Separating Families to Serve Our Own
I have known women who mother their children from afar: by check, or Western Union, or bills tucked into letters. They mother by telephone or cards sent through a mail service so unreliable that by the time the news arrives it is already old. They mother by way of presents stuffed into suitcases on their way to El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua.
They have risked arrest, robbery, rape. They have risked death by heatstroke, death by drowning in the Rio Grande, death by the bullet of an Arizona vigilante, a Texas rancher or an overzealous border patrol. They have hidden in hot sealed trucks packed with a hundred plus strangers for twenty-two hours through foreign countries on their way from there to here. They have risked losing husbands and lovers, mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, and their own offspring.
They have given up Sundays at church, afternoons in the square listening to mariachi music, eating ice cream atop a wall on a lazy day under the shade of the laurel trees. They have each risked missing the day when her child first learns to walk, the day her child comes home from school to show off a report card, the day the teacher calls to say her child is in trouble for cheating on a test and the opportunity to teach her not to cheat; each has risked missing the day her daughter gets her period, the day her son kisses his first girl.
They have risked losing their children’s love with every time they cannot answer through the static telephone line the question: When are you coming home Mama?
They compile excuses: when the laws change, when I save enough money, when President Clinton takes a stand, when president Bush passes that law, when President Obama gets elected, when President Obama lives up to his promises.
They have risked not being able to erase the rage of a little boy or girl who does not understand that Mama has gone to pay for the shoes and the school and the medicine for the flu and that Spider man action figure or the Dora the Explorer doll. They have risked not being able to retrieve the lost years.
Because they cannot carry their children, they carry pieces of them: wrinkled photographs, snippets of hair, baby teeth dangling from gold earring clasps.
These women populate our most intimate spaces: our kitchens, our bathrooms, our playgrounds. We entrust them with the chores we would rather not do: cleaning our toilets, working our land, fighting our wars, wiping our babies bottoms. We entrust them with our children; but we cannot entrust them to drive a car or to get a degree. We cannot entrust them with our Constitutional rights.
These women have cleaned my house, mothered my children, mothered me. Their stories come to me in bits and pieces over the heads of my babies, on the way to the pediatrician, whispered late at night in the hallway when my children are finally asleep.
Graciela began her days by chasing my boys around the kitchen island until laughter filled the house. But one day, I found her silently hunched over a sink full of dishes, her gold cross hanging from her neck.
“Mi Papa esta muriendo” she said. Her father was dying. She hadn’t seen him in three years.
“Can’t you go back?” I said. “Isn’t it better to be with your family and have less, than to stay here miserable?”
She looked at me as if to say, What would you know about making such choices? I am a white American citizen, and privileged enough to have my own house, a nanny and my own children under my own roof.
If Graciela went back, she explains her family wouldn’t be able to make the rent, pay for the funeral, or support her fourteen year old daughter who just gave birth to her one-year-old grandchild. The one she’s never met. The birth she blamed herself for, because how can you mother a child by telephone?
Two weeks later her father died. She paid for the funeral. She stopped running around my kitchen island.
Beatriz at 27 knew things I was still trying to grasp at 38. She taught me how to calm an inconsolable baby, how to remain calm even when you’re low on sleep and patience. She (who hasn’t seen her 11 year old son and 14 year old daughter in six years) swaddled my babies up like tamales with all the love that’s left over, and then some.
I know what it is to leave my children for one night or two. I cannot imagine what it is to leave them for a month, and watching that month turn into a year, or two, or eight, or ten. “How do you do it?” I asked.
She shrugged and said, “You do what you have to.”
Beatriz’ own mother left for the US when Beatriz was just a girl.
“Weren’t you angry?” I asked.
“I was,” she answered. She does not say that she knows history is repeating itself, or that she is still angry.
Today Beatriz and her mother are reunited. They work side by side to send money home to the grandchildren and children they cannot touch.
Twenty-four year old Valeria came to me when my twin babies were five weeks old. She knew how to rock one baby in the car seat with the tip of your toe while you burp the other across your shoulder. She taught me how to calm an inconsolable baby, how to remain calm even when you’re low on sleep and patience.
Four years earlier, her husband was killed in a car crash, leaving her with a three year old daughter and pile of hospital bills. Her 20 year old brother C. was shot three doors down from her house. They lived in a gang ridden neighborhood where people often got caught in the crossfire or got killed as a part of someone’s initiation ritual.
If you met Valeria you’d never know she carts around all this history. She has the disposition of Mary Poppins. She taught me how to how to blow bubbles with soap, water and two bare hands. She taught me how to make hats out of paper bags and how to make my children obey me by tickling them instead of scolding.
Sometimes we’d find ourselves on our knees picking up the clutter: the puzzles, the paintbrushes, the toy dishes, the duck on a string, the train set, the blocks that are so numerous you cannot walk without tripping over them. I regretted that I could not build a school with all those toys, that all the money in the world could not buy her daughter what she needed most.
Some days Valeria came to me with bags under her eyes, and I’d know that she’d just gotten off the phone. One day, her daughter told her, “Mami, you don’t love me with all your heart.”
Even though I feared losing her, I encouraged Valeria to go home. I was tired of participating in this love stealing—where one child is robbed of a mother, and another gets twice the love.
Although I’m not normally religious, these women have taught me the importance of faith. They shrug and say, “If God wills it.”
But I’m an American. I was taught to believe in justice for all, in the right of every individual to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I don’t believe in giving up without a good fight.
On this mother’s day I offer up a prayer to those I’ve trusted in to create change: We The People. I pray that our Berlin wall will be ripped down. I pray that one day these women won’t have to choose between leaving their children and putting food on their table. I pray that one day when I say to these women “Feliz Dia de los Madres” it won’t be an expression weighted with sorrow.
* names of those involved have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
The author is a humor writer for Huffington Post and Inhabitots. She's raising her twin sons to dance tango, speak Spanish and wash their own dishes.