This column was cross-posted at MomsRising.org.
Back on February 27, 2006, the day after my 29th birthday when I was a fairly new and sleep-deprived mother, I came across an article in Salon that made me shudder. It was a book review — a true story — about an Honduran boy who made multiple, and often unsuccessful trips, to find his mother in the United States. The book, which I highly recommend, won the author, Sonia Nazario, a Pulitzer Prize.
Here were some shocking statistics from Nazario’s book, Enrique’s Journey:
“’In Los Angeles … 82 percent of live-in nannies and one in four housecleaners are mothers who have at least one child in their home country.’ Once a fraternity dominated by Mexican braceros, America’s shadow community of illegal immigrants has been joined by an influx of women. And millions of single mothers in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, alone and unable to shelter and feed their children, find themselves facing an unimaginable choice: set out for the States alone, but with the hope of earning enough money to pull their children out of poverty — or stay put, their family intact but doomed to destitution.“
As a new mom, I had not shuddered so much at the thought of this choice as when I unfortunately watched the movie Sophie’s Choice. (Seriously, do not watch this movie if you are a new parent!)
As an American of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, I am grateful to my father and grandparents that I have never had to make this gut-wrenching decision. But I have witnessed many women who have.
My first encounter with such a mom was at a Burger King in Miami in the late 1980s. I was with my sister and a couple of friends, laughing and eating away at junior whoppers, when a Nicaraguan woman cleaning tables at BK, approached us with tears in her eyes. “You look just my daughter,“ she told us in Spanish. “That’s exactly how my daughter dresses.“
“Where is she?“ I asked her.
“Why didn’t you bring her with you?“
“It’s complicated,“ she uttered the words that I would repeatedly hear throughout the years from mothers in her same situation.
As for my friends and I, we were your typical American teenagers, sporting jeans and sneakers, and without a care in the world. We just shrugged her off and did not give her a second thought. I admit, I did not think of her until I became a mother, and was horrified at the weight of her decision.
Throughout the years, I have encountered other undocumented mothers separated from their children. I often travel to El Salvador to visit my mother-in-law. (My husband, too, is the son of immigrants.) I remember one late-night conversation at the San Francisco airport with a young Honduran mother who had just gotten her papers and was going to see her little son for the first time in three years. I was cradling my one-year-old son at the time, and my heart just broke for her. What do you say to a woman who wants nothing more than to hold her own child, but has zero resources to feed him? For me, it is an impossible predicament, too painful to even ponder.
And, of course, every time I have encountered these mothers, I am so grateful to God and to my family who made the hard choices for me.
For a decade, my grandfather lived abroad while my grandmother and father stayed behind in Cuba. This was post-revolutionary Cuba in the 1960s. My grandmother said that she did not see her husband, and my father did not see his father, for up to six years at a time, while my grandfather worked in the shipyards in the United States and sent money to them in Cuba.
As a child in the United States who took for granted her intact family, I never thought to ask my grandfather how he felt being cut off from his family, his community, everything he knew. But recalling the fond childhood memories I have of him, including three-month summer vacations with my grandparents in the Philadelphia suburbs, trips to McDonald’s and late-night viewing sessions of Univision’s Sabado Gigante — one of his favorite shows! — now that I think about him, it must have been lonely as hell.
And the irony doesn’t escape me. Thanks to him, I have gotten so used to the comforts of American life — TV, the Internet, fast food — that I would, no doubt, have serious withdrawal symptoms if they were taken away from me. Would I leave my children to pursue economic opportunities if circumstances forced me? How destitute would I have to be to give up raising my family? I hope to never find out.