As national media debate whether women can “have it all”—a successful career and a family—one group of women has chosen to provide for their families at all costs, even if it means leaving their kids behind.
They are the undocumented immigrants who work as nannies in the United States and who, in exchange for work, have paid a high emotional cost: living apart from their own children.
Many working mothers may be familiar with feelings of guilt. But little is known about the drama faced by undocumented nannies in this country—mothers who love and care for other people’s children, while their own children are only able to reach them by phone because they are living back in their home country.
This is the story of three immigrant mothers: A Mexican woman who promised her kids she would come home soon but, because she hasn’t been able to, lives tormented by her broken promise. A Salvadoran woman who strives to give her kids material things because she can’t be there with them, instilling in them values and praising their accomplishments. And an Argentine woman who, after 14 years of separation, reunited with her children.
“My tiredness has been for nothing”
Gloria García, 43, likes to imagine a different reality. In the little time she has to herself, the undocumented immigrant wonders how her life would have been different if she had never left the town where she lived with her children.
In 2002, she migrated to the United States, fleeing a life of poverty and an abusive husband—and leaving her three kids, 11-year-old Edgar, 6-year-old Montserrat, and 4-year-old Jimena, in the care of their grandparents in the Mexican state of Michoacán.
“I came here because I didn’t have enough to feed my kids. I had nowhere to live because I was making so little money,” said García.
For this Mexican mother, saying goodbye to her children was one of the hardest moments of her life. She couldn’t find the right words to give her kids a sense of security in the face of an uncertain future. So she promised them that the separation would only be temporary. But 10 years have passed since then and García hasn’t been able to return to her country to see how her children’s faces have changed.
García is one of the 4.1 million undocumented immigrant women who are living in the United States, according to the study by Pew Hispanic Center, A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States.
She lives in Richmond, in the East Bay, and works as a nanny in San Francisco, where she makes $400 a week. It isn’t enough to meet all her needs; she sends $800 a month to her kids back home, and the rest of her salary goes to rent, food and transportation. Her workday lasts nearly 11 hours due to the tedious three-hour roundtrip commute she makes by bus.
“My tiredness has been for nothing,” says García with a hint of frustration. “I work as much as I can. When they call me I go, and I come back at night without eating dinner, without drinking water, or resting, after caring for kids and cleaning for seven hours in the hot sun without any food,” says the immigrant.
But her physical exhaustion is nothing compared to her emotional pain. The mother regrets moving away from her children; her absence has left scars that are harder to erase than hunger. “My son suffered because I could never go to his school; he told me his friends had their moms [there] and he didn’t,” García says.
One day she was on her way to work when she heard her phone ring. It was Edgar, her oldest son, lashing out at her in anger. “I’ll never forgive you,” he told her. “You said you were only going for a few years but you haven’t come back.”
García repeats her son’s words that continue to haunt her. “In those days I felt like I was dead, disoriented, frustrated and thinking, ‘I’m not worth anything.’”
In desperation, she started taking sleeping pills she got from other women. When she couldn’t get them anymore, she started looking for another kind of help. She eventually found help at Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a non-profit organization that provides counseling for women about labor rights and offers a meeting group for immigrant women to talk about their lives.
“There’s a lot of depression among domestic workers. A lot of them live with anxiety, fear and a permanent feeling of guilt. It’s common for them to get sick to the stomach. And all of that happens because of the very vulnerable condition they’re living in,” said Juanita Flores, program director of Mujeres Unidas.
García has found relief in prayer, she says, because she has faith that one day she will find a way to return to Mexico to see her children.
Nannies form a sector of workers that has been largely excluded from workers’ rights laws. A 2007 study entitled Behind Closed Doors, conducted by Mujeres Unidas among 240 household workers, found that 94 percent of workers interviewed were Latina, and the majority, 72 percent, were immigrants who sent money back to their families in their home countries. Twenty percent said they had experienced physical and verbal abuse and 9 percent said they had experienced sexual harassment.
Although the study did not ask respondents for their immigration status, many domestic workers are undocumented immigrants. Many of them don’t speak much English, don’t have a driver’s license, aren’t familiar with the culture and live in fear of being arrested and deported.
Conditions, which according to experts, put them at greater risk for mental illness. “Living in a different culture creates extra strain on immigrants, as they have to learn a new language and new customs. For patients living on the edge of independent functioning, it can be too much, resulting in depression, anxiety, or psychosis,” said Dr. Russell Lim, professor at the University of California at Davis and a specialist in transcultural psychiatry.
According to the California Domestic Workers Coalition, there are more than 200,000 domestic workers and nannies who lack the basic labor rights of all workers. But that could soon change if a California bill that already passed both houses of Congress is signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
The bill, AB-889, will ensure that domestic workers have basic rights such as time for meals, overtime pay and uninterrupted sleep for those who live in the same house as their employers.
“If they deported me, they’d be doing me a favor”
Emma Delgado, 37, is happy to have a job that allows her to provide for her children and even give them some luxuries like 15th birthday parties for her two teenaged daughters living in El Salvador.
“Thank God both of my daughters celebrated their Quinceañeras and my Vanesa, when she called me to thank me, even cried with excitement,” said Delgado.
But the price she had to pay to be able to give her daughter a Quinceañera party was that she could not be there to see it.
“I just watched a video and I felt a lump in my throat and cried. It’s not easy to be separated from your children, but you have to make that decision to be able to pay for their education,” she said.
In 2003, Delgado crossed the border illegally and came to San Francisco to join her husband, who was unemployed. In Costa del Sol, her hometown in El Salvador, she had been a housewife. She raised chickens and relied on the money her husband sent her. But when her husband lost his job and the remittances stopped coming, she came to the rescue of her family’s finances.
She said her children were very young when she left. Fernando was 10 years old, Vanesa 8 and Chaterine 7. “I feel worse when I see the videos of my daughter as a maid of honor, a student council candidate or a cheerleader at school. When I see that, I think of everything I’ve lost,” says Delgado.
Delgado works in childcare and as a housekeeper. She makes an average of $15 an hour and sends her kids $600 each month. She is a member of Mujeres Unidas y Activas and in her spare time she volunteers for the organization, handing out flyers on workers’ rights to other women. One day she was asked to go to New York as part of her activism and the undocumented immigrant made the trip, defying immigration authorities.
“If they deported me, they’d really be doing me a favor because then I’d just have to go!” she laughs.
Dr. William Vega, an expert in Latino mental health at the University of Southern California, says that historically immigrants have been able to adapt and thrive despite their difficult living conditions.
But he says conditions for undocumented immigrants have gotten worse because they can no longer visit their families in their home countries. The same law that made it harder to cross the border illegally into the United States also made it impossible for undocumented immigrants in the United States to visit their families back home. “They are being denied the joy of seeing family and that is not a full life,” said Vega.
He said that keeping families together long-distance is a challenge because they are many miles and many years apart. “It doesn’t matter how much money they send their kids. In the end, it’s going to be really hard to make the connection because people keep changing,” Vega said.
“It’s like starting over”
Fernanda Areal, 51, returned to her native Argentina after living apart from her kids for 14 years. During that time, her three kids were raised by their grandmother.
The Argentine teacher, who gave up her professional career to work as a nanny in San Diego and Los Angeles, spoke by telephone about her recent reunion with her three kids.
What did you gain and what did you lose?
“It was worth it because now my kids are grown up, they are young people who already have their independent lives and they are very grateful. But we lost our way of physically expressing ourselves: My kids don’t come give me kisses and hugs and sometimes that’s really needed,” says Areal.
In 1998 she quit her job as an elementary school teacher in Buenos Aires because her salary of $450 a month wasn’t enough to support her kids, 15-year-old Agustín, 13-year-old Fernando and 12-year-old Guillermo.
That year she flew with a tourist visa from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles, where she started working in childcare and cleaning public restrooms.
In 2005, she was hired by a family in Chula Vista, in San Diego County, to take care of their 40-day-old baby and his 4-year-old and 6-year-old siblings. For four years she did all kinds of work for them: she took care of the kids, cooked, cleaned, helped them with their homework and fulfilled their emotional needs. “It felt good knowing I was giving other children the care and love that I couldn’t give my own kids,” she says.
Her boss was a prominent Latina businesswoman who spent a lot of time away from home and Areal’s workdays stretched beyond eight hours. Despite this, her boss’s brothers started bringing their kids over for the nanny to take care of, without paying her extra for the job. Areal quit and found a new job as a nanny.
While she lived in San Diego, Areal talked to her kids in Argentina on the phone every day. But now that they are together, she has time to bond with them.
“Recently I was talking with my son and he said, ‘What good is a pair of Nikes if I could never tell you about the first time I kissed a girl?” said Areal.
After evaluating the pros and cons of her decision to emigrate, Areal said she is convinced that parents should be with their kids.
So was it a bad decision to move to the United States?
“Today I realize that if I had to do it out of necessity I would do it all over again, but if I could have seen, like in a movie, all the things I would have lost, honestly I wouldn’t do it,” Areal concluded.
New America Media/Enlace, News Feature, Norma De la Vega, Translated by Elena Shore This article was made possible by a grant from Atlantic Philanthropies and was produced as part of New America Media’s Women Immigrants Fellowship Program.