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Telephone Mamas: The Forgotten Dreamers
Posted on Jul 28, 2014
The names and some minor details in this story have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
Photos by Paul C. Miller.
I know three women who mother their children from afar: by check, or Western Union, or dollar bills tucked into letters. They mother by telephone, or text message, or Hallmark cards sent through a mail service so unreliable that by the time the news arrives it is already old. They mother by way of presents stuffed into suitcases on their way to El Salvador—which could just as well be any other country south of the border: Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua.
Like the tens of thousands of Latin American children who have been captured crossing the border, these mothers have paid in dollars and in blood to cross la frontera, all in the name of a job, in the name of freedom, in the name of an honest living. We call them illegal, because they’ve broken our immigration laws. Some call them irresponsible. Some call them heroes. But all those lost children have reminded our nation that these “undocumented aliens” are living, breathing souls carrying around stories that you wouldn’t believe. Those who do not send their children put their own bodies in front of their children’s—the way you might throw yourself in front of a truck to save your own flesh and blood.
Beatriz sends home futbal shorts for her boy and lavender Gap sweatshirts for her girl. Valeria sends home a “Dora the Explorer” miniature inflatable sofa and a blonde Barbie. Jazmin sends home Avon’s Far Away lotion until her girls start liking its Today lotion even more.
Their stories come to me in the sandbox, over plates of hot quesadillas, behind closed doors, whispered over the heads of my sleeping babies. I have been collecting border crossing stories for 10 years now, since I lived in Mexico, worked as a social worker, became a writer, became a mother. I imagine they talk to me because (even though I am white and of a different class) I speak fluent Spanish, I ask questions—and, despite our differences, motherhood unites more than it separates. Sometimes these women pause to unburden their secrets. The weight of them overwhelms me.
One left behind a dead husband, a smashed-up car, unpaid hospital bills. Two left behind men who drank, worked too little,beat them one time too many.
Our playgrounds are populated with mothers like these, women who send trinkets and duct-taped packages back to their babies in faraway countries. They call them babies, even if they are not babies anymore, because it’s a habit. They call them babies because in the photographs held in their minds, their half-grown children are frozen in time.
Each has risked arrest, robbery, rape. Death comes by heatstroke; drowning in the Rio Grande; or the bullet of an Arizona vigilante, a Texas rancher, an overzealous border patrol officer. They have suffered humiliations: wearing diapers because there was no bathroom for 22 hours in a sealed truck, where men could grope them up and down, as it moved through foreign countries on their way from there to here. They have risked losing husbands and lovers, mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, their own offspring.
Each has given up moments that cannot be returned: Beatriz missed the day her daughter first got her period and the day her son got caught cheating, along with the opportunity to teach him not to cheat. Valeria missed the day her daughter Esperanza lost her first tooth and her first day of kindergarten. Jazmin missed the day her 14-year-old came home pregnant by a no-good man, and the chance to save her child from repeating her mistakes. Jazmin missed holding her papa’s hand as he died and getting to say misa at his funeral. All of them have missed birthdays, christenings, communions, marriages and funerals—as well as those everyday moments you take for granted until they are gone.
Each has risked losing her children’s love with every time she could not answer through the static telephone line the question: When are you coming home, mami?
They compile excuses: when the laws change; when I save enough money; when President Bush passes that law; when President Obama gets elected; when President Obama lives up to his promises.
Telephone mothers populate our most intimate spaces: our kitchens, our bathrooms, our playgrounds. We entrust them with the chores we would rather not do: cleaning our toilets and wiping our babies’ bottoms. We entrust their men to cook our food, work our land and fight our wars, but not to drive a car, get a degree or vote. We refuse to confer on them the constitutional rights that brought them to our shores. Your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We’ve forgotten the promises made by our forefathers. They have not.
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