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Telephone Mamas: Separating Families to Serve Our Own

I have known women who mother their children from afar: by check, or Western Union, or bills tucked into letters. They mother by telephone or cards sent through a mail service.
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I have known women who mother their children from afar: by check, or Western Union, or bills tucked into letters. They mother by telephone or 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, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua.

They have risked arrest, robbery, rape. They have risked death by heatstroke, death by drowning in the Rio Grande, death by the bullet of an Arizona vigilante, a Texas rancher or an overzealous border patrol. They have hidden in hot sealed trucks packed with a hundred plus strangers for twenty-two hours through foreign countries on their way from there to here. They have risked losing husbands and lovers, mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, and their own offpsring.

They have given up Sundays at church, afternoons in the square listening to mariachi music, eating ice cream atop a wall on a lazy day under the shade of the laurel trees. They have each risked missing the day when her child first learns to walk, the day her child comes home from school to show off a report card, the day the teacher calls to say her child is in trouble for cheating on a test and the opportunity to teach her not to cheat; each has risked missing the day her daughter gets her period, the day her son kisses his first girl.

They have risked losing their children's love with every time they cannot answer through the static telephone line the question: When are you coming home Mama?

They compile excuses: when the laws change, when I save enough money, when President Clinton takes a stand, when president Bush passes that law, when President Obama gets elected, when President Obama lives up to his promises.

They have risked not being able to erase the rage of a little boy or girl who does not understand that Mama has gone to pay for the shoes and the school and the medicine for the flu and that Spider man action figure or the Dora the Explorer doll. They have risked not being able to retrieve the lost years.

These women 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, working our land, fighting our wars, wiping our babies bottoms. We entrust them with our children; but we cannot entrust them to drive a car or to get a degree. We cannot entrust them with our Constitutional rights.

As an ex-social worker, as someone who spent years living in Mexico, as a mother, their stories have come to me: in my office, in the sandbox, over plates of hot quesadillas, on a milk crate in a tiny sweater store in a small Mexican town, whispered over the heads of my babies.

Beatriz came to me when my twin babies were five weeks old and small enough to fit into my husband's hat. I almost didn't hire her because she looked so young. But at 27 she knew things I was still trying to grasp at 38. She taught me how to calm an inconsolable baby, how to remain calm even when you're low on sleep and patience. She taught me how to rock one baby in the car seat with the tip of your toe, while you burp the other across your shoulder. She taught me how to calm an inconsolable baby, how to remain calm even when you're low on sleep and patience. Beatriz (who hasn't seen her 11 year old son and 14 year old daughter in 9 years) swaddled my babies up like tamales with all the love that's left over, and then some.

I know what it is to leave my children for one night or two. I cannot imagine what it is to leave them for a month, and watching that month turn into a year, or two, or six, or nine. "How do you do it?" I asked.

She shrugged and said, "You do what you have to."

Beatriz' own mother left for the US when she was 12.

"Weren't you angry?" I asked.

"I was," she replied.

If you met Beatriz you'd never know she carts around all this loss. She has the disposition of Mary Poppins. She knows how to blow bubbles with soap, water and two bare hands. She knows how to make hats out of paper bags and how to make children obey by tickling them instead of scolding.

But one day when she was leaning over one of my babies I noticed her earrings: baby teeth dangling from gold clasps. Because she cannot carry her children she carries pieces of them.

Sometimes we have found ourselves on our knees picking up the clutter: the puzzles, the paintbrushes, the toy dishes, the duck on a string, the train set, the blocks that are so numerous you cannot walk without tripping over them. I regret that I cannot build a road with all these toys, that all the money in the world cannot buy her children what they need most.

Today Beatriz and her mother are reunited. They clean houses and babysit to send money home. Unlike so many others, Beatriz and her mother have been lucky enough to earn green cards, allowing them to work legally, (thanks to a relative with citizenship who has filed for them.) But until Beatriz' citizenship papers come through she fears it is not safe to travel.

Beatriz calls home almost every day. One day, her daughter said to her, "Mami, you don't love me with all your heart."

Even though I fear losing Beatriz, I have encouraged her to go home. I am tired of participating in this love stealing--where one child is robbed of a mother, and another gets twice the love. It's ironic, the political groups who claim to cherish family values are themselves engaged in tearing other families apart.

I'm not normally religious, but Beatriz has taught me the importance of faith. She shrugs and say, "If God wills it." She has taught me that with faith you can learn to accept the unacceptable.

But I'm an American. I was taught to believe in justice for all, in the right of every individual to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I don't want to give up so readily.

On this mother's day I offer up a prayer (not to God) but to those I've always trusted in to create change: we the people. I pray that one day we will stop building walls and start building bridges. I pray that one day Beatriz (and all those other women like her) won't have to choose between leaving their children and putting food on their table. I pray that one day when I say to her "Feliz Dia de los Madres" it won't be an expression weighted with sorrow.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.