This paper examines the life of a Central American mother whose children migrated to the United States to understand the effects of migration on Central American families. The effects of her children's departure can be broken into two types of absence: physical and emotional. Their physical absence leads to more responsibility the mother must bear. Their emotional absence leads to the faltering and eventual fading of once-strong relationships. Ultimately, the combination of both emotional and physical absences leads to a fracturing of the family structure. The purpose of the paper is to combat the dehumanization of Central American migrants that is littered throughout President Trump's speeches and cable news shows. It is important for us to hear and empathize with the stories of mothers like Maria Rojas because these are the stories the mainstream media and politicians do not want us to know.
In the United States, immigration has become an increasingly politicized issue. As the topic has become more contentious throughout the years, those at the forefront of the conversation have attempted to turn immigrants into a faceless group. Throughout Donald Trump's presidential campaign, he yelled "they" are committing crimes, "they" are taking our jobs, while on television news shows we hear about "illegal aliens." These are just two of the many ways that our society is attempting to strip these people of their humanity. Dehumanizing these migrants helps Americans feel better about the way the United States is treating these people who are struggling and willing to sacrifice their life just to have the opportunity to provide for their family. Americans are lucky. It is hard for them to even imagine being in a situation where their children are starving, and they cannot do anything about it. The United States criminalizes immigrants because Americans cannot relate with the desperation that is required to willingly leave your country of birth and travel some thousand-plus miles in putrid conditions, with the possibility of being sexually assaulted or killed at every corner, to find a job. As much as it pains Americans to hear, these immigrants are individuals and deserve to be treated as such. These Central American migrants grew up wanting to be doctors and astronauts, just like we did. These migrants also have family, which is something everyone should be able to relate to. They have a mom and dad who they want to please, they have a spouse who they want to give the world to, and they have children who are their motivation to work hard every day. This paper will uncover not only how families change because of migration but also how individual family members and their relationships with each other are scarred due to familial absences. This paper examines how migration changes the daily life of both those who migrate and those family members who stay behind, it will also show how familial roles and responsibilities are re-determined as family members migrate to the United States.
Understanding the life of Central American migrants in the United States is particularly important today where immigration is a political talking point rather than a human rights issue. Recent scholarship has shown the human side of migration that most Americans never hear about, like the painful and dangerous journey that Central Americans face as they travel through Mexico (Goldman & Martinez, 2014) and the varied levels of desire to return to their home country that migrants express (Moran-Taylor & Menjivar, 2005). In such analyses, scholars have noted the dehumanization of Central American migrants that occurs in the United States and the many forms it takes, be it stereotypes propagated by the media (Milian,2005) or the production of illegality by state and local governments (Menjfvar, 2013).
Three key insights from the scholarship on migration's effects on individual family members are necessary to situate the change in familial dynamics in my analysis. First is a recognition that mothers who stay behind while their husbands migrate are left with a tremendous burden (Menjfvar & Agadjanian, 2007; Schmalzbauer, 2010). Second is that the fathers who migrate must redefine their definition of masculinity whilst dealing with the emotion that accompanies leaving their family behind (Montes, 2013). Lastly, family absences caused by migration lead to other family members attempting to compensate for this loss by migrating to the United States(Cammisa, 2010).
My research will build on the findings of these scholars to show the devastating effects of migration on transnational families by utilizing a resource these scholars did not have—access to a unique interviewee whose life encapsulates the issues that stem from transnational migration. Most of my predecessors have used ethnographic research to make macro-level inferences about migration. This makes sense because migration is a large-scale occurrence. Millions of people have left their homeland for the United States which has caused an innumerable amount of societal changes in both Central America and the United States. I will be diverging from their work in that I will use an ethnographic interview to infer how small-scale interactions between individuals, in my case, family members, change due to transnational migration. Macro-level approaches to migration research are necessary in that they give us a big picture view of migrations effects, for example they tell us how many children migrate alone or how many migrants die on their way to the United States. This information can in turn be used to inform the public and hopefully create advocates for migrant rights. On the other hand, my micro-level approach will deal in information that is hard to quantify like the deterioration of relationships and the added stress that family members deal with. My research is meant to humanize Central American migrants and make others aware of their plights and tribulations.
The subject for my ethnographic interview was my grandmother, Maria Rojas. Maria was born and raised in San Raymundo, a small town in Central Guatemala. San Raymundo was a poor community and most of the fathers and young men worked as farmhands. Maria raised seven children in San Raymundo before saying goodbye to many of them as they migrated to the United States in search of a better life. When I first approached Maria for the interview about her experience with migration she agreed but what stood out to me the most was after agreeing, she asked me in an incredulous tone, "What do you want to interview me for?" Maria was genuinely surprised that I was interested in hearing her story because she felt it was unremarkable. Yet after completing the interview I found her story to be powerful and gained a newfound respect for the matriarch of my family. The interview took place in my aunt's house in South Los Angeles, where my grandmother now lives. Even though I am her grandson, I do not feel as if Maria held back any information nor did she sugarcoat any of her story. She did get emotional several times throughout the interview because some of the questions I asked, specifically about her relationship with her children, were hard for her to answer. I inferred from her half-answers and from observations of my family's dynamics what these relationships are like.
Transnational migration is often preceded by a necessity to find better opportunities. This necessity in turn makes the adverse side effects of migration unavoidable and the deterioration of the family a necessary sacrifice in order to survive. The effects of migration are not sudden and thus, in the moment, it is hard for families to realize the deterioration that is occurring. This deterioration manifests itself in three key ways: relationships between family members are damaged to varying degrees, family structure is fractured to a point of being unrecognizable, and lastly, certain family members are forced to undertake a tremendous burden.
Maria Rojas' story poignantly exemplifies these three characteristics. Maria had her first child, my mother, at the age of fourteen and over the next eighteen years had six more children. Her husband, my grandfather, Antonio Perez, worked as a truck driver and was on the road for months at a time. He was an alcoholic, a womanizer, and would consistently abuse and terrorize my grandmother and their children. Although her husband had not migrated, her experience mirrored that of Central American women whose husbands migrated to the United States (Menjfvar, Agadjanian, 2007). Maria was left alone to raise the children while hoping that her husband would send money from the road to buy the bare necessities. As her children got older, Maria, like most mothers, assigned her children chores. Not only did these chores help keep her children busy, they also served as a way for Maria to ease her load of responsibilities:
“Back then everyone had their chores. Some cooked, some washed, some ironed, some cleaned. Veronica and Alma did not like cooking, so they would trade their chore to Juanita or Lucero in exchange for washing or ironing. Juanita and Lucero somewhat liked cooking so it worked out. Even when your grandpa was home he did not help so the kids made things a lot easier for me.
Maria was already burdened with the tremendous amount of responsibility that accompanied having to raise seven children by herself while dealing with an abusive husband, and yet the burden would only grow as her helpers decided it was time to leave. Veronica, the oldest of Maria's children, was the first to broach the subject of migration.
"She had already decided that she wanted to leave when she told me. She wanted to change her way of life. In Guatemala, there was nowhere for her to work so she would come over here to try. She was already older. It wasn't up to me. I told her I didn't want her to leave because I didn't want to lose her, but her mind was made up. All I could do was ask God to protect her" said Maria. After Veronica left, the floodgates were opened, and her two oldest siblings followed her and migrated to the United States. Maria was left with only her four youngest children and without three children to help her, her responsibilities increased. Maria exemplifies the strength and perseverance that is required to survive the stress that migration places on family members.
The departure of her three oldest children was felt throughout the family as seen in the following quote:
"We missed them very much. It was a complete change. The family disintegrates, it's never the same. When Veronica left, they all got the idea of migrating in their head and as they got older they had the courage to leave, all but two of them."
Maria explained. Losing a family member can be a jarring experience and even though Maria' s children were not dead, there was no way of knowing whether she would ever see them again. Even though it broke her heart to say goodbye to her children as they embarked on a dangerous journey, Maria acknowledged that migrating to the United States was the only chance her children had at improving their way of life. The moment Maria's children began leaving for the United States, the family structure began to crumble, and it would never be the same. Even now, with all her children happily married, plenty of grandchildren and even several greatgrandchildren, Maria is not content with the situation.
"I would prefer for everyone to be together, be it over there or over here. As things are now, it's as if my heart is split in two. When I'm in the United States, I miss those in Guatemala and when I visit Guatemala, I miss those here in the United States. It feels like I have two families" said Maria. She spoke these words with a sense of regret and mentioned several times that she asked her remaining children in Guatemala to move to the United States, but they had no desire to move. Maria's feeling of regret is understandable, but it is important for her to understand that the fracturing of her family is not her fault, in fact it is no singular person's fault. Brutal economic conditions in Central America produce fracturing among families in Central America by forcing people to leave the country in hopes of finding a better life.
Maria has always understood the importance of family and she has always been there when her family needs her. Even though she may seem at peace with her past and its impact on her family, there is one thing she struggles to accept. Maria has a strong relationship with six of her seven children. Those who live in the United States keep in constant contact with her and she visits them frequently. Those who are in Guatemala do not call as often but they still speak once or twice a month. It is the relationship with her youngest son, Nery, that Maria complains about most often and is the root of the sadness that she feels daily.
"Veronica calls me every day to check up on me and say goodnight, she has been a great help for me since I moved here. I go with Lucero a couple times a week to help her around the house. I don't talk to Nery because I call him, and he doesn't answer. I don't see him because if I go to his house and knock there's a chance he won't answer. It would be embarrassing" explains Maria holding back tears. Nery was the last of her children to migrate to the United States but instead of migrating to Los Angeles like the rest of his siblings, he decided to go to New York to find work and that was when Maria lost contact with him for several years. From that point on, their relationship was never the same and it is painful for Maria to accept.
While it is common that relationships between mothers and children are strained and sometimes broken completely when mothers migrate to the United States (Quintana, 2013), Maria's situation is different and harder for her to understand. She never left her child and therefore cannot understand why her son does not show her the same affection her other children do. Transnational migration crippled Maria's relationship with her youngest son. Instead of the love that typically accompanies mother and son relationships, Maria is left with a son who while grateful for all she has done for him, must manufacture feelings that should come naturally.
For most Central Americans, migrating to the United States is the one way in which they can rise above poverty and work hard for a better life. Migration, however, comes along with harmful side effects that can permanently damage a family. Migration adds stress to both those who stay and those who go. Those who go are pressured into succeeding quickly while those who stay, like Maria Rojas, are forced to take on added responsibilities. Migration also fractures families by forcing people to exist in two nations. Mothers who are separated from their children feel guilt and dread as they pray that their children are safe.
Finally, migration causes familial relationships that were once strong to deteriorate and at times even disappear completely. After reading this paper it should be clear that migration has negative side effects.. Central American migrants are being asked to sacrifice their family in order to support them and even after they make that tough decision and migrate to the United States, they are bombarded with negativity, treated like animals, and villainized. The dehumanization of Central American migrants is all around us and if we want to combat it then we must first educate ourselves. It is easy for politicians and news commentators to act judgmental and self-righteous when they are attacking those who are already marginalized and afraid. Before calling them rapists, criminals, or aliens, we should put ourselves in their shoes.
Those of us who were lucky enough to be born in the United States did nothing to earn that right. We just as easily could have been born in Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala, and if we were to have been born there, wouldn't all of us strive for a better life? It is too easy to villainize the entire population of Central American migrants by pointing to the crimes committed by a few of these migrants and we should expect better from our elected officials. With its current leadership, our country is headed in the wrong direction, but we are not past the point of no return. It is not too late to educate ourselves about Central American migrants, it not too late to appreciate the strength and determination they exhibit every day, it is not too late to understand the pain and suffering they carry with them as they try to succeed.
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