An Unimaginable Choice

February 27, 2006

Salon ran a review of a book titled Enrique’s Journey, the true story about a Honduran boy who makes multiple — and often unsuccessful — treacherous trips to the United States to find his mother. The book, based on a (must-read) Pulitzer-Prize winning series that ran in the Los Angeles Times three years ago, highlighted the plight of many single Latina mothers who leave behind their children to work in the United States.

In the introduction to “Enrique’s Journey” Nazario explains, “In Los Angeles … 82 percent of live-in nannies and one in four housecleaners are mothers who have at least one child in their home country.” Once a fraternity dominated by Mexican braceros, America’s shadow community of illegal immigrants has been joined by an influx of women. And millions of single mothers in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, alone and unable to shelter and feed their children, find themselves facing an unimaginable choice: set out for the States alone, but with the hope of earning enough money to pull their children out of poverty — or stay put, their family intact but doomed to destitution.

As a Latina who has, thankfully, never had to make this decision, I have witnessed this phenomenon enough to wonder if I would join these women in making this choice.  In 1960 — eight years before my father and grandmother would leave their native Cuba to, initially, Spain — thousands of Cuban parents put their unaccompanied kids on a boat and shipped them off to the United States. Many never saw their children again. And while some of the kids became orphans, the parents thought it was better that they have economic opportunities in the United States than live under communist rule in Cuba.

Two of my father’s cousins left via this “Pedro Pan” exodus. To their credit, they did achieve economic success. One is a newscaster for the Hispanic television network Univision and the other is a business owner in New Jersey. But they didn’t see their parents for decades and never shared a close relationship with them. (Well, not as affectionate a relationship as their three siblings who stayed behind in Cuba. They were “close” in that they wrote checks when they were needed. Now that they are all reunited in the States, they hardly see each other!)

My grandmother, however, chose to stay behind in Cuba and have my father with her — even though they were subsisting on little more than tomato sandwiches and fried eggs. For her, family unity trumped all else and she refused to come to the United States unless she was assured that they would be united with my grandfather. To this day, her and my father share a very close relationship.

Then again, my grandmother was not a single mother. My grandfather — who spent years in the States apart from my dad and grandmother (always a sore point between all of them!) — religiously sent money. Thanks to him, I have gotten so used to the comforts of American life — TV, the Internet, fast food, and readily available jobs — that I would, no doubt, have serious withdrawal symptoms if they were taken away from me. Would I leave my son to pursue more economic opportunities if circumstances forced me? How destitute would I have to be to give up raising my family? I don’t know the answers to these questions. What do you think?