I Am Here, But My Heart Is There

A Mexican mother’s divided world

By Kathryn Gonzales          

She holds the phone as if her life depended on it. As if the phone call is the only way she can finally breathe.

Te amo mis vidas” [I love you my lives], she says “nunca olviden

[Never forget]. She bids her kids good-bye for today, but seems like forever as the eyes of Maria Juarez close as she ends the call.

It is 6 a.m. on a Monday as she sits at a bus stop waiting. She takes out her wallet where she carries two photos of her kids Martin, 10, and Rosa, 6, in the front of her wallet—the one she brought with her when she left them and the one her mother took of them on Rosa’s sixth birthday. Juarez, 35, stands as her bus stops, she puts the photos away and enters.

* * *

They were barely getting by in their town of Cardenas, San Luis Potosi, Mexico. Juarez’s husband and father of their children had suddenly passed away from a heart attack. He was the breadwinner of the family, as Juarez stayed home to take care of the children. Grief struck her for a short while, but what followed was a wave of worry and uncertainty. She now had to be both a mother and father to her kids. To care and to provide.

The well-being of her children impacted her decision to leave home. The only consequence was a physical separation from Martin and Rosa who were only five and one. The only person to entrust her children was to her mother, Guadalupe Lopez, 55, knowing she would take care of them. It was a decision made only after Juarez was having a hard time financing the living expenses of putting food on the table, paying for the house, and for the kid’s education.

Mexican migrants headed for the U.S. border

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Juarez takes Bus 23 from Hunting Park in North Philadelphia to Chestnut Hill, a neighborhood with houses that look like fortresses. She walks to a white-bricked house and uses her key to enter. She is met with the warm hugs of the twin five-yearold boys of her current employer, a wealthy business executive who work long hours. She scoops them up in her arms and twirls them around.

She is their nanny-housekeeper. The twins own parents kiss them good-bye as Juarez begins the day with making them breakfast. She has been their nanny since she came to the United States in 2014 and was connected to the position through another fellow nanny.

“This is the everyday for me, five days a week, cleaning and taking care of the children,” she says “I make much more here than I did when I was home”.

Juarez treats the employers’ children with the same affection that she had for her own children “because if you do not feel affection for children, you are not able to care for them well.” Her constant care for these children vividly remind her of her own son and daughter.

When she saw the blond- haired twin boys lacking in affection, she began to get close to them and she saw that they appreciated that. “And then I felt consoled too, because I had someone to give love to.”

For Juarez having someone physically there to care for filled some of the void that was longing for her own children. It is difficult for Juarez because she forgets that the boys are not her children but her employers and that hers are far away.

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Sacrificio [Sacrifice] is the word that comes to mind when Juarez thinks about those she left behind. She knew love would not fill her children’s stomachs. She knew the distance would hurt her more than anything. But she knew it would mean a better future for her children.

Her kids were so young that they did not understand why their mother was not there anymore. She would always tell them: “I can’t be with you, not because I do not want to, but because I want to give you a better life.” They would always cry for her but eventually that changed to a gradual acceptance of her physical absence in their lives as the years went on.

“I am not with them, but I am at the same time.” Although she had been physically separated from her children for five years now, she has maintained her mothering ties and financial obligations by regularly sending money. The emotional connection she has with her children is sustained through phone calls, photos, and letters. She never misses a call or a text. She reminds them to brush their teeth and to always do their homework before playing outside. She is present as much as she can be in their lives.

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By noon she had finished playing hide-and-seek with the twins and was ready to “make the house look perfect.” She put the TV on and sat the twins down while she began to work on the bathrooms and bedrooms.

“Most people don’t like cleaning, but for me it clears my head” she says as she wipes down the counters of one of the five restrooms in the house, “I am also really good and fast, I think that is why my jefa [woman boss] hired me.”

The twins are napping at one o’clock, which gives her the cue to clean the kitchen and vacuum. It is a routine that Juarez has repeated for the past years as she has been part of raising the twins. “I have learned more English since I have worked here” she stops picking up the kids toys “But I have not forgotten my language or where I come from; I try to teach those kids a few Spanish words too.”

Juarez moves around the house as if it is hers. It is during these times that she convinces herself that it is hers. That she can have a big house with five restrooms and a giant TV where her own children can run around happy. But these dreams are a waste of time, as she has to work fast before the twins wake up.

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“I moved with the future in mind,” says Juarez. “Whenever I got in the truck heading to the border, I left part of myself behind.”  In her town, word spread that she left her children to her mother and with it spread lies. She was condemned as una madre terrible [terrible mother] because she left her children at a young age, giving her a title that does not grasp her sacrifice.

Juarez was criticized by those who were experiencing the same financial burdens as her, but instead of simply dealing with it, she problem-solved. “They don’t know me or what I have gone through, so I don’t let what they say get into my head”, she calmly says.

While it can be difficult being a transnational mother, Juarez finds empowerment in her role. “All of my aunts used to tell me that we [woman] had to maintain the household while the men work” she reflects, “I never understood how wrong that was till I had to be both parents; I am providing for my family while still caring for them .” She left behind the traditional gender roles she was taught only to become economically independent.

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At 5:30 p.m. the house was spotless, and the twins were eating their dinner. As they bounced up and down, Juarez dressed the twins for bed and tucked them in. She sang them a lullaby as they held her hand falling asleep to the soothing Spanish words.

The mother of the twins arrives at 6:30 p.m. letting Juarez go for the day. She is out the door running to her bus stop. She is eager to speak to her children as she holds on tightly to her phone.

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“I remember it being cold even though we were crossing in the middle of June,” Juarez laughs “ I was having so many doubts as I walked, ran, and hid.”  Four hours turned into four days of walking. Juarez was in a group of 12 being led by a coyote [smuggler]. She had every intention to keep on going but she was being pulled back of the thought of her children. The bad conditions of crossing were evident as she didn’t have much water, “we had to sip it and hold it in our mouths.”

She finally made it to the Matamoros Bridge and went underneath. She and the group kept on walking until they saw the tall chain link fence like the ones in prison with barbed wire on top. Some parts of the wire were broken where other people had crossed before. The migrants in the group knew what to do and climbed up the chain-link and jumped off it. They were on the other side, calling on the rest of us to hurry, “Go, go, there he comes, he comes, you better come soon!”

“I was the last one and was deathly afraid and guilt ridden” Juarez says, “I didn’t know what to do, so I just started running from the person they said to run away from.” She had tripped as she ran, but decided to climb the fence again only to fall halfway. In the corner of her eye she saw a border patrol officer coming towards her.

“He grabbed me off the ground and began speaking English, but I did not understand him” she recalls “I thought I was done for when he suddenly turned me to the fence whispering “Aquí [here] Go, go, go! ¡Ve, ve! ”

Juarez started walking where he pointed; she saw a big hole under the fence where branches were covering it. He knew it was there; he told her to go underneath, cross from there. So she followed instruction, squeezing her way into a land that would create a barrier between her and her children.

“It was una bendición de dios [a blessing from God] that I was able to make it out that day” she reflects, “It was a sign that I was doing the right thing, that I had a valid purpose for my actions.”

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To her, to be a mother is beautiful but it is very hard, because one has to work and care for the children. To her, the mother is the one who suffers most. She had to leave her children to work to give them what they need. And that is what it feels like to be a mother, a constant back and forth of love, guilt, and sacrifice.

Juarez enters Bus 23 heading back to Hunting Park. She pulls out the photos of Martin and Rosa from her wallet and dials the number to call them. After two rings, Martin answers squealing “Mama! Guess what happened in school today?”

Dímelo todo” [tell me everything], Juarez answers with a smile.

Kathryn Gonzales covers the lives of Mexican immigrants.