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Season of Separation : 'I Had to Get My Children Out of Poverty'

November 23, 1994|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They long to kiss their children. To hug their parents. To belong to the families they have left behind.

Poverty and joblessness have brought them here to earn the necessities for their loved ones back home: food, shelter, clothing.

Separated by borders and countries, the immigrants visit through letters and phone calls, catching up on the everyday life they dearly miss.

Monthly chats are usually enough to boost their spirits until the next time. And the photos they receive--especially those of the children they haven't held in years--fuel their dreams of being reunited.

As families gather this week, thousands of immigrants in Los Angeles endure the sorrow of separation. Here are three of their stories.

*

Once more, before she mails the foil-wrapped box 2,000 miles, Evangelina Reyes admires the surprise gift for her daughter. She envisions the gold ring on Kira's slender finger, the matching necklace around her child's neck.

"It will look so elegant on her," says Reyes, a nanny and baby-sitter to many Los Angeles children who has been separated for six years from her 13-year-old daughter in Guatemala.

Reyes, her eyes filled with tears, her lips trembling with emotion, gently holds the jewelry in her palms. She reaches for Kira's photo on top of a small stereo in the small one-bedroom house in South Central that she shares with five other immigrants.

Kira Mariella Reyes, a beautiful girl with long, wavy brown hair; sparkling, deep brown eyes, and a knockout smile, is wearing a frilly white dress tiered with lace--a present Reyes sent last year. The gifts, she says, make Kira happy. But it's Kira's kisses Reyes aches for.

"Parents don't know how lucky they are to kiss and hug their children every day. If I were with Kira, I'd kiss her every hour. I would hug her every time she walked near me," says Reyes, 39.

In 1988, Reyes--the sole support for her daughter, then 7, and son, Boris, then 11--left her small Guatemalan village of San Jose La Arada, a dusty, impoverished place where jobs are scarce and life is painfully difficult. She headed for Los Angeles, where, a friend here told her, good-paying jobs were plentiful.

Bringing only the clothes she was wearing and "the hope that things would work out," she bid her children a tearful farewell, hugging them so tight that "I thought I would squeeze the life out of them," she says. Boris, now 17, joined his mother six months ago and works at a Downtown seafood market.

Having Boris with her is a blessing. "But without Kira, our family is incomplete," she says while sitting on a bed by her home's front door. On the walls is a mix of colorful Guatemalan handwoven art and scribbled watercolor drawings from children Reyes has cared for--and grown to love as her own--through the years.

Reyes, who recently lost a nanny job after one of the parents was laid off, is looking for similar work. She has worked at day-care centers and for two families: a Pasadena couple with two children whom she looked after for more than two years, and a Los Angeles couple with two young girls, one Kira's age when Reyes departed Guatemala.

"I would look at that little girl and think, 'There's my Kira,' " she says, pausing, fighting tears. Finally, she asks out loud: "How could I have left her?"

Her answer?

"Economics. I had to get my children out of poverty. No one person will ever know how difficult it was for me to leave them." It was a decision, she says the entire family agreed upon. Arrangements were made for Kira and Boris to live with their mother's best friend, a woman who loves Kira like her own daughter, which worries Reyes.

"I'm Kira's mother," she says, "but I am not there like a mother helping her with the problems of growing up, of becoming a young lady. I've missed so much--her first years of school, watching her play with friends, her birthdays."

*

She plans to return to Guatemala, but first she would like to earn more money to send to her 56-year-old mother, who is raising eight kids of her own and managing a household of 15. She wants to save money for a house whenever she does return. And, at the moment, Kira needs clothes and shoes and Reyes wants to shower her daughter with extravagant things like the gold jewelry set she could never afford on a $15 monthly income cleaning houses in Guatemala.

Reyes, a legal immigrant who gets housekeeping and child-care jobs through a West Los Angeles immigrant rights center, earns $50 a day taking care of children, $36 cleaning a house and $4.50 an hour baby-sitting. When work is plentiful, she is able to send $100 a month to her daughter and the woman who cares for her.

She doesn't know when she'll return home. She doesn't know when she'll have the money to send for Kira, who desperately wants to move to L.A. to be with her mother. It took Reyes two years to save up for Boris' plane ticket.

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