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Gilda: “there were times when grief w ould flow’ out of me”

In the late 1990s, Gilda—introduced in Chapter 4—left her two children in her father's care and migrated to New York hoping to provide a better life for her them.16 Most importantly, she hoped that her income in New York would help her children study for university degrees. That way, she explained, they could avoid ending up as menial laborers like her. She spent a total of 12 years in New York, frequently working seven days a week. During this time, she labored as a domestic, an elderly woman’s caretaker, a dishwasher, cook and kitchen supervisor before assuming the care of a small child. Gilda’s “fast hands” and “doing the work of two people”—the colloquial ways that she proudly described her exploitative work routine in New York—permitted her to pay for her expenses in New York and her children’s education, health care, clothing and other everyday expenses in Zapotitlan. Over time, she also managed to build a house in Zapotitlan, purchase a small house to rent out, and acquire two other house lots as investments. However, as with many migrants, including Ursula's husband discussed above, the intensive work routine took a toll on Gilda’s health. Her last job in New York, caring for the small child, was one Gilda needed to avoid exacerbating the aches and pains that plagued her worn-out body.

In 2010, her father passed away and she returned to Zapotitlan a few days later. She initially planned to stay for two months and then go back to New York to continue working. However, nearing 50 and with knee problems, Gilda would have had a difficult time crossing the increasingly militarized border on foot—a trip that sometimes took days—and running from la migra, if it was required. In the event that she needed medical treatment while in New York, the out-of-pocket cost would be virtually impossible to pay. Because of these considerations, she called her employers to tell them she wouldn't return to care for the child.

In addition to her health problems, Gilda was bitterly disappointed that her children had not obtained university degrees, despite having steady economic support. Against Gilda’s wishes, her son migrated to New York after he finished secondary school. Her daughter Irene had completed a few years of university but had not finished her degree. Gilda lamented the difficulties she faced as a transnational mother:

[Migration] isn’t so nice because you go to NY with the illusion that you don't want your child to suffer like you did, but my daughter was influenced by bad people who told her, “your mother doesn’t love you, she loves your brother more. If she loved you she would have taken you with her to NY.” So my daughter started to drink ... and then found a boyfriend.

(Gilda, 50 years old, Zapotitlan Salinas, January 2012)

Although Irene and her partner had three children together, he did not financially support either her or the children. This represented a glaring example of the gender inequalities among poor and working-class Mexicans, particularly in rural towns, where religious ideas underpin the notion that having children is a woman’s “cross to bear” whether or not they have the support of biological fathers. Although she conceded that Irene was vulnerable to others’ manipulative behavior in her absence, Gilda was upset because Irene failed to take advantage of the sacrifices Gilda had made for her. For her part, Irene constantly complained that her mother left her alone for many years, and that the loneliness and feelings of abandonment were too much to bear.

Throughout the time we interviewed her (2012 and 2013), Gilda was no longer able to work. She could no longer see well, her eyes worn out from the years of sewing clothing at piece rate. Further, her knees ached, preventing her from standing for long periods. She received some money from renting a house she owned. Gilda’s son, who remained in New York, sent remittances to cover basic expenses for Gilda, Irene and her children. Although Gilda was grateful for her son’s support, she deeply regretted that he did not study for a professional degree. She felt that her experience with migration had not been worthwhile; her son was condemned to be a manual laborer and her daughter had failed to finish her education and became a single mother in Gilda’s absence.

There were times when grief would flow out of me, because of the sorrow my daughter left in me. She did not know how to take responsibility for herself like she should have. I tell her, if she had just finished her degree, she would have a different life.

Gilda worried that migration planted unrealistic expectations in children's minds:

Here you see pretty houses. One day they will fall down, because [their owner] does not have a good job. One has to always be there [in the US] and then the family can enjoy the house here. One has to be successful there for years so that one’s daughter can be well dressed here. But, what do you want? A parent who is giving all of their life there for some good clothes? Or to have the loving affection of your parent?

Now that I have come back, I have been analyzing life. We are causing big problems by migrating and not thinking about why we are giving our children everything and not knowing how to say “no” and put them in their place. Our children are living fantasies; they are in the clouds with their brand clothing that even their parents don’t wear [in the US]. Their parents wear used clothing donated to migrants so they can save money. I am one of them! ... In Mexico in ten years, there is going to be a lot of human garbage. We are at fault, because we do not guide ourselves, and we do not guide our children.17

(Gilda, 50 years old, Zapotitlan Salinas, January 2012)

Gilda’s disillusionment with migration was mixed with self-blame for the structural conditions that overdetermined her subject position as a mothermigrant. The restructuring of US labor markets with high demands for women of reproductive age in service sector jobs along with the criminalization of migration reconfigured domestic groups into transnational families living across borders (Boehm, 2012). In Zapotitlan, the feminization of migration along with reduced circularity across the militarized border created large numbers of “transnational mothers” who continued to feel responsible for— and to be viewed as responsible for—the affective and material care of their children, much as Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila found among domestic workers in Los Angeles (Hondagneu-Sotelo & Avila, 1997). Similar to Dreby’s findings among Mexican migrants in New Jersey (Dreby, 2010), mothering-from-a-distance in Zapotitlán involved regular remittances, consistent communication and maintaining good relationships with children’s caregivers. However, there was a widely shared belief in the town that a mother could never be fully replaced by others, and that children would suffer in their absence. One could live without one's father, but not one's mother.

Although Gilda embodied the highly valued mujer abnegada, or self-effacing woman, who sacrificed everything for her children, and the hard-working immigrant (see Chapter 4), things had still gone wrong from her point of view.18 The notion that migration was about progress (see Chapter 4), meant that life should get better, especially for the next generation. Beyond the inability to improve her children’s precarious social and economic positions, Gilda was dependent upon her son’s remittances to cover household expenses. Despite having a house and some modest investments, Gilda faced the last decades of her life in poverty.

Her daughter received 800 pesos (USS60) every other month from Oportunidades, a conditional cash transfer program that provided money to mothers or female guardians with children enrolled in school. The program required the beneficiaries to take their children to medical checkups and attend talks by nutritionists and psychologists all of which took place during working hours. Gilda explained "If Irene lived alone, it would never be enough for her. It is a very small amount for so many requirements.”

Gilda’s predicament illustrated the basic contradictions of migration for Zapotitecos/as. Migrants were forced to leave to take care of their families. As long as a migrant works in the United States, the family in Mexico will be able to avoid some of the worst effects of poverty in Mexico. However, migrants generally had to live in poverty in the United States to accomplish this goal.19

Unlikely to migrate again because of her age, the physical toll that work had taken on her body and the dangers of the militarized border, Gilda struggled with the idea that the “sacrifices” she made had not led to more permanent social mobility for them. Despite her productivity, “doing the work of two people” for her employers, the end of her productive life was replete with laments for her perceived personal shortcomings in her social reproductive labor as a transnational mother. In her own estimation, she had failed in her work as a mother, one who would provide guidance and care to ensure a better life for her children. Moreover, her children had failed to take advantage of the small, but important, advantages that came with the steady remittance income from their mother. In particular, they failed to complete their education. Gilda could take some consolation in the idea that her son was a hard-working migrant, although his undocumented status condemned him to a marginal and precarious place in US society. If deported, he would likely be an un- or underemployed worker in Mexico. In her own mind, the structural conditions that underpinned Gilda’s limitations as a transnational mother receded from view and were replaced with self-blame.

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