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Sharing a Fear: Will Their Children Forget Them?

Enrique's Journey

October 06, 2002|Sonia Nazario

She arrives at the Rio Grande exhausted, worried and crying.

It has taken Lourdes Izaguirre, 26, of Honduras three months to get here. She cannot call home; her family has no phone.

She has walked away from Byron, 5, and Melissa, 10, as well as her 10-year-old sister and 11-year-old brother, whom she had been raising for her ailing mother. She is heading north to find work in the United States and has gotten as far as Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Texas.

Izaguirre and other mothers have gathered on the second floor of Parroquia de San Jose--St. Joseph's Parish--a haven for women on the journey.

"We try to keep each other from going crazy," says Agueda Navarro, 34, who left behind her children, 14 and 4, a few weeks earlier.

Another mother, Belinda Caceres, 29, prays that her children, ages 12, 9 and 2, will have enough to eat and will not get sick while she is gone.

The women are part of a stream of mothers, many single and from Central America, who pause at the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border before making their final push into El Norte. They share the same fears. Will their children forget them? Will they see their children again?

Back home, Izaguirre says, making Tommy Hilfiger-labeled shirts netted her $30 a week. It was not enough to feed her son and daughter each night, even when her ex-husband helped with the light and water bills.

Byron, her son, went to a birthday party and saw a pinata. He asked why he could not have a party too. Melissa, her daughter, needed books and school supplies. She asked why she could not have them.

Izaguirre said she would go to the United States and send money for pinatas and books.

Melissa offered to quit school and go to work so their mother would not leave.

"I'm going to work so you can study," she told them.

Now she fears something will happen to them and she will be too far away to comfort or help. Worse, she fears that the separation will last too long and her children will give her the same icy reception she has watched other mothers endure.

"You lose the love of your child," she says.

She begins to cry. "I feel bad for doing this. It wasn't worth it. I'd rather starve with my children. But I've come this far. I can't go back." She mortgaged her property and borrowed money from a neighbor for her journey. Her voice turns firm again. "I can't go back empty-handed."

"I worry about dying along the way. I know going into another country is wrong. I know God would be against this. But I hope he understands."

The torrent of single mothers from Central America began as a trickle in the 1980s, when women pioneered and dominated migrations from Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Many had been unwilling to endure the more difficult parts of their relationships with men: drunkenness, beatings, mistresses. Alone, most found supporting their children difficult.

Father Ovidio Nery Rodriguez, a priest in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, explains: "To not prostitute themselves, to feed their children, they leave."

They were following in the footsteps of mothers from the West Indies who went to work in New York City, New England and Florida during the 1960s and '70s as nurses and nannies, often leaving their children behind.

A Harvard University study last year determined that such separations are now common: In the United States, one in five children is raised in an immigrant household and 85% of migrant children from Central America, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and China have been separated from one or both parents.

The pattern is especially pronounced in Los Angeles, which has more Central American immigrants than anywhere else. A 1998 USC study found, for instance, that 82% of Central American live-in nannies were separated from children they left behind.

Though many mothers expect the separations to be short, typically they last six to eight years, says Analuisa Espinoza, a Los Angeles Unified School District social worker who specializes in immigrants.

By then, they are strangers. Some mothers, picking up children from smugglers, hug the wrong ones.

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