, when the fruits and vegetables are ready for picking, the fields fill up with "illegals" who have crossed the border at great peril, sometimes after receiving telephone calls from persuasive crew leaders who have working arrangements with Florida's growers.

Then begins the routine upon which a $6 billion industry so desperately depends: long, back-straining hours in the fields, a short night's sleep in crummy housing, a paycheck or a handful of cash each week, and, of course, the effort to obtain the false documents that protect the workers — and their employers — from an easy immigration bust. Wink and nod and get the crop out: It is an unspoken code.

It was while living at the cabins, a dilapidated hothouse of sweat and dreams, that Sostenes Salazar, 30, and Victor Navarrete, 33, gave birth to their fourth child, Jesus.

He was born with Pierre Robin Syndrome, a condition in which the lower jaw is exceedingly small or set back and the tongue is displaced toward the back of the throat.

Sostenes and Victor would have no explanation for their baby's condition — whether it might be genetic or linked to environmental factors — just a list of possibilities and the firm instruction to place the infant on his tummy rather than his back, so that he would not swallow his tongue.

They took Jesus back to the labor camp.

They put him on his tummy.

Then they made their phone call home, to the rustic family compound in Ometepec, where Victor's sister Natalia and her husband do their best to raise the couple's three older children while Victor and Sostenes pick tomatoes on "the other side."

This new baby, Victor told his sister, was — what did the American doctors call it?

Deformed.

He did not know why.

And he would not have much time to worry about it.

Sostenes' life soon would fill up with doctor's appointments, and Victor had to get right back to work in the tomato fields so he could make it to the Western Union on the appointed day and, like all the other Mexican field workers he knew, send his hard-earned dollars home.

•••

That was not all. Unfortunately.

On Feb. 6 — two days after Jesuswas born — a Florida field worker named Maria Meza gave birth to what doctors presumed was a baby boy, until further tests revealed that the radically deformed infant was actually a girl.

Meza, 21, and her common-law husband, Cristobal Rueda, 27, already had a toddler son, Luis, perfectly healthy. But this baby, with her myriad defects, was a tragic puzzle.

Maria and Cristobal immediately fell in love with her.

Once the doctors in St. Petersburgdetermined her true sex, Meza and Rueda changed the baby's name from Jorge to Violeta, a beautiful appellation for a child who, if she lived, would have no external loveliness at all.

In little Immokalee, where the church is a lifeline, caseworkers at the Catholic Charities' Guadalupe Social Services immediately took note that a third deformed baby had been born to workers who had picked tomatoes for the same company, the Plant City-based Ag-Mart Produce, and who had at one point or another rented rooms in the same shabby labor camp.

"At the very least, we felt there should be an investigation," Jim Kean of the Guadalupe agency said early on.

"I mean, if this happened on a middle-class street where the families were factory workers, don't you think authorities would be looking into it?"

Maria Meza didn't think too much about that. She did what mothers do, sizing up all that was wrong with her child, all that was missing.

"My baby's heart never developed, she had a hole in it.

"She had problems with her lungs.

"She was 4 pounds, 3 ounces.

"She had arms and legs, but she didn't have ears or a nose. Her face was ... it was ...

"When I first had her, I was relieved, so happy because she cried. I thought the sound of her wailing meant she was OK.

"But then I saw my baby had no sex. I could not tell if she was a boy or a girl.

"I felt really bad, then. I was thinking maybe I preferred that my baby had died because I didn't want her to suffer like this."

Violeta Rueda Meza did die, three days later, on Feb. 9, the birthdayof Luis, who would have been her older brother had she lived. She had an indigent burial.

Meza could barely speak, but still she made her phone call home.

"I call my mother. I call her when the baby is in my stomach. I call her when she is born.

"I call her when the sex is confused.

"I call her when she dies."

In the winter of the great bad luck, the phone lines to Mexico were awash in tears.

The accounts varied in the details, and in the levels of hysteria with which they were delivered, but there is not a person here who took a call who would not wish to forget it.

•••

"My mother feels this so deeply," Clementina Candelario says. "She is so sad, she cries so hard.

"People here do not know why this happened because there is nobody else here who has such deformities. They are not missing anything, not arms or legs.

"Not even so much as a finger."

Clementina is riding in the back seat of a Jeep, up a twisting dirt road cut like a wound into the mountainback.

It is a good three hours from the city, up, up, to the pueblo where she and her brother Abraham — the limbless boy's father — were raised. Their father, now dead, was a subsistence farmer, growing corn, beans and squash, and their mother, like virtually every other woman in the village, sews and weaves. The brother and sister have learned Spanish, but in these hills most of the older generation speaks only the native Indian language of Amuzgo.

Huehue is an isolated, rugged place, with the mud-brick homes wedged precariously into the sloping hills. To get to it, you first pass through a slightly bigger town with an impossibly long name, Tlacoachistlahuaca, which locals let slip from their tongues like honey.

The fluency comes from years of practice: Few people born in these mountains ever venture far, unless it is to the city for supplies, or to cross to El Norte for a second chance.

That is what Abraham did.

He went for money.

Three months later, his schoolgirl sweetheart, Francisca, followed, shaking when she crossed over in the company of a hired guide. A coyote.

Her mother had protested, but what is a mother in the face of love?

It is a sweltering May day and as the red dust floats through the windows, covering every inch of the Jeep's interior, Clementina unfolds a cloth to cover her baby's mouth.

Juan, 4 months, jiggles on her lap like a plump Jell-o cube. He raises a chubby hand and waves it in her face. He squirms and kicks his legs into the air. Finally, he falls asleep.

"Is Carlitos big?" Clementina asks.

"Is he bigger or smaller than my baby?"

The Jeep falls silent for a moment. Nobody knows what to say.

"Well, he's probably smaller," she finally says. "He's a little younger."

A month.

She does not need to add the rest — how do you compare her boy, who has two arms and two legs, to Francisca and Abraham's, who has not even a finger?

It doesn't seem fair.

It isn't fair.

When the Jeep sputters to a stop at the edge of her pueblo, the place she and Abraham grew up, the place they dreamed together before she married a schoolteacher from the city and Abraham went North, Clementina gathers her son in her arms and kisses him before she gets out.

•••

The three babies — los tres niños, as people in Immokalee say — remain, at this point, a medical mystery.

No one knows why, in such rapid succession, aseven-week period, three deformed babies were born to farmworkers who toiled in the same tomato fields and, at various times, lived in the same labor camp.

The employer of the three couples, Ag-Mart, which markets UglyRipe and Santa Sweets tomatoes, posted, as is required by law, a list of the agrichemicals that might be sprayed in its fields. This list, along with other materials — hospital records, health questionnaires, medical histories — has been forwarded to authorities looking into the question of whether pesticides might have played a role in the irregular births.

There is surprisingly little definitive research when it comes to pesticides and birth defects. It is not an especially fruitful area of inquiry. Studies can take decades and yield little in the end. Papers are published, then debated, then forgotten. The researchers go back to their labs, and science marches on.

But then, so does life.

Here, in the dry red hills, where people live on beans and faith, it is life, not science, that matters.

People are not waiting for the next study. Nor are they waiting for the ongoing investigation by various authorities in the state of Florida to determine whether the three babies' defects might somehow be related to the agrichemicals used in the fields.

They are not even waiting for the team of doctors to decide when Carlitos should be fitted with artificial limbs, or for the specialists to determine whether Jesus' underdeveloped jaw will affect his speech.

And they are not waiting, because it hardly seems useful now, for the autopsy of the dead baby whose paperwork has lingered in a tangle of confusion ever since doctors determined the damaged baby with the multiple deformities was not actually a boy but a girl.

Not Jorge but Violeta.

Here, in Mexico, amidst the struggle of everyday life, all this — the doctors, the lawyers, the science — seems very far away.

As far as the glittery promise of the U.S. when you are standing with an inner tube on the wrong side of the river.

As far as the sparkling South FloridaBurger King where flying Whoppers decorate the wallsand the high-tech ketchup dispensers present a mystery to the uninitiated. (How do you get the ketchup out?)

On the day that Clementina climbs the road and arrives, dust flying, in her pueblo to see her family — her nieces with their skinny legs and dresses the color of sky and sunflowers; her sisters with their work-worn hands and oval faces; her mother with herwrinkles and herworries — it is a photograph, not science, that tells the story.

It is lunchtime, and her mother is sprinkling cheese on the tortillas.

Her sister is squatting in the corner by her loom.

Her other sister is bustling this way and that, bringing in the water, calling to the boys to collect the fruit from the trees.

It is time.

As good as any.

Clementina gets out the pictures.

They are tasteful photos, taken by an American journalist; the baby is wrapped.

As the women scrutinize the images, their faces darken. First they remark on Carlitos' tiny cherry mouth, then his thick black hair. They cannot ignore, though, the one thing they had hoped would not be true.

In the long shade, a whimper becomes a wail — the sound of discovery when one does not want to know.

"They are crying," Clementina says, "because before it was like a dream.

"And now it is real."

They are crying, she says, because they worry that Carlitos, so strange to their eyes, can never come home.

In this land where young boys work and old men go to their graves hauling bricks, he would not fit.

And yet, where else does he belong?

•••

Three hours down the road in colorful, bustling Ometepec, where armed men guard the soft drink trucks, the family of Victor Navarrete and Sostenes Salazar is not hard to find:

Go to the pharmacy on the corner, ask the lady behind the counter to make a phone call, wait for a young woman to come running down the street.

She will leadyou around this corner and that, up a hill, through the family gate and to Victor's sister Natalia.

In the zigzagging, open-air rooms, children run, women cook, school books wait patiently on the table for their keepers.

Baby Jesus is back in Florida, but much of his extended family is here, and they would all like to know one thing:

When are Victor and Sostenes coming home?

Well, maybe soon.

Maybe a bit longer.

If they can earn more money, they can send more home, and in the States, doctors can monitor Jesus' medical care.

This makes perfect sense and yet seems unacceptable.

Rocio, 13, misses her mother.

The middle boy, Aurelio, misses his dad.

The younger boy, Victor, says, "Who is dad?"

Besides, it's not really a crisis, Natalia surmises, this situation with the jaw. It's more like a ... concern.

"He is missing, what, the lower part?"

Yes.

"He might have a surgery?"

Yes.

"He can eat?"

Yes.

She nods, satisfied that in a world busy with tragedy, this matter of the baby's jaw, while not minor, is the type of problem one can get used to.

•••

Victor's sister remembers something. A story about pesticides.

"Up in Sonora, in northern Mexico, we worked in tomatoes and cucumbers, all of us, Victor and Sostenes, too. The pesticides there — whew! They were liquid, and we sprayed them. Even the little children sprayed them."

Francisco, her son, was 6.

The pesticides made his body red and swollen. At the time, they didn't like it, but what else could they do? Nobody here ever goes to the doctor for pesticides. "They know they have to use them. It is a fact of life."

Sonora was years ago, but could it be significant?

You never know. In birth defect cases, the doctors want to know everything.

Back up the road, in Huehue, Abraham's sister Leonarda also has a story.

She, too, worked in Sonora.

She was pregnant.

The pesticides were strong.

She used them.

She worked for six months.

The baby came.

Dead.

"The doctor said it was because I had worked with the liquid pesticides. He said I breathed them, and my baby breathed them, too.

"When I had my baby, I saw the black blood still dripping from the nostrils."

•••

"The money from the North," Maria Meza's father, Jorge, says, "is like a new life."

He looks around. Here is the second room — with a tin roof instead of palm fronds — he built on to his tiny, one-room house with U.S. dollars. He has milk cows now, not just corn fields. Two newly purchased trucksallow him to charge neighbors modest sums for the long journey into town. He is a rich man now, comparatively speaking.

The only problem with the North is: You must get there.

One of Maria's brothers crossed when he was 9. He called home to report it was "easy," and that piqued Maria's interest. But it wasn't true.

"We did not hear from him for 20 days," the father says. "I thought he was dead."

When Maria crossed five years ago, she ran out of water and thought, I will be left in the desert forever. But she made it;on the U.S. side, her contacts packed her in a van with 16 other people for a cross-country ride.

She found a seat near the gas pedal.

In North Carolina and Virginia, she worked in the fields, in a pillow factory, in a perfume boxing plant. She met her husband, Cristobal, got pregnant and had to abort the baby when it failed to grow. The doctors, she says, inquired whether she had been working in the fields, with chemicals, and she said yes, but beyond that question they did not comment.

With Luis, her toddler, she did not work; her husband insisted she take a break. Luis was born healthy, she notes. Perfect.

And then, in the early stages of her third pregnancy, she worked the tomatoes again. She and Cristobal followed the crop from Florida to North Carolina, where she had apregnancy test and quit work. But by then, she had spent much of her first trimester laboring in the fields.

At seven months, she learned the baby would have "severe abnormalities." Even that, of course, proved to be an understatement.

Now Maria has come home to southern Mexico, the only one of the three sets of parents to do so. She needs to collect her documents, so she can return to the U.S. and possibly pursue a legal case because of her work with pesticides. She says the doctors told her after Violeta was born "that it was probably the chemicals, but they would never know for sure."

Here, in the long, green state of Vera Cruz, with the emerald hills unfolding like a blanket beyond her, she sleeps in her parents' house, in the room her father built with money from the North. Luis shares her hammock.

Her brothers and sisters sleep in the tiny store the family opened next door, and sometimes, after so many years away, Maria has trouble remembering their names.

It is here, one lazy afternoon under the fruit trees, that Maria tells her mother, Maria Efigeni, the story oflos tres niños.

"There are two other babies," she says.

"One has a problem with his jaw."

Pause.

"The other has no arms and legs."

Of course,she knows it is not exactly the same. The other babies lived, and hers is in the ground on the other side.

•••

On both sides of the border, people cope.

Francisca's parents traveled two days out from their pueblo to the state of Oaxaca, so they could pray at the altar honoring the Virgin of Juquila.

There, on their knees, they asked for a miracle for Carlitos.

In Florida, Francisca and Abraham moved first from their suffocating cabin in Immokalee, where they feared Carlitos would not survive, to an air-conditioned homeless shelter, which they hated, and finally to a state-of-the-art farmworker community in Florida City.

They were lucky to get a well-kept trailer there, right next to a 10-acre park. They are even luckier to have day care and a health clinic.

Still, it is a difficult adjustment. Abraham has had trouble finding work now that he is out from under the wing of his crew boss. Francisca suffers from frequent headaches and misses home.

The couple has lawyers, caseworkers, doctors — and Carlitos.

What made him this way?

Florida health officials and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services are investigating, as is the company, Ag-Mart, which has said it takes the matter extremely seriously.

A report is expected sometime soon.

It is likely to end with a question mark.

The other day, Abraham and Francisca called home. Yes, they told their families, it's true.

The pictures did not lie.

Carlitos is a perfect rectangle.

He has no arms or legs.

"But what a good baby!" Abraham added. "Muy, muy bien. He is happy almost all of the time."