Maritza Marquez '23 is a double major in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Psychology. She was the winner of the 2021 Alice Drum Summer Research Award in WGSS and describes her project here.
I grew up hearing “Las Historias,” which were stories about how individuals would sacrifice everything in order to immigrate to the U.S. From the horrific journey of crossing el rio to hearing that once again al primo lo agarro la migra, these stories were a reminder a seguir echandole ganas. However, even from a young age, I noticed las historias were different based on gender. Immigrant women would talk about the emotional distress of having to leave their children, the fear of being raped during the journey or sold into prostitution to pay off their debt. Meanwhile, men talked about the exhaustion of the trip, fear of being left behind by el coyote, or the worry of not being able to find work once they reached the U.S.
Recalling all of these stories only reminded me of how many Latinx undocumented immigrant women at some point have to make the most heartbreaking decision of leaving their children in their native country in order to financially provide for them.
In the summer of 2021, through the Alice Drum Summer Research Award, I had the privilege to conduct qualitative research on Latinx undocumented immigrant mothers in Houston, TX. I conducted 15 oral interviews to give autonomy and space for these mothers to tell their stories while identifying the coping mechanisms they adapted to deal with the emotional distress of leaving their children in their native country to pursue economic freedom in the U.S. As I researched and read through the academic literature I found that in general, Latino/a undocumented immigrants have been noted to be at a higher risk for anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues (Alegria et al., 2007). More specifically, Latina undocumented immigrants were found to be at higher risk than Latino men (Ryan et al., 2018). However, undocumented Latina immigrant mothers who leave their children are 1.2 times more likely to develop depression than undocumented mothers who immigrated with their children (Miranda et al., 2005).
Extreme Poverty and Violence
During the interviews, all mothers indicated poverty or violence as the main contributor for leaving their country and children.
Here are some excerpts:
Olga, a mother of two children ages five and one year and a half respectively, describes her life in 1980 as a poor and sad life. She recalled the many laborious jobs she used to take on in order to provide for her children. In one of the many side jobs she had, she worked sweeping dirty floors for a store owner who had a small business. As part of her pay, Olga describes how the lady would:
“Give me cooked chicken legs leftover from chicken broth, but instead of eating them myself I would give them to my daughter. I remember how my daughter would suck the flavor out of the chicken leg all day long until it was bland. I would give my children all the food I had and at some point I ended up weighing only 80 pounds!”
Apart from the poverty she lived in, another reason she decided to immigrate was when her partner, at the time, hit her. After the incident, she packed up her stuff and took her children. She decided to go live with her parents and then decided to immigrate to the U.S in hopes of giving her children and parents a better life.
Similarly, Victoria, a single mother, started to worry about her child’s education and economic future. As her only daughter turned eight the fear of not being able to afford her uniforms and in the long run a higher education started to daunt her. She had no economic help from her daughter’s father; therefore, she decided to immigrate to the U.S. in 2008 to provide her only child with all she needed.
Although economic stability is the main reason most women immigrated to the U.S., some like Elena also did it to escape the violence in their countries. Elena is a widow who immigrated in 2011. Her economic troubles started when gangs started to circle her small food business. They demanded she start giving them information about all the people that ate at her food stand. She realized that if she followed the gang’s orders she would become a target of those she released information about, so she decided to stay neutral. However, she states:
“They started to sit in my food stand and that's when I started losing a lot of my clients, because the bad people started to sit fully armed where the rest of my clients ate the food they bought. So most of the clients stopped coming to eat at my food stand because they were afraid of being killed. My daughters were scared and they started telling me ‘leave mama …you will be safer”.
Most of the mothers interviewed agreed that deciding to leave their country and children was one of the most difficult decisions ever.
“No words can explain the pain of having to leave my children” (Olga).
As these mothers made their way to the states with the hope and faith of earning enough money to support their children in their native country, the unknown emotional harsh reality started. All mothers, despite their different situations and immigration year, felt a mutual maternal sorrow of having to leave their children in order to provide them with economic stability. Regardless of the number of years each mother had spent without their children, throughout the interviews when sharing their lived experiences many mothers could not contain their tears. When mothers were asked, “How did you feel when you arrived in the U.S. knowing you didn’t have your children?”, all mothers described it as the most horrific, sad, and difficult experience. Victoria recalled thanking God for allowing her to get to the states safely, but acknowledged that “From the moment I arrived, my suffering started.”
Work, Eat, Sleep, and do it all over again tomorrow …
These are just a few of the excerpts that provide an insight into why many mothers decided to immigrate to the U.S. In order to deal with this separation, all mothers reported using two main coping strategies: 1) Self-Distraction, which included working at labor-focused jobs and 2) Active Coping, which meant saving up money and finding a way to reunite with their children.
Here are some excerpts:
Regina, a single mother who left her 12-year-old boy in her native country because she lost her job in 2020 stated, “In fact, I have two jobs in order to pass time and save enough money to meet my goal”.
Regina is not the only mother who has adopted the strategy of working non-stop to distract herself from the horrors of still being separated from her child. Katalina, a mother of four who also left her native country to provide for her children in 1980, shared, “Back in the day I used to focus on my job as a custodian in the mall. I would work double shifts and then when I would get home just go straight to sleep. That’s how I spent those first years”. Even on her free days, she stated, “I would go and try to find more job opportunities like cleaning houses in order to distract myself and to earn more money”.
Save up to see them again …
Although most mothers indeed used the tasks of their laborious jobs to distract themselves, another emerging theme was active coping. When asked if they focused their strengths to do something or if they had taken action to get out of their difficult situation (being separated from their children), all mothers reported working to save up money and find a way to reunite with their children. This consisted of paying someone to help their children get to the U.S. Although reunification has not been possible for all mothers due to different circumstances, they all tried one way or another to be reunited with their children.
Carmen, who immigrated to the states in 2005, left her baby girl of only six months with her mother in order to reunite with her husband (and father of the little baby girl) in the U.S. From the beginning her only goal was to find a job and earn enough money to bring her daughter to the U.S. As Carmen reunited with her husband, they both had a rough start and all their money was spent on the essentials. After being kicked out of her sister-in-law’s house, they had to start from the bottom. Carmen knew from the beginning that she had to work because her daughter depended on her economically “One knows … you have a child over there and you know you have to work because your child depends on you economically”. Carmen soon started working as a babysitter for two sisters and said, “That 's when I think things started changing for us, because I used to babysit all day and earned good money. Even if it wasn’t a lot we had money to cover the rent”. She also recalls thinking to herself, “As a parent, all I used to think about was working, mobilizing myself, and saving up money to be able to bring my daughter. I used to think about the economy and how I needed to make it and save up money to bring her here”. However, it took Carmen and her husband years to properly stabilize themselves in the U.S.:
“What I used to earn from babysitting I would combine it with what my husband used to earn and that 's how we would survive from paycheck to paycheck. It’s hard to look back because I could never bring my daughter here, because if it wasn’t one thing it was another and the time was just never right. The years went by and we couldn’t afford to bring her and now that she is older and grown … that bond is no longer there. Now that she is older she knows we are her parents but she recognizes my parents as hers instead. The only thing left is the title that we have as “parents” but she doesn’t see us that way … Now she is grown and doesn’t want to come here”.
After arriving in the U.S., saving up, and economically taking care of the children she had with her husband here, time slipped away. By the time Carmen and her husband tried bringing their daughter they couldn’t. It was either the journey was too dangerous or Carmen’s mother did not want to let her granddaughter make the journey. Now, her daughter no longer wants to leave her country. Carmen describes living in a “golden cage” because her husband and her are now economically stable, but don’t have their daughter with them.
One Day I will see them Again …
Mothers who have not been reunited also described a third coping strategy, positively reframing their situation by keeping their hope that reunion with their children will happen one day.
Only seven out of fifteen mothers have been reunited with their children; meanwhile, eight are still in the separation period. The following are excerpts from the interviews of mothers who have not been reunited (separation periods range from 1-22 years and counting) and their hopes.
Here are some excerpts:
Paula, a mother of three who left her country in 2006 after her partner battered her, describes that even after years of being in the U.S. with a new supportive partner and two children she lives in agony because she is still separated from the children. She stated:
“Even now, at night is when sometimes I get melancholic and I am reminded that I can’t hug my kids or I remember all the birthdays I haven’t been able to present in. It is not like before, but it is still hard. I just know that one … The least expected day my children are going to walk through that door and everything will have been worth it”.
Along with Paula’s hopes of maybe one day being able to see her children, Alma said,
“Sometimes I start to think and I look at pictures of my children and I start to cry and want to see them again. Maybe one day I will see them, who knows but I know I will see them and I hope when that day happens I will be able to see them, give them a hug, and kiss them”.
Carmen-- whose daughter doesn’t want to immigrate to the U.S.--only hope is for her to go back to her country one day:
“When you are in this country you realize that you don’t have a magic wand and cannot change the laws. That is why it is better to not look back and keep pushing forward and try to focus on the children you do have here with the hope that those children will one day help you obtain a legal status, because that is the only way I will be able to go back and see my daughter … when I feel like giving up and going back just like that I imagine my daughter is the finish line I need to reach … I have to make it”
Carmen and Maite are not the only ones who keep the option of going back to their country open. Delfina at times stated, “I sometimes think about and I get the urge of just leaving and seeing my daughters again, but I know it is not the way. I know one day I will have all of my daughters together. I know it.”
Regina, who has only experienced a year of separation keeps her faith and shares how
“I use all of my efforts to think about my future and tell myself ‘in the future I will be better and that’s how I calm myself down and I also tell myself ‘I have to be okay, after all nothing is forever. One day I will go back … times goes by fast”
Similarly, Maria, who left her 9-month-old baby in her native country in 2002, tells herself,
“One day I will see her. If she doesn’t come here then I will have to go back. I want to see her and meet her since I have never met this new version of her. I want to reunite with her. The hope of bringing her here with me is why I don’t let this sadness bring me down. It is what motivates me to keep being here”.
But despite their positive reframing, their emotional distress will always be with them until reunification. Delfina describes it as:
“El dolor de una madre es para siempre …”/ “A mother 's pain is forever …”
Overall, these findings could be of use for future studies to provide mental health programs with an idea of what coping strategies these mothers develop for themselves. Through this acknowledgment, the development of culturally-appropriate mental health resources could help mothers in emotional distress and help policymakers understand how aiding undocumented immigrants is a humanitarian necessity. It should be taken to consider that this is only a glimpse into the harsh reality numerous Latinx undocumented immigrant mothers experience. A special dedication goes to those mothers who have passed away and due to legal status complications never reunited with their children.