town of Malinalco

BROOKLYN, N.Y., and VERACRUZ, Mexico (WOMENSENEWS)–Ana, as she would like to be known, plans to leave her children in Veracruz this summer and look for work, probably in a restaurant, in the United States. Her plans at this stage are vague: She doesn’t know whether she’ll end up in California, Chicago or New York and she says she’ll take whatever job she can find.

Ana is lucky. She obtained a tourist visa, so she won’t have to make the dangerous journey overland.

She is leaving behind her two sons, ages 8 and 10, with her mother, who already cares for them when she is working her shift in the local power plant’s radiation-protection department. The children’s father, in what Ana calls the “typical story,” lives with another woman and provides no support.

“We are going to suffer for two, three years, perhaps four,” she told Women’s eNews. “But it’s to obtain a better quality of life in the future.”

Ana plans to stay with relatives or friends in the United States and earn enough money to return to Veracruz to open a business. “Something that gives me stability and lets me be with my children,” she says.

Staying home is not an option for Ana. Even though her monthly pay of about $1,000 is good for Mexico, where the average minimum daily wage is about $4, or $120 a month, she says it still does not cover the rent, utility bills, food for two growing boys and medicine for her 59-year-old mother.

“If I were single and didn’t have any dependents, I could live on my salary,” Ana says. But she says she wants her children to have a better education. “I want to spend more time with them,” she adds. “I want to give them more than I’m giving them now.”

Ana is just one of thousands of Latin American women leaving their children behind in hopes of making ends meet in the United States.

Though historically men have migrated, researchers say that more women from Mexico, Honduras, Ecuador and other Latin American countries are crossing the border as demand for their labor grows, joining the ranks of women globally who have left their countries, often to seek work in restaurants, as domestic workers or whatever else they can find to help support their families. An estimated 85 million women migrated in 2000, according to a March 2005 United Nations report.

The global trend is not new, but in Mexico and other parts of Latin America the growing numbers of mothers migrating for work without their children is leaving hundreds of families devoid of parents. Researchers studying the trend say it is taking a major toll on the emotional well being of these migrant mothers as well as that of their children.

‘Deal With the Devil’

“Mothers are making a deal with the devil,” says Peggy Levitt, an associate professor of sociology at Wellesley College, outside of Boston, whose 2001 book “The Transnational Villagers” covers the global trend in migrant mothers. “They’re able to support their kids, buy medicine and food and education they couldn’t otherwise afford, but there’s an emotional cost.”

Ellen Calmus notes the strain of this migration on the children in Malinalco, a town of 24,000 outside Mexico City, where 10 percent of children in the main town and 60 percent of the children in outlying rural areas has a parent–either a mother or a father–up north.

“I’ve had kids come and pretend to make phone calls on my phone, pretending to call a parent who they don’t know whether he or she has made it across the border yet,” says Calmus, who heads a community-assistance project called Proyecto El Rincon (The Corner Project) in Malinalco that is starting a program specifically for these children.

These children see themselves as an economic burden, she says. Their grades plummet immediately after the parent leaves, tempting them to leave school and go to work. Their lives are on hold because they don’t know whether their parent will come back or if they’ll be asked to make the dangerous journey north themselves. The lack of family support has also led to the beginning of gang activity in recent years, Calmus says.

Indeed, the loss of a mother often takes the heaviest toll on the remaining female family members, including daughters. A 2004 global U.N. survey found that women are usually the primary caregivers in a household. When a mother leaves care-giving and other household activities typically fall on grandmothers, older daughters or other female family members; men don’t usually take up domestic roles, according to the report.

Being Forgotten

Leah Schmalzbauer, associate professor of sociology at Montana State University, conducted a 2004 study of the stresses borne by Honduran women who left their children to pursue work far from home. “The burden is even larger for a mother who has left young children behind and the kids don’t understand why she left,” Schmalzbauer says. “The worst case is when they stop remembering who their mothers are.”

That worst case happened to Maria, who also prefers that her last name not be used.

In 1994 she returned to Puebla, her home town about two hours southeast of Mexico City, after being in the United States for three years. (Camus of El Rincon says three years is usually the minimum time that parents are away.)

Her 7-year-old son remembered her. But Liliana, who was 4 and 1/2, didn’t. She regarded Maria’s sister as her mother. “Mother, when is this lady going away?” she asked Maria’s sister. She didn’t want to be “taken away” by Maria.

It took Liliana nearly five months to warm up to and trust her mother. “My older brother convinced me that she was my real mom,” says Liliana, now 16. “We talked on the phone, she sent toys, when we talked I was told, ‘This is your mom.’ But I didn’t know anything more . . . I had my aunt in Mexico and her love, but my true mother was not there. I used to think about it and started to feel bad.”

The entire family snuck back into the United States in 1995, this time with the aid of paid traffickers, who smuggled them out in the trunk of a car. The children went first and then the car came back for Maria and her husband. Today, the family lives undocumented in Brooklyn and Maria’s husband is trying to get his immigration papers. They’ve had two more children.

Despite the sacrifice, Maria thinks it was worth it. “We were able to gather some money, went to Mexico and were able to bring the kids here. The kind of money I was able to raise here I couldn’t have got back in Mexico.”

Liliana’s aunt, who says she’s “50 something,” is now also living in Brooklyn with them.

With her three adult children–ages 19, 20, and 26–living far away in Mexico City, her own phase of family separation has begun.

Juhie Bhatia is a writer based in New York City. Theresa Braine is a correspondent for Women’s eNews and other publications in Mexico City.

For more information:

The Corner Project:

Pew Hispanic Center:

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs–
2004 World Survey on the Role of Women in Development: Women and International Migration: