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Melon Drama



Kevin Banks, 2, and Violet Vallejo, 9, play atop a truck load of watermelons.

"I'd go for one with seeds; they're sweeter," Lupe Villarreal advises a customer who has pulled into a parking lot on the city's South Side to purchase a watermelon. "If you want me to pick one out, I pretty much know how. Unless you want to go for it, dale." The buyer nods his head and begins to look through the large selection, silently judging each melon with a gentle glide of his hand across the rind. Junior, Villarreal's 9-year-old son, stacks the smaller of the green fruit into rows to make room for the shipment of cantaloupes coming later that afternoon.

"Sometimes the customers can get pretty picky," said Villarreal, 27, who has been working as a watermelon vendor since he was in elementary school. "They'll be like, 'I want that one' and point to one way down under towards the back. I'm like, 'Hey, jump on in cuz I'm not getting in there for a $3 watermelon.'" After the indecisive customer looks around for a while, he turns back to Villarreal, unsure which watermelon to choose.

"Pues, escójeme una (Well, pick one for me)," he tells Villarreal, who has already started tapping on the watermelons closest to him. "This one's really good right here," he assures the man, picking it from the trailer and handing it to him like a newborn. "I go by the sound. A good one has a little hollow sound to it. Unless you want it overripe. But the only ones that usually want them like that are the old folks with no teeth."

Watermelon vendors can be found in most areas across the city, but the majority are located on the South Side, sometimes three to four of them in a mile radius. Villarreal, who sets up near the corner of South West Military and Roosevelt Avenue from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., says selling watermelons is no easy task, especially with the considerable amount of competition only a seed spit away. He adds that the summer is not his favorite time to sell watermelons. He enjoys long road trips in the fall to New Mexico and Oklahoma where he can buy a trailer full of watermelons to sell in San Antonio during the months when they are ordinarily out of season.

"Everybody's got watermelons right now," said Villarreal. His current crop is from Floresville. "When they are out of season, that's when I like to sell. Even then, people are always looking for them. I have a couple of Asian people that always come and want to buy like 100 watermelons for their Chinese buffet. People that sell at fruterias come, too."

In addition to stiff competition, honey bees, and fruit flies, Villarreal said problems also stem from a small watermelon war brewing between him and the watermelon- vending senior citizen who shares his parking lot in front of the Community Thrift Store. "He's called code compliance on me like three times to try and get me in trouble," Villarreal said. "I'm not doing any- thing wrong. I have all the permits I need, but he just wants me out of here so he can get more business."

Nevertheless, the Villarreal watermelon monopoly, which includes a brother and sister who sell farther down the road, stands strong. Lupe's brother, Chris, and his family - wife Priscilla, and young children Chris Anthony and Adriana - park their truck and trailer in an empty lot on Roosevelt near Loop 410. Sitting in the bed of the truck, Chris and Priscilla watch their son handle the customers that drive in.

"He already knows what to do," Chris says, adding that he gives his son extra money to go with him to Dilley, Texas, to pick the watermelons from the fields. "Kids his age usually don't want to do any hard work. They just want to be in their rooms playing Nintendo, but he likes it."

Running from the truck, Adriana holds out a spiral notebook to share the extracurricular work that she does during the long summer hours outdoors. Drawings of her family selling watermelons along with short stories of the day's events are printed neatly in the margins.

"I write about watermelons all the time because that's all I know how to write about," Adriana says. Besides participating in the family business, Priscilla says, having the kids working at such a young age teaches them important life lessons about responsibility and how to earn money for the small luxuries they may want.

"I don't want my kids spoiled," Priscilla said. "If you want new shoes, you wanna dress nice, you have to work for it. If you want video games for your PSP, you have to get them yourself. Those shits are expensive." Enero Solis, 18, knows just how expensive things can be. That is why, only a few months ago, he stopped selling watermelons for his father on W.W. White Road and decided to go into business for himself. From a long line of watermelon vendors (his great-grandfather was the first to sell them in Chicago in the early 1900s, he says), Solis takes pride in his barely drivable white delivery van and the few watermelons he has, which are arranged on a tarp near the highway.

"I don't like to drive far to sell," Solis said. "I stay near where I live. It might be slow here because there are a lot of people selling, but in the watermelon business you have to be patient. And you gotta love watermelons."

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