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Season of Separation : 'My Family Comes First'

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.

*

Like many Angelenos, Cecilio Hernandez spends Sundays with his family, sharing stories about his workweek, his English-language classes and the playful kitten he and his two Echo Park roommates have adopted.

His only wish is that he could tell the stories in person while sipping his mother's cinnamon-flavored hot chocolate and sitting around the table in the dining room that his hard-earned money built in the Mexican state of Hildalgo.

Instead, he writes.

At least five hours every Sunday, Hernandez pushes his pen, writing to his mother, two sisters and two brothers, each receiving a letter--and when possible, photos and money orders--from the man who left his family 10 years ago when he was a boy of 13.

Hernandez immigrated to the United States to help support his mother and siblings, who were abandoned by his father and oldest brother. Hernandez thinks the two men now live in New York City.

"I've been working all my life," he says. "When I was 11 and 12 years old, I was cutting sugar cane at a farm. When I was a child there was no money for toys to play with. Only once did my father give me something: a pair of shoes," says Hernandez in his gentle, soft-spoken manner.

Hernandez, a legal immigrant, was transferred to Torrance from the East Coast last year by the jewelry inspection company where he works as a supervisor.

"My family comes first," he says over coffee at a Mexican restaurant in east Hollywood. He's doesn't want anything to get in the way of taking care of his 45-year-old mother: not marriage, not partying, not wasting his money on essentials, let alone occasional luxuries.

Every month he sends her $300, and in between, packages of clothing and various gifts to his siblings. Through the years he has managed to save enough money to move his family from a one-room house where everyone slept on the floor to a three-bedroom white house with a bright red door and a dining room, an extravagance in the small town of Apam.

He misses his family dearly.

He dreams about them.

Whenever he sees other brothers and sisters with their mothers, he thinks about his own.

"When I left home my youngest brother was just a little baby. The next time I saw him he was 8 years old," he says, shaking his head. When his youngest sister turned 15, the family threw her a big party paid for by Hernandez.

"I've missed many family gatherings. Births, anniversaries, traditions," he says.

Christmas is the saddest. "I always call my mother on that day. She cries," he says, his eyes filling with tears. "I tell her, 'Mama, please don't cry. One day, we'll be together forever. I promise.' "

Hernandez doesn't know when that day will come.

*

But he has no regrets about his past and looks to the future. "I have goals and dreams," he says, among them finishing night classes at Evans Community Adult School, earning a general equivalency diploma and taking engineering courses.

Even though he has been able to make a meager living here and help his family, he discourages his brothers from joining him.

In his letters and phone calls he plays the big brother, telling his siblings that life in Los Angeles is not what they imagine: glamorous, prosperous, generous toward immigrants.

"They think life is very easy here," he says. "My youngest brother thinks I'm rich. I tell my brothers and friends they'll have a hard time finding a job and that there's a lot of discrimination.

"My sister wants to see Hollywood. I tell her it's ugly. They think they're coming to live in Disneyland. But, just like in Mexico, there is poverty here too.

"Every human being has to make sacrifices for his family and this is mine," he says. "But my sacrifice is nothing compared to my mother's. Her sacrifice was letting me go."

More on Immigration

Reprints of The Times' "Immigration" series are available from Times on Demand. The series examined significant immigration issues. $5. Mail only. Order No. 8504. For a reprint of a recent Times article explaining Proposition 187, order No. 5509. $2.50. Fax of mail. An expanded pachage of articles on immigration and the impact of Proposition 187 is also available on the TimesLink online service.

Details on Times electronic services and ordering instructions, B4.

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