“Vale La Pena:”
Mothers Leave Their Children Behind
by Camila Robalino
More Ecuadorian mothers migrate to improve their families’ quality of life, leaving their children behind in the care of relatives, forming transnational families.
Salome tosses off her difficulties with a resolute, vale la pena. It’s all worth it: To have emigrated from Ecuador to Spain 20 years ago. To have left behind her two-year-old and newborn sons. To have moved on, this time to New York, again without her children. To be undocumented in the United States although she has Spanish and Ecuadorian citizenship. Not to know if she will be deported and have to leave behind her two-year-old daughter, born a US citizen. That, too, would be worth it.
Salome’s story is typical among Ecuadorian, Filipino, and Moldovan women, who are the most common among all nationalities who migrate to seek a better standard of living for their families, leaving their children behind in the care of others. A 2005 study conducted in Ecuador by the United Nations Development Program and UNICEF found that 36 percent of local migrant women and 40 percent of local migrant men left their children back home when they moved abroad to work. But migration, or planned protracted separations, places wrenching strain on close relationships, especially between mother and child. Some children do not even recognize their mothers when they reunite after years spent in the care of others. Such life-alerting separations hurt the relationship between the mother and the child, given the emotional and psychological impact of familial rupture. But in seeking relief from economic strain, the lives of those involved actually improve.
All of these dynamics figure in the lives of two Ecuadorian women, Salome, now 40, who was 20 when she left Quito for Barcelona in 1997; and Ana, now 58, who was 40 when she left Quito for New York in 2000.
Salome moved to Spain with her partner, Pedro, the father of her two sons, Brandon and Roberto, whom she left in the care of his older sister. “To change my standard of life, to make a new life. To get out of the economic situation more than anything,” she said was her motivation to move out of Ecuador, where a series of government economic moves had put the country in financial crisis. “The economy was bad.”
In the 1990s, neo-liberal reforms in countries like Ecuador brought on significant cuts in the government’s social spending, the decision to move towards privatization, and the opening of markets to foreign goods. Many domestic companies went bankrupt as consumers opted for imported goods. This sparked competition between domestic and international companies, which led the Ecuadorian government to reduce its annual budget for social programs. That in turn caused many public service workers to lose their jobs. The impact of these policies provoked an economic crisis followed by street protests and the defeat of market friendly policies throughout the continent.
In the same decade, new governments came to power in many Latin American countries. These regimes started to increase social spending, which produced hyperinflation (or monetary inflation occurring at a fast rate). In Ecuador, Abdalá Jaime Bucaram Ortiz, a politician and lawyer, became president in 1996. Bucaram reversed the earlier policies. He increased social spending, initiated government-funded programs, and created more public sector jobs. But his actions provoked more rampant inflation and earned him the nickname El Loco, or “The Crazy One.” The following year, Ecuador’s National Congress removed Bucaram from office after declaring him mentally unfit to govern. A provisional president was appointed until the presidential election of 1998 brought Jamil Mahuad, a lawyer, academic, and politician, to power.
As Mahuad was taking office, the value of Ecuador’s 116- year-old sucre was plummeting, so much so that by the year 2000, it would have no purchasing power at all. In response, Mahuad changed the currency to US dollars and set the exchange rate at 25,000 sucres to $1 US. “Ecuador did not create another national currency because there is a credibility problem, Unlike Venezuela, who had created three currencies over the past 20 years,” explained Patricio Navia, a Chilean sociologist. Ecuador, he said, adopted the US dollar because the Ecuadorian government wanted “to tie its own hands and say, ‘We cannot print any more money. We are not going to increase social spending because we are using US dollars now. We do not make the decision as to how much money will be printed. We need to have the money.’” Although the currency switch would make the Ecuadorian economy more sustainable and fiscally responsible, the transition from sucres to the US dollar deepened Ecuador’s economic crisis.
The switch did benefit the elite, who wanted to preserve and shelter their wealth with a more stable currency. Their fortune already had been converted to the US dollars. But for anyone with savings in sucres, mostly the poor, like Salome, the effect was devastating. The new exchange rate would have swallowed up almost all of the 10 million sucres she had in her bank account. The new exchange rate reduced its value to about $400, enough for two months’ rent, not the year it would have covered in 1996. On top of that, some merchants took advantage of this unfamiliarity with the new currency and increased the prices of their products. For example, a guava that once sold for 6,260.06 sucres (25 US cents) rose four times that price, to 25,040.24 sucres (one US dollar).
The economic uncertainty pushed large flows of Ecuadorians, including Salome, to emigrate. “Ecuador, from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, and from 2000 to 2001, was flat in terms of economic growth,” Navia said. “As the population growth continued to increase, many families found it attractive to seek opportunities elsewhere. They fled the country.” Between 1996 and 2007, many Ecuadorians had migrated to Spain because the Spanish economy was experiencing a spectacular transformation in recent decades, based on its rapid economic modernization and Europeanisation. Spain at the time had the world’s eighth-largest economy, and was also considered one of the most open and dynamic nations in Europe, having been categorized as an “exemplary member of the Eurozone.” This boom was based largely on a construction bubble.
Salome emigrated from Ecuador because Pedro promised she would find better educational and work opportunities in Spain. Pedro counted on landing a job as a bricklayer, and Salome would begin beauty school and work at a hair salon. Once settled in Barcelona, Salome did enroll in a beauty school, but Pedro stayed with her for only two weeks. He left for New York to seek better opportunities. Salome was upset by his departure. At the same time, she missed him.
“Nothing is easy. Everyone has to give up something.”
Jason Xidias, American lecturer in politics and international relations, gave two reasons for why historically, the United States has been an important destination for Latin American migrants: first, economic opportunities; second, many have family members and/or friends in the country already. That said, the more restrictive US policies of recent years have “partly shaped an increased outflow to Europe, and, in particular, Spain,” Xidias said.
Salome said she and Pedro traveled first to Spain because legal migration to the United States at the time “was restricted almost exclusively to Ecuadorians with immediate relatives already in the country.” With no family in the country, neither of them qualified. The other option would have been to travel by plane (legally) from Ecuador to Mexico, and then attempt to cross (illegally) the Southern US border.
Spain was to a large extent, the easier option. A “visa waiver” between Ecuador and Spain allowed Salome to remain in Barcelona without papers for up to three months. The accord is common between Spain and many of its former Latin American colonies. It enabled Salome and others in her situation to enter the country legally if they could present “approximately $2,000 (‘la bolsa’), a credit card, tourist plan, hotel reservations, confirmed return flight, and justification for being in Spain.” Ecuadorians could then extend their stay beyond three months and await one of the recurrent amnesties, such as those Spain offered in 2000, 2001, and 2005. These waivers granted everyone permanent resident status and paved the path to citizenship.
Salome indeed received a visa extension when her three months were up and obtained legal permanent resident status after six months. She called her boys every week during those first few months, so that they would not forget her voice, so that they would remember they had a mother. “Nothing is easy,” Salome said. “Everyone has to give up something.”
After one year of living in Spain, Salome became a Spanish citizen. She then returned to Ecuador to collect her sons and bring them legally to her new home in Spain. Three-year-old Roberto refused to go. But her one-year-old, Brandon, accompanied her to Barcelona. Every year or two, for the next 14 years, Salome returned to Quito to see Roberto and other family members.
In the early years in Barcelona, Salome worked long hours for low pay in a local salon, dashing off at noon in the early years to a local beautician’s institute for the requisite training. Xidias remarked on the hardships for women in Salome’s situation in Spain. “Many work excessive hours, receive low pay, and are not part of the formal economy or social security system,” he said. “This is a vicious cycle of exploitation that is very difficult to overcome.” The work was unsatisfying and the schedule, grueling. To add to the difficulties, Spain fell into economic crisis in 2008, reducing the amount of work Salome had. The dream of owning her own salon became more and more distant.
In 2011, she visited New York on a tourist visa to explore whether the United States might provide her with better chances. She quickly learned that to qualify for a full service cosmetology license, she would have to compete 1,000 hours of education and training in a state-approved program at a cost of anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000.
It would be a costly effort, but Salome reasoned it more affordable than other certification programs and would be an investment not only for her future, but for her children’s. She returned to Spain and spent the next five years saving enough in Spain to enroll in a cosmetology program in New York City, where she specialized in make-up. “I paid through a payment plan, but it was still a lot of money,” she said. Salome completed the course, earned her license.
Salome did not return to Barcelona to collect her personal belongings or Brandon, who, by then 13, remained in Spain to finish high school. She did not go to Ecuador to pick up Roberto, who remained with Pedro’s sister. Salome, with her Spanish and Ecuadorian citizenship and an expired US tourist visa, stayed in New York. Navia said this was not atypical. “Many Ecuadorians became Spanish citizens and then they migrated to the US on tourist visas and overstayed their visas,” he said. “That was pretty common.” This year is Salome’s third year in New York City without either of her first two children. It has not been hard to find employment. Many beauty salons said she could work whenever she was ready. She works at a beauty salon in Jackson Heights in Queens. She recently moved into the neighborhood, where she rents a two-bedroom.
Every afternoon after work and weekend from ten o’clock in the morning until eight at night, Salome turns the kitchen in her new home into an impromptu hair salon for the men, women, and children she serves. When the doorbell to her apartment rings, Salome greets each old and new customer with entren, Spanish for enter, while Kiara, her two-year-old daughter, giggles in the background. “I came back for your magic hands,” one cash-paying client after the other will say. Or, if they are newcomers, “I heard you have the best hands in town.”
Salome directs her customers into a narrow galley passage situated between two parallel walls besides the front door of the apartment. This is her kitchen. On the left wall, there is a stainless-steel stove with an oven and right next to it is the sink. On the right wall, a double door fridge stands, along with storage elements. Two ceiling lights, five feet apart, illuminate the room with yellow laminate flooring and freshly varnished, built-in wall cabinets and matching cabinets under dark grey countertops on both sides. This forms a central corridor which not only allows Salome to prepare Kiara’s meals quickly, but it enhances efficiency when working with customers. She moves from trimming and blow drying someone’s hair who is sitting on a leather bar stool facing the wall, to shampooing and rinsing in the kitchen sink in just ten seconds. All she has to do is turn around to go from one task to the next. But to do color, requires setting up another impromptu hair salon in her personal bathroom sink.
“In Ecuador, you are worth something because your studies give you value. [In the US] you are worth nothing.”
Salome places Kiara on marble countertop and plays Peppa the Pig on YouTube for her to watch while she begins to part and prep the person’s hair. She has pinned a photograph above her professional beauty supply kit. It is Salome holding a dark amethyst keepsake urn, in side of which are the ashes of Salome’s landlord, who died in September. For the previous year and a half, Salome had been renting a single room in the apartment. Since October, now the woman’s heir, her nephew, allows Salome to lease the entire space, making it possible for Kiara’s father, Miguel, to move in as well.
The superintendent thinks most residents of the other 59 apartments in the building are unaware of Salome’s illicit business operation or even that the flat is not vacant. But neighbors started to put the pieces together when someone saw Miguel doing laundry in the basement. Then came questions if Salome and he were legal. They are not. She has started to fear that someone will report her to ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and separate her from her American-born daughter. Even taking out the trash to the incinerator chute down the hall has begun to feel perilous.
“At the moment I’m here, but whether if I will stay is still not clear. Staying here means to start again,” Salome said. She explained that the only way she will return to Ecuador is if she travels from Spain. Xidias said, there is not “such a deportation scare” in Spain now. “Although immigration is politicized to some extent, particularly right now in light of the rise of the far-right, the Popular Party and the Socialist Party have generally turned a blind eye to undocumented immigration. From the point of view of the state [Spain] and companies, there are advantages of having undocumented migrants—they generally receive lower pay, do not receive benefits, and are less likely to protest.”
Miguel will not allow Salome to leave with their baby. “I’m not going to send my daughter there knowing that the mother cannot come back because then she will not be able to bring her back,” he said of the prospect of his moving to Spain. “And what am I going to do there if people are dying of hunger there?”
She longs for the days Pedro would take her on romantic dinners along the shore of Barceloneta beach and after head to exclusive nightclubs charging $100 cover fees. She still misses him. But they have not spoken for the past twenty years. Salome knows he lives in Brooklyn, fifteen minutes from Miguel’s old six-bedroom apartment. He knows, through their two sons, she is in a new relationship with Miguel and has Kiara. Salome cannot help but look at Kiara, who is on sitting on her hip with her arms and legs wrapped around her mother and say: “Pedro always wanted a third child, a daughter. Kiara could have been his.”
But Salome is unworried about her future and that of her children. “My children have the ability to come here,” she said. Brandon, now 18 and about to graduate high school in Barcelona, came to visit for two months last August. Roberto is 20, unemployed in Quito. He has not finished college either. He cautioned Brandon against moving to New York. “The United States is for people who are born there – Americans,” Roberto said. “It’s nice because they have rights and the government helps them. But if you are an undocumented immigrant, you are worth nothing. In Ecuador, you are worth something because your studies give you value.” In the US, he added, “You are worth nothing.” Brandon in fact has no plans to join his mother in the United States. And if he comes to visit, it would not be more than a couple of weeks. As for Salome, she said, “I’ll be here for a long time, until fate tells me that I have to go back.” To Spain? To Ecuador? Where she meant she did not clarify.
Some authors consider female migration one of the five distinguishing traits of this “era of migration” and emphasize the importance of women’s roles along all states of the migration process. They are involved in the family decisions. They promote and lead the establishment of collaboration initiatives and migratory networks that link the countries of origin and destination. And the roles migrant women are crucial in contemporary transnationalism and in influencing other women to migrate as well.
The same is true for Ana, another Ecuadorian woman whose migration story is similar to Salome’s but of later vintage. Ana emigrated from Ecuador to the US in the early 2000s. “I used to come here to the United States long before moving here because I had a visa,” she said. “I stayed here in 2001.”
Ana and her daughter, Liseth, obtained their US tourist visa in 1996 and traveled to Florida on vacation more than once. “We traveled like two or three times with Liseth to Orlando, to the adventure parks, because we wanted to enjoy having the visa,” she said. But after Ecuador’s economic crisis, she became unemployed and could no longer afford those trips. “It was a very strong economic crisis, where we, the companies, collapsed,” Ana said. “We had to give up the company where I worked in. We had to hand it to the Bank of Colombia (El Banco del Pacífico de Colombia) because we had it mortgaged with them.” At that time, Ana worked in as a project assistant at UrbiCasa, a leading company in the development of real estate projects in the city of Quito with more than 30 years of experience in the construction sector. With countless homes already delivered, their mission was to accommodate to the wishes of future homeowners always be open to customize their requirements to build the home of their dreams together. Their extensive experience in construction allowed them to offer high-level buildings throughout Quito. Ana, along with other team members at UrbiCasa, worked on a project dealing with the development of eight buildings in the city center of Quito. Those buildings were to be sold as individual apartment units. “To have money for the project, the consortium requested financial assistance from the Bank of Colombia. The Bank of Colombia accepted the mortgage,” she said. “Why would you not accept a three-million-dollar project? They accepted. But then we did not sell anything because the economic crisis followed.” UrbiCasa closed and dismissed all of their personnel. More or less 800 people worked there. Of that number, only two people maintained their jobs: the owner and his secretary. They stayed to release all the documentation. Years later, once the Ecuadorian economy stabilized, UrbiCasa was purchased by a new owner and resumed its functions as real estate development company.
“We had to go out and find what to do,” Ana said. “What we did is look for work in Ecuador. But in the field that I worked, there wasn’t any work. There were no real estate sales happening.” The crisis led to the shutdown of a majority of other companies because there was no economic movement throughout the country, meaning no inflow or outflow of money. “People who had money, became middle class,” she said. “People in middle class became poor. Poor people became poorer.”
Ana had to find a way how to live. She had taken out a loan from a bank (El Banco Ecuatoriano de la Vivienda) before losing her job. With the loan, she placed the down payment for her first apartment. “I owed money, but I could not pay it because I had no income. I was going to lose the apartment. So, I started selling everything I had to survive,” she said. “We no longer had work. We were left without income and with outstanding debts.” Ana sold possessions from her used kitchen Tupperware to her great grandmother’s precious heirlooms. “I needed to do was sell the apartment to be able to pay for basic expenses. But I did not do that. I sold other things. Things that I had,” she said.
It was only a temporary fix. The Ecuadorian economic crisis was not the only impediment to Ana find a job. It was her age too. “I was 40 when I came to the US,” she said. “It is difficult for a person who is 40 to find a job in Ecuador. In Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and even Chile, companies do not hire people over 35 years old.” Companies in Quito did not want to hire Ana, even though she was overqualified for some of the positions in terms of academic experience. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. She did two years of an architecture master’s program and two years of law school. “Because I worked in a construction company, I needed to know how to read and design plans. That’s why I studied architecture. I also needed to study law because of all the writing that was done, the contracts that were created, and to manage the team on the project. By knowing accounting, the administrative part of the company was managed,” Ana said. “I had a very good education. In terms of work, I very little work experience.” Work experience was another factor separating her from another job.
“After having enjoyed a good life there [in Ecuador], with all the comfort and economic stability, coming here [to the US] is like starting from zero.”
Ana asks, “What does a person who is 40 years old have to do? They have to see what they can do to survive.” At that moment, her daughter Liseth was 15 years old and in her sophomore year of high school in Ecuador. Ana enrolled Liseth in a private high school, where tuition was $291 a month. “I needed to find a source of income because I was not going to take my daughter out of school because we did not have money,” she said. “Nor was I going to bring her here to the US to have her live in a one-bedroom apartment after she had all of her financial comforts there in Ecuador.”
Ana had to find another solution. “I had the visa. I had to take advantage of the visa,” she said. “I said, ‘Let’s go work in a different country because there has to be work somewhere else.’”
Migration tends not to be the will of individual actors but of family groups or entire communities. Emigres find jobs throughout foreign countries. Such transnational households are becoming increasingly common, characterized by a family member working in a foreign country while her/his dependents remain in the country of origin. In the past, when a parent left the home country for work or opportunity abroad, it almost always was the father, making passive actors of the women in migration scenarios, following their husbands or staying behind. Jorge Martínez Pizarro is a researcher at the Latin American and Caribbean Demographic Center (CELADE) Division of Population of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), in Chile. He describes the role women traditionally have played as having been “relegated to second place in the theoretical elaboration of migratory dynamics.” Yet recent abrupt shifts in the economic, social, cultural and political spheres have injected women into these migratory flows, upending the old concept of female emigration as strictly engaged in family reunification.
Ana’s boyfriend, Paul, came first to the US. The couple decided Paul would emigrate first to see if it was worth coming to New York City, and handle some logistics concerning the move. “He came here to do some paperwork. He also rented a room in an apartment in the Bronx,” Ana said. When Ana came to New York in 2000, she came holding only her plane ticket. She did not bring any money, luggage, or Liseth. “After having enjoyed a good life there [in Ecuador], with all the comfort and economic stability, coming here [to the US] is like starting from zero,” she said. “I came and I stayed with him. It was a room in a not-so-good neighborhood. It was a single bedroom apartment in the Bronx. We shared it with other people that we have never met before. It was a change of customs and everything. Everything was strange for me until I was adjusted.” She found comfort in Paul, even though he was new to the US as well and was assimilating to the culture alongside her. They slowly acclimated to their new home together. “The human being is really used to everything. It was also easy for me to come here [to the U.S] and have the help of someone who already knows what it is like here,” she said. “But it is hard. One has to throw oneself into the ring. One has to go and see what there is to fix this.”
Ana continues to repeat vale la pena pero es díficil, it is worth it even though it is hard. The emigration of these mothers without their children has a huge impact on her household and leads to the development of transnational families, or “transnational motherhood.” Immigration allows women to break free of the restricted traditional ideologies of motherhood, by redefining the responsibilities of family members after their departure.
A 2017 report of The Migration Policy Institute on immigrants living in the United States showed a “historical high since census records have been kept.” of 44.5 million. Of that number, 52 percent were women and 48 percent, men, predominantly immigrants from Latin American and Asia.
During the 1970s and ’80s, there were fewer migrants than there are today, and women were under considered migrants. Today, female migration flows have increased. Social scientists, for this reason, have shown a growing interest in female migration, and in studies about gender and migration, yet not from the perspective of women who initiate the action, an increasingly larger proportion of the migrant population.
There is a significant body of research about migrant women. Gender studies scholars positing that women who migrate can be seen as a response to world economic trends in the way it opens new opportunities for the family and society and breaks barriers in the labor market by redefining the role of women. Women are mothers who decide to move as economic migrants in order to improve the standards of living for themselves and their children. Women migrate for the short-term movements, known as temporary displacement. Yet there is scant research about mothers and the children they leave behind. Personal narratives like Salome’s and Ana’s provide only hints. But can women function as mothers across the borders of time and space?
Ana has proven she can. Through hard work and commitment, she has been able to save enough money through her job in the US and be a mother to Liseth in Ecuador.
Ana began her job search in New York City by traveling on the subway from the South Bronx to Jackson Heights, Queens. Her first step in finding employment was to gather all of her paperwork including identification cards, such as a drivers’ license or school ID card with a photograph, along with a document that established employment authorization, like a US passport, Permanent Resident Card, or Social Security Card. Ana only had her Ecuadorian passport and tourist visa with five months from expiring. Those documents would not allow her to work in any job across the five boroughs or the US. Foreigners, many with valid or expired tourist visas, land jobs in the US by working under the table without documents, in which the employer will not report them for tax purposes. Some, like Ana, buy fake “green cards” or Social Security cards in their own names from illicit vendors or steal or borrow work documents belonging to a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. Ana approached a man on Roosevelt Avenue who was chanting in Spanish: Social, Social, Social. He either sold or knew where Ana could purchase a Social Security card. And she did. She was then able to go onto the next step of finding a job.
Ana went to an employment agency in Queens. The agency placed her in a book printing factory located in New Jersey. Ana had to wake up at 4 a.m., to leave her apartment by 5 a.m. to walk to the meeting point where a van, belonging to the employment agency, would pick her and other workers up, and drive them to the factory. She began work at 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., at an initial rate of five dollars an hour. “You just have to work in any job that comes to you because you have to make money in any way,” she said.
The employment agency hired people in positions where workers were in demand. Most jobs were seasonal. They did not guarantee workers, such as Ana, permanence or stability. “For example, company A asks for us to work for them for a week, so we go and work for them for a week. Company B can ask for three days, so we go and work for them for three days to work,” she said. “We work in several companies. But the companies pay the agency. The agency charges more, but they paid us [the workers] less.”
After three months, Ana returned to Ecuador. She left a week after September 11, 2001, when the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York City occurred, which caused many restrictions for people leaving and entering the country. Her US visa was two months away from expiring. “I had to go back to Ecuador to sell other things and arrange some other aspects of my life back there,” she said in reference to seeing Liseth again. “Since I had a visa, I came, worked a while and returned before I officially stayed here. I went back and forth, until the visa expired. I never went to get my visa renewed. I just stayed here.”
Ana returned to the New York after a month. She immediately found a job in the New Jersey factory for TMI Products, Inc., which develops, manufactures, and markets automotive interior components and mobile entertainment products such as CDs, DVDs, and VPCs. “All of that technology was just coming out, it was a new innovation,” Ana said. “I managed the company’s quality control because the owner told me that I had a lot of education in relation to the total immigrant population. Also, he said that I had a lot of mental capacity to be able to direct certain aspects of that department.” Ana did not find it a difficult job responsibility or challenging to do because in Ecuador she was the head of a team and managed more or less 800 people staff members. What mattered was that she landed another job after she returned, even though the pay was not favorable. Ana, however, said, “The quality of work was much better here than in Ecuador.”
On Saturdays, which was Ana’s only day off, she attended beginners’ English courses, five blocks from her apartment. She was constantly studying because she had many responsibilities in the company and wanted to please her bosses, in addition to be promoted. “My boss told me one day, ‘I won the lottery with this lady,’” Ana said. “He fired his three assistants and began working with only me. I did the work of three people.” She worked there for three years. Ana left after an argument with her boss because, in 2004, the government of the state of New Jersey raised minimum wage by one dollar. It went from five dollars an hour to six. She demanded the company to raise their pay rate, but they did not accept. “They got angry with me and said, ‘Do not come back tomorrow,’” Ana said. “They were very nice people. But they also did what was best for them.”
Ana learned the logistics of the company after she was fired. “The workers in that company did not work with the company’s salary, but with the agency’s set salary,” she said. Companies, such as TMI, hire employment agencies, who are in charge of recruiting workers, who are immigrants, and sending them to those companies. But they are not employees of the company, but of the agency. “The agency was your employer really,” she said. “The company paid the agency, and then the agency paid the employees.
Ana discovered that employment agencies pays less to an undocumented person, in comparison to a person who has all their work papers in order. She decided to find a job on her own than through an employment agency. Her visa had already expired and has since been undocumented in the US. She lost the fake Social Security card she purchased. She had to find another solution to be able to work. She met a man in her apartment building, even though Paul and she were still together. The man was a US citizen and divorced. Ana made him an offer. She would pay him around $20,000 if they got married and she obtained her US Permanent Resident status through him. He agreed. He went to Puerto Rico to collect all the papers regarding his divorce. Ana paid for the expedited mailing services of her divorce as well, to Liseth’s father. “We were already doing papers. We were taking pictures and doing things together, as if it were something normal,” she said. “It really was not normal because I was going to pay him.” The marriage ceremony was scheduled to take place in January of 2005, but in December, two weeks before the wedding, the man died from cardiac arrest. “It has been many years now since the he died. I would have had the papers long ago. I would have taken out all the papers. It would have been good here. I would have had a better kind of life,” she said.
Soon after, Ana found another solution. A coworker from TMI let Ana borrow her sister’s Social Security card. “The sister does not live here in the US. I am working under her name,” Ana said with gleaming eyes. “She is a very nice person. I have known her for quite some time and was a friend of mine. She lived in Puerto Rico, but I do not know where she is living now.” The woman trusted Ana to use her Social Security card. In the long run, Ana using someone else’s work authorization documents benefits both parties. Ana is able to gain an income to support her family back in Ecuador. The woman is able to secure a retirement pension.
Ana soon began working for a window manufacturing company, also located in New Jersey, as a quality control technician. She is five feet tall but with extensive knowledge and now experience as she oversees the production of windows designed for apartment buildings and other large construction projects around the Tri-State Area. “They needed a trustworthy person that controls the quality of the product that they manufacture and gives approves it before the product to be sold. I know how to do that. I have done that before here in the US,” she said. “I have been working there for 14 years now. That’s why I, for sure, have been here for 17 years. I have not been to Ecuador for seventeen years in total.”
Ana’s biggest concern, beyond not finding a job, has always been her daughter. Back in Ecuador, Liseth stayed with Ana’s mother and father. “My mom and dad have taken care of her,” she said. “They would take her to school and give her all that they could while I am not there. When a parent migrates to another country, a whole range of functions, from caregiving to managing the household budget, must be assumed by others within the family, often the other parents, but also frequently by older children, grandparents or other members of the extended family.
“She did not want to be here [to the US] because she felt much more comfortable there [in Ecuador].”
Ana’s hope was to eventually Liseth to join her in the United States, to finish her academic career in the US, because an American education is better and opens more doors than an Ecuadorian one. “After she finished high school there [in Ecuador], there was the option for her to take a course to take the Graduate Entrance Exam. In fact, I was so close in enrolling her into the course,” Ana said. “But Liseth did not want that. She does not like it here. She does not like the environment here at all.” She doesn’t like the atmosphere here, particularly not the array of ethnicities—something she hasn’t been exposed to at home, where most of the population looks, speaks, and acts the same. “She said no, she did not want to be here [to the US] because she felt much more comfortable there [in Ecuador],” Ana said. Unlike her mother, Liseth has renewed her visa. Since she can come and go for as long as she wants, Ana has come to terms with her daughter’s decision to not join her. “I strongly agree that living in a big house in Ecuador with all the comforts is not the same as living in a one- bedroom apartment with other people that you do not even know,” Ana said.
So for the past 17 years that Ana has been a New York resident, Liseth has been visiting her mother two or three times a year. From her salary, Ana puts $100 dollars aside in a separate account towards Liseth’s roundtrip plane ticket. “Any time she has a school break, I would have her come here for fifteen days or a month. After that, she would return [to Ecuador]. I brought her again and returned her because I brought my daughter whenever I could,” Ana said. “She still comes whenever she can and wants to come. I had to always have a pretty affable relationship. One cannot neglect their children at all.”
Ana ends each sentence with díficil, it’s hard. “I knew that I had to be working to have money to sustain our lives, in terms of education, maintenance, everything,” Ana said. “And not to lose the little that we were starting to build there again. Not to lose it, because I was losing if we did, I would have lost everything.” Her apartment. Her job. Her ability to travel. Her family. But most importantly, her daughter. “I already had practically nothing,” she said. “That’s why at the beginning it was hard.” Ana wanted Liseth to understand she did not emigrate for personal reasons, but for her. She also wanted her daughter to acknowledge to the suffering immigrant undergo once they arrive to the new country. She took Liseth to work at the window factory several times when she was in New York City for vacation. Lis worked there but she really did not work because everyone helped her do what she had to do. Many helped Lis to do the work. The owner paid her in cash,” Ana said. “I brought her to work with me because I wanted her to learn how people work here in the US. Not because I wanted Lis to work. It was good that she experiences what I have suffered.”
When Liseth goes back to Ecuador, Ana says, “I am in daily contact with Liseth. Since the moment I arrived, I call her every day. And sometimes two or three times a day.” She remembers the days before WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, when she would go to a call center and place an international call to Ecuador. Or when she would run to the corner store to purchase a calling card for $5 that would give her 25 minutes to speak to Liseth. With technology, they call each other even more than three times a day. “I do not regret coming to the United States or having left my daughter,” Ana said. “I tell you why: I am a slightly more balanced person in that sense.”
This balance and focus has allowed Ana to understand her reasons for migrating to the US and accomplishing more than she could have imagined, now placing her in an economically stable position. Ana started buying small apartments in Ecuador and renting them. She bought three apartments, two in the city center of Quito and one in the coast, in Esmeraldas. She also managed to purchase a house near the Mitad Del Mundo, or equator line in Ecuador. “Thinking that, at some point, I might return there, I have to have some sort of an income, even if it is small,” she said, thinking like a business woman. “Rent there [in Ecuador] is not expensive, it’s cheap. Even if it is a little, it helps with daily expenses. That is my purpose.”
She bought her apartment in the Bronx as well. “I managed to buy it! But by saving a lot of money, because here it costs a lot of money to buy an apartment,” Ana said. “The landlord let me buy it. The landlord met me and told me that if I wanted to buy the apartment on the second floor, I had to give him the down payment for it. So, I did that.” She left the money at his office, signed several documents, and the apartment was hers. She calls the apartment “home.” It has become Liseth’s second home as well. Ana counts the days for Liseth to come again, now with her grandchild, Martina, who was born in Elmhurst Hospital in Queens almost two years ago. “Liseth has health insurance here and that is why she came to give birth here,” Ana said. “We were risky having her give birth here. But we did it to be with me because those are the moments that one has to share with the children. I went to take care of my daughter on her delivery day and we took the baby out of her belly.” Liseth came three months before she gave birth. She stayed for about six months after. The baby has dual citizenship, Ecuadorian and American. “How crazy are we? For having made her give birth here,” Ana said.
Ana’s mother died a year ago. The option of returning to Ecuador has been weighing more in Ana’s mind. Her father is old and cannot move around as much as he used to 17 years ago. Ana is concerned there is no one who can look after Liseth anymore, even though she graduated college majoring in psychology, is married, and with a daughter.
The animating expectation of this group is eventually to return home to their children, an eventuality that may or may not occur. “I am thinking about going to Ecuador,” she said. “But the problem is that I only take the rent from just the house, which is $400 dollars. That does not compare after earning here $2,000 to $2,500 dollars. I do not think I can live like that. On the other hand, there is an advantage: here I pay rent, there I will not pay anything.”
Ana does plan to return to the US once she moves to Ecuador. But she says she needs to organize and adjust to her life in Quito again. “And if they give me the visa again. That is the hard part. If you give me the visa, I can return,” she said. “But it is much better to live in Ecuador than here [in the US].”