Field of Teens

When you grow up in the migrant labor camps of South Dade, sometimes it's gang life -- and sometimes it's no life

B.B. was fourteen and Tito nineteen when they were shot on the road west of the Bargain Town flea market just outside Homestead. The youths were part of a group that confronted two young men, their wives, and their children leaving the bazaar on a sunny December afternoon in 1993. Shot in the chest with a pistol, Tito died on the spot, next to the blue Chevy Cavalier in which his foes had intended to drive away. B.B., the left inner part of his mouth torn apart by another bullet, was transported by helicopter to Jackson Memorial Hospital. Besides the missing teeth, he now bears a tracheotomy scar on his throat. Another scar was intentionally inflicted: his dead friend's name, tattooed in medieval script on the inside of his right forearm. The bullet is still lodged in B.B.'s head, and his enemies sometimes brag that they could take him out by striking his jaw in the right place.

Tito was buried in a zoot suit. Members of his low-rider car club drove to the funeral with their truck beds jacked up high. "A lot of people were throwing gold [onto the coffin]," one attendee remembers. "Big rings, thick-ass chains. One kid jumped in as the coffin was going down. They did not want to see him leave. I know Tito did bad things, but he was a good kid." For more than a week after Tito died, the site on the dusty road near the flea market was decorated daily with flowers and homemade signs. ("B.B." and "Tito" are pseudonyms, as are the names of all the juveniles who appear in this story.)

The man who shot B.B. was charged with attempted murder. He ended up pleading guilty to lesser charges and was released from prison not long ago. Tito's assailant was charged with murder but set free after prosecutors concluded they could not prove the shooting was anything other than self-defense. He is said to have left town.

In spite of a coat of paint, you can still see the bullet holes in the house where Tito's killer used to live with his mother. Not long after the flea market mayhem, a group of B.B.'s and Tito's friends drove by the house and shot it up. The occupants moved out. B.B. thinks a little girl got hurt in the gunfire. But that isn't his problem. "Hey, it's family," he says. "You fuck with me, I'm gonna fuck with you. One day I'm gonna kill one of 'em."

B.B., who lives with his family in the Redland Center labor camp, belongs to a Mexican-American gang called the Redland Rats. These days about ten to twenty kids consider themselves Rats, but as anyone will tell you, if you're a boy or man living in Redland, you're a Rat. Same goes for the other camps in the area, Everglades Center, South Dade Center, and Andrew Center. (A fifth camp, Harvest Center, recently opened.)

The 315 houses in the Redland labor camp were built about 50 years ago for military personnel who worked at Homestead Air Force Base about five miles away. After World War II, the nonprofit Homestead Housing Authority was founded to manage the camp, and migrant workers who came to pick winter and spring crops moved in. Few of the families who now reside in the Redland compound still live the nomadic life of the migrant farmworker, following the growing seasons from state to state. Workers say they have been traveling less in recent years because rising costs and stagnant wages make it harder to get back home with any profit, or, for that matter, any money at all. Besides, they'd prefer to avoid taking their children out of school; migrant students often have to leave town before school ends in the spring, only to return a month or so after school begins in the fall. You don't have to be a migrant worker to rent a house in one of the five South Dade camps; you simply need to have a low-income, agriculture-related job. Rents at Redland range from $152 per month (one-bedroom house) to $221 (four bedrooms). (The Homestead Housing Authority operates three of the camps; the other two are administered by the Everglades Community Association, another nonprofit.)

In 1960 B.B.'s mother and father moved to Homestead from southern Texas, where both had been born shortly after their families, natives of northern Mexico, moved to the U.S. For years after the move to Homestead, the family followed the tomato, corn, okra, squash, asparagus, and bean harvests across the Midwest and the South -- Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, back to Florida by the fall -- traveling in a blue Ford pickup and an old Chevy. In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew struck, the family was in South Carolina. Nowadays they stay in Homestead year-round. At least six days a week, B.B.'s father gets up at 5:30 a.m. to drive a tractor for a local grower. His mother works as a maid. He doesn't work in the fields, nor do his sister and his three brothers. The sister, B.B.'s eldest sibling, attends community college.

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