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Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez | Longreads | December 2019 | 13 minutes (3,486 words)
Writing the Mother Wound, a series co-published with Writing our Lives and Longreads, examines the complexities of mother love.
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My mother feared removal and separation from her children long before Trump became president. I crossed the Mexico-U.S. border with her and my younger sister in 1992. We walked from Juarez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas, and boarded a plane to Chicago where my father, already a permanent resident, met us. We were stopped at the airport in El Paso. Officers handcuffed my mother and separated her from my sister and me. At 5 years old, I sat in a black plastic chair, with my 4-year-old sister crying on my lap, waiting for my mother to return. The men interrogating her harassed her with questions about her family and made comments about her appearance.
Years later, as we sat around my mother’s kitchen table in Cicero, Illinois, she remembered that the officers tried to convince her to go back. “Me decian que que bonita soy,” they told her. A woman as beautiful as her should have no problem making a better life for herself in Mexico. At 23 years old, my mother had already heard her share of promises from no-good men — including from my father, who was the reason for the journey in the first place. If I had been thinking only of myself, my mother said to me, I would’ve stayed in Mexico.
“Tengo que pensar en el futuro de mis hijas,” she responded when the men asked why she was willing to risk it all. Her daughters’ future is why she left her mother and siblings in Mexico and why she believes she endured many years of mistreatment from my father.
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The climate around immigration in the United States today is not the same as it was when my family immigrated in the 1990s. And yet the violence and the terror feel familiar. Even though my mother made it past the border and was eventually reunited with her husband, she lived in constant fear that any wrong move could lead to deportation. Raids were a real possibility for her every day and would become a real terror for my sister and me as we got older. Today, many immigrants and asylum seekers have been apprehended and are now detained in detention centers and for-profit jails across the country. Images of overcrowded cages with brown children wrapped in Mylar blankets abound the news. The current condition of the U.S.-Mexico border is infuriating not because I’m formerly undocumented, but because the injustice against immigrants and asylum seekers suggests that neither the U.S. nor Mexico see Mexicans and Central Americans as fully human. My immediate family didn’t have such atrocious experiences with the immigration system. Instead, our trauma was crafted inside the privacy of our own home, where we believed we were one step closer to the American Dream.
Growing up, I often asked my mother to tell us the story of how we got to Chicago. My curiosity was grounded in a desire to learn where I belonged and a frustration because our lives were filled with violence and pain. Even though I grew up in a predominantly Mexican and Mexican American community, where mixed status households were common, keeping our undocumented status to ourselves was paramount. Protecting the secrecy of our status meant we also needed to be silent about the trauma occurring in our home. Letting friends, teachers, or cops know about the violence always meant risking family separation.
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In The Nation, Isabela Dias recounts a story of an undocumented woman, Nancy, who was deported back to Mexico after helping to convict her rapist. After many years of physical and emotional abuse, Nancy reported her boyfriend for sexually attacking her in their home and applied for a U visa, the resident authorization for undocumented people who witness or are victims of a crime. Because of an enormous backlog, Nancy was deported before she could receive the visa, and her U.S.-born children had to follow after her. Dias reports that since President Trump took office, the backlog for U visa applications “is now more than 134,000 pending cases” — only 10,000 visas are granted each year. While they struggle to survive in Mexico, Nancy and her children wait for her U visa application to be processed. Throughout the narrative, most of Nancy’s concern is the future of her children: ‘“I dream that they will have a career one day,’ Nancy says. ‘I want them to think big. Then, it will have been worth going through all of this suffering.”’ Nancy’s words remind me of my mother, who never pressed charges against my father for beating her. She never applied for a U visa; she probably never knew it was an option.
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In 2011, before my 24th birthday, I received a master’s degree in English literature. By then, I had been living in Southern California, away from any family, for about two years. I had also started what would turn into a five-year-long emotionally abusive situation with a man also enrolled in a graduate program, and I was living my best life as a high-functioning alcoholic with high-functioning depression. When I passed my exams, I called my mother from Riverside, California, to share the good news.
“No he de hablar ingles pero ahora mi hija es maestra de la lengua,” she said, laughing at not being able to speak English while I was about to receive a master’s degree in it. I sat on a concrete bench outside the humanities building, holding the phone with one hand and plugging my ear with the other. The day was bright and hot. Students walked around me. The chatter of the campus made it difficult to hear my mother speak from some 2,000 miles away in Cicero, Illinois. My friends, also in graduate programs at the campus, stood a few feet away, waiting to celebrate me.
“Todos mis sacrificios y todo este dolor ha valido la pena,” she said. All of her sacrifice and pain, she told me, had been worth it. My lungs burned from holding my breath too long at hearing my mother’s voice filled with pride. Guilt crawled from my gut and wrapped around my heart — because I didn’t have a summer job, which meant I couldn’t send money home and wouldn’t be able to pay my own rent; because I resented her so much; because I hated myself and didn’t want to be alive; because I believed I wasn’t worth it. But I couldn’t share any of this with her; instead, I thanked her and we got off the phone. My friends stood around me and we shared celebratory tequila shots.
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When my mother moved to this country at 23 years old, her new support system consisted of her children, her husband, and her husband’s family. She didn’t know the language, she didn’t know how to drive, and she only had the equivalent of a sixth-grade education. My mother tethered her life and her children’s future to her husband, a man who had been sent to the U.S. by his mother in hopes that the change of scenery would force him to mature. Over the years, I’ve tried to imagine what it’d be like for a young married couple, 23 and 24 years old, with two daughters, 5 and 4 years old, to be in a new, strange country unable to return home. In my investigations, I’ve gathered that the root of their rocky marriage was my father’s desire for independence and my mother’s insistence on codependency. He probably didn’t want to be married and have children, while her Mexican upbringing taught her that husbands are the only way to a better life. These conflicting desires culminated in a tumultuous, violent, and traumatizing union in the U.S. — wherein my father, a permanent resident, had the upper hand over his wife and children, all of whom were undocumented.
In their text on immigration and domestic violence, Edna Erez and Shannon Harper suggest that battered immigrant women are “forced to make an inordinately difficult choice between remaining in an abusive relationship or leaving. If they leave, they may risk their legal status, facing deportation, and losing custody of and contact with their children.” As a child, I saw this up close with my mother. I don’t know if she believed everything my father said because she had limited access to information or because she loved him. When my sister and I would plead with her to leave him, she’d look into our round baby faces and ask, “¿Y adonde vamos a ir?” Where could a mother of two, then three, then four children go without money, without a car, without papers? My mother feared shelters. She thought worse things would happen to us there. She tried leaving a few times. Often, it didn’t matter where we’d run off to, because my father always found us and brought us home — without a fight from my mother because she believed it would be different this time and she wanted a home for my siblings and me. Hope was all my mother had to her name. I don’t doubt my father used his power to manipulate my mother. I don’t doubt he lied to get her to stay or to keep her quiet. I have an easier time understanding my father as the villain of the story than I do understanding why my mother stayed.
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My memories of the beatings come in snippets. They were so frequent, I can’t keep them in order in my mind. I can’t remember if my mother sneaking us out of our apartment in the middle of the night came before or after he punched her so hard we had to take her to the hospital. Or if it was before or after he tried to make it all up by taking her on a date, then slapped her and kicked her out of the car. Or if it came before or after his near fatal drug overdose, which they told us kids was heat exhaustion. Maybe it was after she ran and hid under our kitchen table begging for her life, or before he dragged her by the hair across the living room. It could have been after that time he almost choked her to death, or when he beat her while she was pregnant with my brother, or when she got so drunk at my aunt’s house she walked outside barefoot and I gave her my shoes. Maybe we left after I caught her in the hall with a razor blade to her wrists. I still have night terrors of the beatings and I don’t know if they’re memories or if they’re just dreams.
When I was a teenager, what terrified me more about the beatings was the idea of becoming solely responsible for my three younger siblings if one day my mother decided to leave. By the time I was the oldest of four I was 13 years old, which meant whenever my parents fought, I had to give my 12-year-old sister instructions on where to hide, when to call 911, and how to keep the babies quiet. When their fighting was too much for my sister and me, we’d each carry a baby and go outside. I, like my mother, needed a way out. I planned for college to be my exit strategy. I’ve never had the courage to admit it but I believed that if my mother left us, if she saved herself, I wouldn’t be able to leave for college. I believed I needed her to stay with her children so I could make it out.
The violence and the reasons for the violence evolved as I got older. My father started beating my mother shortly after they got married at 17 and 18 years old. Both sets of their parents were violent with each other and both sets also struggled with alcoholism. At first, other relatives would intervene. “No, ya, asi no. Cálmate, hermano,” I’d hear my father’s sisters say. My instinct was always to cover my sister’s eyes. Eventually, there was less and less adult intervention, which meant I had to step in if I wanted my mother alive. I regret never being courageous or strong enough to kick my father’s ass. “Please, please, please, please, dejéla,” I pleaded, hating myself for having to be the one to beg for her life. I started calling the police even though we weren’t supposed to. The cops would show up, I’d translate, and depending on the cop they’d either take my father away or tell him to take a walk — it didn’t matter that my mother’s face was always bloodied. My mother never pressed charges, and she never let him spend more than a night in jail or at his sister’s house. “Pero dejélo,” I’d plead — begging her to save her own life and mine. “¿Y quien paga la renta?” Making rent was always, and continues to be, her burden. Even when her literal life was on the line, my mother knew that without money there was nowhere for her and her children to turn.
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Recently, a female student in her 20s came up to me after class and asked me to approve a video for her essay assignment on advertisements. The assignment was for my Introduction to Composition and Research course, where I ask students to choose an advertisement and do a close reading of the narrative choices the company uses to sell the product. Students usually choose typical ads from major companies like Nike, Coca-cola, Dove, etc. One student chose a commercial screened during Super Bowl 49 about domestic violence. The ad, titled “Listen,” features a voiceover using dialogue pulled from a real 911 call of a woman insisting on placing an order for a pizza until the operator understands that the woman can’t ask for help. While the phone call is happening, the camera pans throughout a large house showing a punched hole in one of the walls, broken class on the floor, dirty dishes, and household items thrown about. The ad ends with the NO MORE Project’s slogan, “When it’s hard to talk, it’s up to us to listen.”
My heart raced, my breaths shortened, and my hands shook as I watched the video. I widened my eyes, willing them to swallow the tears threatening to burst out of me. “Yes, this will give you lots to write about,” was all I could manage to tell my student as I hurried to collect my belongings and rush to my office. When I made it there, I cried real, ugly, large tears. I covered my face to muffle my cries in case any of my colleagues were nearby — because, even though it’s been 10 years since the last time I witnessed my parents physically abuse one another, when I’m triggered, I’m a child again, calling 911, yelling for help while my father beats my mother, and no one comes to save us.
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In a photo taken one month before we left Juarez for Chicago. My mother sits on a blue bench in front of a house with a barred window. Her hair is dark and permed. Her smile is wide as she looks at my sister and me. Her hands clasp a soda or beer can. My aunt, in a red dress, with similarly permed hair, sits next to her, looking at her. My sister, my cousin, and I are at the center of the photograph. We wear matching outfits, my sister and I — brown shorts, white tops with brown stripes, white long socks and black Mary Janes. A month later, we’d arrive to Midway Airport in Chicago wearing those same outfits. In the photo, my sister holds both her hands to her mouth — biting the nails of one hand, using the other as support. She looks at something or someone outside the frame. My cousin looks in the same direction. I stand tall with my arms behind my back and smile directly into the camera. Whenever I ask my mother about her decision to immigrate to the United States she says she saw me and my sister the day the photo was taken and knew we had to leave. It wasn’t because she trusted my father was what was best for her; she left because she wanted my sister and me to have careers. “Tienen que mirar a lo alto,” she says to me. You have to aim higher.
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Women like my mother traverse worlds looking for a better life and what they find instead are entire countries telling them their lives aren’t worth protecting. Statistics vary, but generally one in four women and one in nine men experience physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. One in four children witness intimate partner violence in their homes, according to cases filed in state courts. National statistics don’t break down into more complex pieces where I can find my mother, where I can find myself. There are four women and two men in my family. Four of six were undocumented at some point in our lives. Two of six have experienced physical abuse in our lifetime. Six of six of us have dealt with emotional abuse. Three of six struggle with alcoholism. Six of six live with a mental illness. One in six has diagnosed depression and PTSD. Six in six are still forcing the pieces of ourselves together.
“We must acknowledge the lack of mental health resources [immigrant mothers] faced [in the U.S.] and in their native land. They were never provided effective ways to deal with their pain,” Nia Ita writes in the magazine Fierce. “As a result, our moms are burdened with their mothers’ traumas while holding onto their own lost childhood and relinquished dreams.” My mother made herself into a vessel to hold her own and other peoples’ traumas — her husband’s, her mother’s, her children’s. I often ask her to seek out a therapist and she says she has God. I tell her I’ll pay for it because I don’t know the kind of health insurance her factory job provides and she says, “No, mija. Ya te he quitado suficiente.” My own therapist often has to remind me I can’t unburden my mother of her trauma. Today, it very much feels like my healing is in conflict with hers — as if only one of us can make out of the pain we’ve experienced. Like when I was a teenager and needed her to stay so I could leave.
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The beatings didn’t immediately stop, but my mother wielded pots and pans to protect herself until they did. I don’t know what changed in her that made her fight back and speak up. Because I witnessed it all, it felt like she changed overnight. “No grito, asi hablo ya” is my mother’s favorite retort when my now grown siblings and I tell her that she’s yelling at us when she speaks. “It’s not yelling, it’s my new voice,” she says. When you’ve been forced into silence, physically beaten into submission, there isn’t a gradual progression to a louder, unbroken voice. As soon as my mother learned to love the power of her own voice, she roared through her apartment demanding we hear her.
My mother, my sister, and I received our permanent residency in 2004, after 12 years of waiting and thousands of dollars spent hoping our applications would be processed. Having her permanent residency has certainly helped my mother find her voice. After 31 years of marriage, she hasn’t left my father and I choose to read that survival strategy as the way the lives of many immigrant women are complicated by a long life of poverty, cultural marginalization, and language barriers. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I understood my mother’s act of staying as a terrible choice. As an adult, I understand how she, and many immigrant women in those situations, didn’t have a menu of healthy options to choose from. I comprehend the complexities involved now, but the little girl inside of me still feels like she chose him and not me.
When I see my mother now, I don’t always know how to approach her. I still desire a relationship that isn’t ours — one that isn’t riddled with trauma, one where she can protect me. In all of my feelings of abandonment, I’m also still grateful for my mother and her sacrifices. Lately, I witness my mother’s persistence, vulnerability, flaws, and love from afar. I don’t need to understand her choices, but I also don’t need to be a part of them. Growing up, her greatest fear was forced separation — either by deportation because of our citizenship status, or by the state’s child protective services because of domestic violence. Our distance now is our best attempt at surviving all of that.
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Also in the Writing the Mother Wound Series:
‘A World Where Mothers are Seen’: Series Introduction by Vanessa Mártir
I Had To Leave My Mother So I Could Survive, by Elisabet Velasquez
Frenzied Woman, by Cinelle Barnes
Tar Bubbles, by Melissa Matthewson
To Be Well: An Unmothered Daughter’s Search for Love, by Vanessa Mártir
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Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez is an Associate Professor in the English Department at LaGuardia Community College in NYC. She is an immigrant of Juarez, Mexico and raised in Cicero, IL. Her work has been published in Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature, Hispanecdotes, Everyday Fiction, Acentos Review, Newtown Literary, and So to Speak A Feminist Journal of Language and Art.
Editor: Danielle A. Jackson
Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross
Fact checker: Matt Giles