Central Americans make difficult sacrifices when migrating to the Unites States. For families, this means adopting transnational status, meaning members are dispersed across two or more nations (Vancea & Olivera, 2013). However, globalization facilitates the flow of people, ideas, capital, and technology. Additionally, as the hostility from the Trump administration threatens to relegate even more families to transnational status, it is important to study the distinct needs of this growing sector of society. What particular challenges do transnational families face? How can technology create new avenues of communication throughout vast distances? What barriers prevent families from accessing available technologies? How can current technologies be improved? This paper will answer these questions focusing on the relationship between migrant mothers in the United States and their children in Central America. I will begin by discussing contributions from existing literature on the subject. Then, I will explain my own conclusions and the broader implications of my research.
While there is not extensive literature that relates to the direct experiences of transnational Central American families and their use of technology, I am drawing on several related studies to create a cohesive framework from which to understand transnationality. Regarding mobile phone usage among migrant women, the study of Madianou and Miller (2011) examines Filipina mothers while Vancea and Olivera (2013) analyze migrant women living in Catalonia. Regarding the effects of transnational family status, Ladolt and Da (2005) research the hardships of Salvadoran refugees while McGuire and Martin (2007) examine physical and mental health among Mexican migrant mothers. Lastly, Yarosh, Chew, and Abowd (2008) provide valuable insight into the technologies parents use to connect with their children.
The studies expand notions of family by using language that is inclusive of transnational status. Landolt and Da (2005) define family as individuals "bound by an ideology of shared kindred that engages in production and reproduction, caregiving and feeding work" while Vancea and Olivera (2013) refer to family as "people living together with and without boundaries." These definitions provide a helpful encapsulation of the struggles of transnational families. With this in mind, some of the main difficulties facing transnational families are the mental, social, and physical repercussions of separation. McGuire and Martin (2007) note that both migrant and nonmigrant family members face anxiety, depression, and eating disorders as a result of excessive responsibilities, uncertainty, and fear of abandonment. Yarosh et al. (2008) add that separation leads to lower academic achievement, psychological adjustment, and social integration in children. For marriages, Landolt and Da (2005) find that separation leads to high rates of infidelity and divorce.
The studies also acknowledge the growing role of technology in the lives of transnational families. Madianou and Miller (2011) and Vancea and Olivera (2013) refer to the network of communication platforms and devices as Polymedia and Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). Vancea and Olivera (2013) add that ICTs allow migrants to transcend boundaries through access to unbound Technological, Geographical, and Social Spaces (TGS). These studies all identify mobile phone calls as the preferred form of contact among separated families. This may be because it is the lowest common denominator and these studies found that socioeconomic differences prevent migrant and nonmigrant family members from having access to the same ICTs.
Landolt and Da (2005) and Madianou and Miller (2011) also address the way gender shapes the experiences of migrant women. Landolt and Da (2005) note that while female migration goes against gendered expectations of mothers as caregivers and fathers as wage earners, it is a necessary result of the feminization of contemporary labor demands (Ladolt & Da, 2005). Madianou and Miller (2011) allude to the same concept in reference to the demand for migrant women from the global South for domestic and medical care services, a phenomenon the authors refer to as "care drain." Both studies, subsequently, analyze the discrimination against feminized labor sectors in terms of their perceived social value. Landolt and Da (2005) also highlight discrimination from the state, noting that in El Salvador the hermano lejano is praised and aided while the hermana lejana is ignored and shamed.
Background, Methods, and Positionality
For my analysis, I interviewed a mother and son from Guatemala City, Guatemala. Rubi Perez migrated to the United States in 2007 and planned to have her 5-year-old son, Pablo Velazquez, and husband brought over soon after. However, the pair divorced before that was possible, and Pablo remained in his father's care, making Rubi a transnational mother. At the time of our interview, Pablo, now age 15, had just been granted United States residency and was visiting his mother in the United States for the first time.
I had met Rubi briefly prior to requesting the interview as she attends my mother's church, so she felt comfortable conducting an interview in my mother's apartment. This provided a private environment for the mother and son to speak comfortably for the first time in fifteen years. For their privacy, Rubi and Pablo elected not to allow audio recording; therefore, all quotes in this paper are paraphrased. The 45-minute interview took place on the fifth of November.
I was born and raised in the United States, but my mother migrated from Guatemala at a young age while her mother and siblings stayed behind. I also have many friends and family who live in the United States while their children and/or spouses live in Central America. As a Political Science undergraduate, I am approaching this topic keeping in mind the implications of national immigration policy reform. I also employ a feminist standpoint, advocating for acknowledgement of women's distinct experiences under globalization and reevaluation of conceptions of gender, which impede women's ability to migrate with the same resources and support as men.
The case of Rubi and Pablo illustrates how differences in locality, documentation, and family ties at time of migration make each transnational family's experience unique. For instance, Rubi lives in Los Angeles and Pablo lives in Guatemala City, both urban cities with high access to ICTs. Furthermore, Rubi is undocumented, and her son, at the time of the interview, became a resident. This is important because this means they did not have the opportunity to meet in person. Additionally, Rubi migrated when her son was only 5 years old. She was not able to establish a strong connection with Pablo at such a young age, further complicating their transnational relationship. Ultimately, even though every family's experience is unique, Rubi and Pablo's answers serve to illuminate problems and concepts that shape transnational family life.
Rubi's description of the circumstances leading to her migration confirms some conclusions drawn from previous literature while challenging others. Acknowledging migrant autonomy, Landolt and Da (2005) and McGuire and Miller (2011) highlight the role of economic need in migration patterns. Rubi considers herself an economic migrant stating, "I wanted to have a better life for myself and my son as we could not survive on my husband's salary alone. There wasn't a lot of work available for me [in Guatemala] but I knew there were well paying jobs in the United States that I could get through family." Her statement also points to the role family and friends play in Central Americans' decision to migrate. While the literature attributes rising numbers of female migrants to the feminization of the labor force, Rubi gives a different reason for her migration. She explains that she migrated in place of her husband because it would have been better for the safety of their child. She states, "It would be too dangerous for me to stay alone with the baby, and I didn't have stable income for us to live off. I felt better knowing that my husband would be there to protect him and provide for him."
Rubi also sheds from light into transnational families' use of technology and how it has changed over the years. Like the women in Vancea and Olivera's 2013 study, Rubi uses multiple technologies and platforms in unison since her arrival in the United States to bring down cost and ensure steady contact. She explains:
"At first, I communicated through Hotmail and sometimes video chat. It was hard because it required good connectivity on both sides so sometimes I had to send money for his dad to take him to an internet cafe. After, I was able to purchase a phone and prepaid minutes, but it was very expensive, and I was spending $100 to $200 a month and could only use ten minutes each day."
She notes that improvements in the cost and accessibility of technologies over time have improved her ability to communicate with her son saying: "Cell phones and cell phone plans got cheaper, so I was able to talk for longer and text constantly. I could also use WiFi to communicate over apps like WhatsApp without using any minutes, but we could only do that when we both had internet access at the same time. Now we're able to constantly be in communication so it's really so much better than before."
Rubi and Pablo still face challenges with the current available technology, citing unreliable signal as their main concern, but they seem generally content with their ability to communicate through ICTs. Rubi says, "Phones make it easy because everything is there on one screen and even internet. What more do I need?"
Despite the ability to communicate constantly through ICTs, Rubi and Pablo still face significant challenges in their relationship as a result of their separation. Rubi laments not being able to be physically present in her son's life, both in terms of affection and discipline. She recounts emotionally, "I wasn't able to see him grow up. I missed the big moments like losing baby teeth and attending soccer games. I'm not able to be present in his life like a normal mom. It really hurts me that he is grown now, and I was not able to experience his childhood." When explaining how this absence affects her ability to parent her son, Rubi recounts that it is difficult to discipline her son over the phone. She states that she would have to ask her husband to tell him that "he was going to be in big trouble." However, Rubi notes, "What could I really do over the phone?" Pablo's comments on his relationship with his mother indicate that despite the exchange of numerous video calls and pictures, he still views her as geographically, socially, and mentally distant. When discussing Rubi's struggles disciplining him, Pablo states that he was not afraid of her punishment because it did not affect his real life, illustrating how separation made her abstract in his mind, rather than a physical person. This point further illustrates the anxiety he felt about meeting his mother for the first time. He admits, "I was really scared coming here [the U.S.] I never knew my mom much, so I didn't know what I was coming to. I thought it might feel like meeting some strange old woman."
The pair faced other problems as a result of technology being the primary form of communication that could not be attributed to the technology itself. While mobile phones allow them to communicate with ease, they found it difficult to have meaningful conversations that would help them bond as mother and son. Pablo explains:
"When I'm on the phone with my mom it's always, 'How's school? How was work?' It's hard to talk about things that are actually interesting because we don't live together. We don't know each other's lives, so we don't have things in common to discuss."
Pablo explains how the lack of meaningful conversation affects their ability to bond. He laments that it gets repetitive, "I feel like I am just saying, 'I love you,' just to say it but there is no emotion to what I am saying. It's just another routine." Rubi agrees with his statement and adds how these hardships are more troublesome when Pablo was too young to communicate autonomously. She says, "Before he had his phone, I would have to ask his dad every time I wanted to speak to him. I didn't feel comfortable doing that or asking him personal questions with his dad there. He didn't feel comfortable speaking with his dad listening in either, so we were extremely limited in what we could talk about." Their stories illustrate how even when technology is available and sufficient, transnational families still face significant hurdles.
While the insights offered by Rubi and Pablo, as well as existing literature, are valuable, they can only begin to tackle the larger questions surrounding transnational families and their use of technology. What distinct challenges do families separated by migration face? How can technology create new avenues of communication across large distances? What barriers, financial or otherwise, prevent families from taking full advantage of these new avenues? The experiences of Rubi and Pablo reveal that there are significant economic and social pressures, which have motivated increased female migration, a trend that should not be overlooked. Additionally, while Rubi and Pablo are happy with the available ICTs, they also reveal the barriers migrants must overcome to access the ICTs. Lastly, the difficulties Rubi and Pablo face maintaining meaningful interactions are a result of physical absence. This shows that in-person communication is equally important. These findings address awareness of: state action, immigration policy reform, and the emergence of new social media apps.
First, I urge state actors, as well as society at large, to pay special attention to transnational families and the distinct issues they face. People may not be familiar with the concept of transnational families, or may see them as taboo and problematic. Normalizing transnational families and educating the public on their experiences is the first step toward finding legitimate solutions to their struggles. Second, I recommend Central American states acknowledge the feminization of migration and incorporate this change into national migration policies. While many Central American countries are supportive of migrants, providing them with resources and aid, most of these resources are geared toward male migrants. States can strive to establish migration policies that benefit women as well as men. In doing this, they can also investigate needs exclusive to women and how state policy can address those needs. Third, while the immigration debate contains a myriad of issues, the experience of children cannot be forgotten among the chaos. If receiving and sending states can collaborate on programs that allow children the opportunity to visit their migrant parents, it can have a real impact on the emotional and psychological effects of separation on their lives. Obviously, the logistics of such a collaboration is contentious. However, any effort to work toward this end goal is a valuable starting point.
Lastly, the non-technological issues identified in this paper can be alleviated through the creation of apps geared toward transnational families. For instance, there can be an app that presents its users with a topic, riddle, or question of the day, giving families a light conversation starter to lead into more substantial and interesting conversations. Another app could allow its users to snap a quick photo every day and compile them as a digital progression of growth and aging. This would allow both parents and children to have an accurate picture of the other at every stage and a virtual photo album to look back on. There are many avenues that can be explored by creative minds. These technological advancements have the capability if not only facilitating the lives of transnational families, but they can also be a success for the creators themselves.
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Madianou, M., & Miller, D. (2011). "Mobile Phone Parenting: Reconfiguring Relationships Between Filipina Migrant Mothers and Their Left-Behind Children." New Media and Society, 13 (3), 457 - 470.
McGuire, S., & Martin, K. (2007). "Fractured Migrant Families: Paradoxes of Hope and Devastation." Family & Community Health, 30 (3), 178 - 188.
Vancea, M., & Olivera, N. (2013). "E-migrant Women in Catalonia: Mobile Phone Use and Maintenance of Family Relationships." Gender, Technology and Development, 17(2), 179 - 203.
Yarosh, S., Y.C., & Abowd, G.D. (2009). "Supporting Parent-Child Communication In Divorced Families." International Journal of Human - Computer Studies, 67 (2), 192 - 203.