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Season of Separation : 'I Am Scared They Will Forget Me'

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.

*

Maria Marroquin is thinking about the holidays in her homeland: cooking tamales with her older sister, baking cheese and rice cakes with her mom, and caring for her two kids, Ruby, 11 and Marvin, 10.

But this year--like the last five years--the holidays will come and go in Guatemala City without Marroquin.

The 33-year-old cosmetologist came to Los Angeles in 1989 in pursuit of the universal immigrant dream: a better life for her children. Separated from her husband, Marroquin had been her family's only wage earner in a city where the only job she could get paid no more than $10 a month.

Ruby was 6 then. Marvin was 5.

And Marroquin will never forget the day she parted with her children.

"I told the children I was going to visit some family and would be gone a few hours. I kissed them and then left," she recalls, tearfully.

She remembers their young faces--soft, smooth, sweet-smelling. "Cherubic," she says, "like little angels. I call them my angels on the phone," she says before speaking to her family via long distance.

Marroquin, 33, entered the United States to land a better paying job and has maintained her legal status.

She recently earned a cosmetologist's license while holding down a full-time job at a Melrose Avenue salon.

She is driven to succeed because "I don't want people to think of me as an immigrant without ambition." And everything she does is for her kids.

*

Every month, Marroquin sends her family--which includes her 72-year-old mother, Juana, and 38-year-old sister, Alicia, who is raising her children--money, clothes and shoes. When there's extra cash, she phones home.

"There is always so much I want to know. How is school? Are you studying hard? Are you being a good boy and girl? Are you minding your aunt?"

And, Marroquin says, every time she calls, the children always ask: " 'Mommy, when are you coming back?' " She pauses long enough to wipe away her tears.

She says she hasn't gone back because "I need to send money to fix the house, money for my mother's medicines and for so many things that the children need. I know it's difficult for them to understand, but I don't have the extra money to fly home."

She has kept up with her children's growth, noticing the subtle changes in their voices during phone conversations, hearing tales about teeth falling out, new ones coming in and other physical changes.

"I would like to send them a video camera so they can make movies for me," she says. A few years ago, the children received a camera so they could send photographs. Recently, Marroquin sent her kids an electric typewriter.

"If I could go back tomorrow I would, but my plan has always been to save enough money to open my own beauty shop in Guatemala for my children's future," she says, adding that she hopes to return in the next five years.

*

Even though she knows in her heart that her children are in good hands with her sister, she says: "I am so scared that one day they will forget me. My sister has been a second mother to them for so long now. Maybe one day my children won't love me as a mother."

Later, in a phone conversation with her children from her rented room in North Hollywood, Marroquin puts her fears to rest.

After chitchat about friends and family, Marroquin engages the children in talk of schoolwork and offers some motherly advice.

"Every year, school gets harder, my angel," Marroquin tells Ruby. "You get older and you move up a grade--that's why the classes are harder. But watching TV all afternoon--that's not good. Don't forget you are the example for your brother. Now put your brother on the phone."

To Marvin: "You have to do what your Aunt Alicia says or else no playing basketball on the weekend. OK? I love you, my angel."

In a phone interview with the children's aunt, Alicia Marroquin says the children are saddened over their mother's absence, "but they understand." Still, she says, they constantly ask about Marroquin's return.

" 'Not yet,' I tell them. 'She is working hard so you can study and eat. She is fighting for you because here the life is hard.' I know my sister is struggling and sacrificing for her children. But I always tell her when she comes back to Guatemala, she will rest."

Says Marroquin's mother: "She is our conquering hero, our hope."

"I am not the brave one," Marroquin says. "My children are."

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.

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