A Wider Sense of Family: Reconsidering Some Myths of Migration

by Caitlyn Smith

As a volunteer, it has been difficult at times to identify with guests who stay at Annunciation House. I always knew of the differences between us, beyond color, height, education and economic background. I knew that I was a person attempting to understand and gain entry into Mexico, and they were working to come into a country I came and left at will. I could listen to story after story of why people came to the United States, rupture stereotype after stereotype, break down my own barriers between myself and people who are different from me, but in the end, I struggled to understand how my life connected to the many guests I encounter.


For that reason, I was surprised at my first meeting with a quiet man named Benito. He was from Aguascalientes, a state in Central Mexico, where he had driven a taxi for years. It was his third time leaving Mexico to come north, and the third time he’d had to leave his family behind. When I first asked him why he came back, he stared at me blankly. “Trabajo,” he told me plainly. I nodded and asked, “but why a third time?” He seemed to understand that I was having a hard time appreciating his reasons, and he pulled out his wallet. He handed me a dog-eared, school picture of a young woman. He informed me his daughter was in high school. In Mexico, even public high schools cost money, and few families can afford to send their children to school for that long; most drop out after elementary school to work.

“You must be so proud,” I said, handing the picture back. He nodded and asked how much longer I would need to talk to him. I had pulled him aside for a meeting after work, he was learning roofing and after many long hours in the sun, learning a new trade, he had a hard time staying focused after coming home. I told him we could meet later and he got up and went to take a shower.

In my stay at Annunciation House, countless guests have pulled out their wallets and displayed pictures of children, grandchildren, cousins, nieces, and nephews. Benito was proud of his daughter the way millions of immigrants think back fondly on the people they’ve left behind to come to this country. That talk with Benito made me think of my own experiences with my family. What wouldn’t my father do to be able to send me to school? How many ways have my parents sacrificed so that I could go to elementary, middle and high school? How much overtime would my father work to send me to college?

Sometimes, I believe people think of immigrants as shadowy figures without morals or scruples because it is easier to think of them that way. Our government spends two-and-a-half billion dollars a year to detain millions of people who try and cross the two-thousand mile border which separates ‘us’ from ‘them.’[1] We kept them out in the 1990’s because they were all “drug dealers.” Presently, they could be “terrorists.”

At night, after dinner, I would watch guests in the common room sit amongst themselves quietly, trying to muster up the energy to get to bed so they would have the necessary energy to work the next day. Many people are like Benito—they left their families behind and came to work. They wake up early, they work long hours, and they go home, only to work all day the next day as well.

In an ideal situation, guests separated from their families later find them, such as Herminia, a former guest who took the role of mother and father while her husband was away and working, but later came to the United States so the family could be reunited. Both spouses devoted all of their time to being able to afford a home, get jobs, and send their children to school; things many of us take for granted.

Other times, men go home to their families with money to pay off bills, buy groceries, or perform maintenance on their homes. More often than not, however, they stay here, as the return trip is too dangerous and costly. People sacrifice everything to be able to provide for their families. They form communities wherever they end up. Single men live together with other people who understand their situation; cliques and groups form as a ‘home away from home’ in cities all across the country.

The prevailing negative attitude toward immigrants that has only gained ground in the past decade has given momentum to the charge that immigrants are a drain on our economy, on our resources. For many, it is a catch-22: either an immigrant is uneducated, using up government benefits because they are not skilled enough to have a career and make money; or immigrants are coming here and flooding the schools with children who can’t learn English. The logic is circular, contradictory, and short-sighted.

Currently, the educational system is problematic in Mexico. Jimmy Breslin looks into the life of one particular Mexican citizen in his book “The Short, Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez” whose family encouraged him to drop out of school after fifth grade since only primaria, or elementary school, was required. The family could scarcely afford the school fees of three dollars a year per child to send their children to school, and for a family struggling to put food on the table, Eduardo could just have easily spent his time earning money. The school fees jumped to thirty dollars after elementary school anyway, and so it was for the best that he stop attending school. This story is not uncommon, especially among poverty stricken areas. And yet, it is important to remember that even the CIA estimates that Mexico has a 91% literacy rate, meaning 91% of people over the age of fifteen can read (compared to 99% in the United States.)

Frankly, educational resources in United States are contradictory. Many balk at the fact that immigrant students are “flooding” public schools. In El Paso, students of Latino descent make up 91% of the population of the schools, and yet only 23% were found to be “Limited English Proficient” in the Ysleta Independent School District.

I am reminded of a little girl at Annunciation House, who has been in the United States for a year. She is five years old, and goes to a school where she is required to learn English. Her mother does not speak the language, and so it is difficult for her to straddle the two languages. Her brother is 17, and almost entirely bilingual; he represents one of the many immigrant children in the United States who successfully have learned English. Many schools across the country adopt the idea that students should be taught in English, in line with mainstream thinking which posits it as the “official language” of the United States. (Several states and municipalities have considered and/or passed legislation making English their “official language.”)

In our public high schools, many districts across the country have foreign language programs, and after four years of a second-language, many students are not expected to reach a level of fluency. Yet we require immigrant students to pick up a new language almost immediately and keep up with curriculum? Such expectations—when coupled with too limited resources—seem unrealistic and again, contradictory. While many immigrant students do manage to attain bilingual fluency rather quickly, it seems a heavy load for those experiencing a new culture.

Myths and prejudice lead many to believe that the economically impoverished are incapable of being educated. Immigrants coming to this country tend to represent some of the most impoverished backgrounds of the nation; and yet the facts clearly dispute this widely-held myth. Ysleta Independent School District in El Paso shows that 71% of students in the district are economically disadvantaged, yet the district has reached national acclaim through their test scores and academic achievements. Still, immigrants are believed to be unsuccessful because they are poor, and yet they are often denied access to opportunities. They need tools such as education; they need the opportunity to earn money for tuition in their countries of origin (Mexico or Central America); or they need the opportunity to study here. (See article in this issue about the DREAM Act.)

It is hard at times to accept others. Communities are changing and growing in the United States all the time. With an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in this country, neighborhoods and communities are changing.[2] It is easy to see the changes: use of various languages, changes in culture, and diversity in our schools, workplaces, and places of community gather.

However, there is one important thing to understand that I find breaks many stereotypes. Figures show that Mexico receives $20 billion dollars a year in remittances from the United States.[3] This means that all across the country millions of workers are waking up every morning and going to work, like Benito, just to be able to send money for their children’s schooling, or to be able to afford electricity, or to have money to marry their fiancées. How many people in the United States want to do the same for their loved ones? Immigrants who come to the United States have family, friends, and loved ones somewhere who care about them. And when they come here, they are creating a wider sense of family, of community. They are showing that borders between loved ones don’t really exist.

Caitlyn Smith is a student at Denison University studying Sociology-Anthropology and Spanish, and is about to start her senior year. She is finishing a summer internship with Annunciation House and starting her senior research thesis—a creative ethnography on undocumented immigration.

[1] Nguyen, Tram. We Are All Suspects Now

[2] Knickerbocker, Brad. 2006. “Illegal immigrants in the US: How many are there?” Christian Science Monitor Online <http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0516/p01s02-ussc.html&gt;

[3] Martinez, Ibsen. “Remittances and the Latin American Dream” The Library of Economics and Liberty Online. <http://www.econlib.org/LIBRARY/Columns/y2006/Martinezremittances.html&gt;

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