“I’m not the mother of the Texans, I’m a Mexican mother,” Doña Rosario Leon says.
Doña Rosario is a 54-year-old woman who emigrated to the United States almost 30 years ago from the small town of Tunkas in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. “My dream was to give my children better education, better than the one they could have received in Mexico,” she says.
Migration sometimes leads to a better life, but may also lead to disintegration, separation of families, and personal frustration. This is true for many mothers in Tunkas, like Doña Rosario, who followed migratory routes to California and Texas beginning in the late sixties seeking better opportunities for their families.
According to the 2008 immigration survey, conducted by the Mexican Migration Field Research and Training Program (MMFRP) with UC, San Diego, roughly 75% of the population of Tunkas are migrants who work and live at least part-time abroad or in other cities in Mexico. Nearly a third of the migrants are women, many of whom continue to bear the bulk of family responsibilities. Doña Rosario Leon was 26 years old and had five children when her husband, Tomas Uicab, emigrated to the United States. “My husband forgot to send me money for my children, but I didn’t forget that my kids had to eat,” Doña Rosario says.
It’s a not-often discussed fact that migrants to the United States are not alwaysseeking the stereotypical silver bullet to happiness — permanent residency.
However, when asked, most migrants are quite hopeful to return to their homeland sooner rather than later, and wish to continue living the life that was dear to them.
The happiness derived from any financial stability is likely seen as the achievement of that dream. Sadly, the American dream is not solely material; it is less tangible things like security and comfort, passion and levity and many other things that one must work hard to maintain.
To keep the fiscal dream alive many migrant parents, documented or not, must work multiple jobs and are often away from their families for great lengths of time.
This brutish existence is what some migrants attribute to the disintegration of the American Dream.
The story of Rosario Uicab-Ku, or Dona Chari as she is more respectfully referred to, is not unlike many migrant’s experiences. As a young mother Chari made the difficult decision to follow her husband to the United States for work with her six children in tow. After giving birth to a seventh child and raising them for a short while in Los Angeles, Chari and her family moved to.
Texas where she continued to raise them for the more than 20 years.
Chari has sense returned to the Yucatan and for various reasons, legal and personal, three of her children have followed her. Now her family is split between the modernity and opportunity of Texas and the more wistful existence of their past.
During that time, she lived on what her brothers gave her, but she knew that she had to find a solution to keep going. Life without her husband in Tunkas wasn’t easy. So Doña Rosario gathered her savings and migrated to California without telling her husband she was coming. She took one child with her.
The night she tried to cross the border with her baby, Araceli, in her arms, three coyotes attacked her group of migrants. They took her baby from her arms and pointed their guns at her. “I was yelling as if I were crazy,” Doña Rosario says, “because I thought I would never see my daughter again.” Then something mysterious happened. A stranger appeared with the little girl. “I just remember a tall man in a white robe. He brought my daughter back to me. He told me ‘Take her, and take care of her.’”
“I just remember a tall man in a white robe. He brought my daughter back to me. He told me ‘Take her, and take care of her.’”
It was a long and cold night for Doña Rosario who huddled with her small daughter, Araceli until they could cross the border in daylight the following morning. Despite the obstacles, they made it to Anaheim, Calif. They took refuge in the home of some long-time family friends an old friend from Tunkas. With some difficulty she made contact with her husband but they lived apart.
Anaheim, headquarters of Disneyland, is a city of 346,000 and was intimidating for Doña Rosario. Tunkas has a population of about 3,500. In Tunkas, there are not many stores or restaurants. There are a few cantinas, a baseball and a soccer field. It is two hours away from Merida, the Yucatan state capital. There are few jobs in Tunkas, most of them related to agriculture and beekeeping. Lack of opportunity is one of the reasons so many Tunkaseños have emigrated to the U.S. since 1960.
Her first nine months in California Doña Rosario lived, literally, in a bedroom closet. She didn’t feel supported by her husband. Unable to speak, write or read English she confronted the other face of migration. “He never accompanied me,” she says. “I was always alone.” He didn’t want me to be there because somebody else was with him during the time he was by himself.” Tomas had found another woman to live with in California, but when he learned Doña Rosario was there, he left the other woman and moved in with Doña Rosario. She thought that if she went back to him her relationship would improve. A few months later she became pregnant.
“I don’t have memories of my mother,” Enrique says. “She worked day and night. She didn’t have time for us.”
Doña Rosario now regrets having brought her children to the United States because they grew up with a life with no restrictions. “In Mexico, I was used to the idea that if the kids behaved badly, you would spank them,” she says. “In Texas, you can’t hit them because they can sue you.”
Her kids began to disobey her. Enrique especially chafed at his restrictions. He felt burdened by Texas’ laws. He couldn’t throw garbage wherever he wanted or jaywalk. And he had to work to help his mother. Some of her children had minor, and then major, scrapes with the law.
Enrique and Lucila abandoned Texas and returned to Tunkas when they grew up. Her daughter Betty was deported back to Mexico, and left her son behind in Texas. Doña Rosario stayed with her daughters, Araceli and Nori (the youngest), and Irene (the second oldest). She worried about her children in Tunkas.
In 2012, Betty and her new husband fell into a well, 30 meters deep. They were gravely injured but escaped with their lives. Doña Rosario’s mother, who lived in Tunkas, became sick. Doña Rosario decided she couldn’t properly care for her family from a distance. She returned to Mexico after having lived 26 years in the U.S. She left four of her daughters and her husband in Texas.
The two-hour journey from Merida to Tunkas is graced by the yellow, red, blue and orange colors of butterflies. A big and blue arch that reads Tunkas welcomes travelers when they arrive in the town. Brilliant orange Falmboyant trees surround the arch. The scent of cochinita pibil, a common pork dish from the region, lingers in the streets.
Doña Rosario thought that by coming back to Tunkas she could have a peaceful life. But in Tunkas there were even fewer jobs than when she left. In addition, she had to deal with her family’s problems: taking care of her sick mother, rebuilding her house, coping with Enrique and Lucila’s personal and family problems. Betty, meanwhile, was desperate to return to Texas to be reunited with her son.
In the midst of this new era of turmoil Doña Rosario found a new life partner, a construction worker named Jesus. Don Chuy, as he is known around town, has been with her for three years and is a source of comfort and moral support. Doña Rosario gets by on the financial remittances that her daughters send from the U.S. and from the money she earns by selling the animals she raises around the house. The sale of a chicken brings in up to $3.50.
Still, Doña Rosario celebrates neither Christmas nor New Year’s Eve. “Those days mean sadness to me because I don’t have my family all together,” she says. “Some of them are here and others are there. We are all separated,” she says with tears in her eyes.
Doña Rosario celebrates neither Christmas nor New Year’s Eve. “Those days mean sadness to me because I don’t have my family all together,” she says.
It is 6 a.m. in Tunkas. The sky begins to show the first light of the day. Some people walk to the bus stop on their way to work. On the other side of the train tracks, stands a faded-white house. The house is alive with crowing and barking. It smells of dung.
Doña Rosario sits in an old rocking chair in the living room, surrounded by photographs of her family on the wall. Through her window she sees villagers walking towards a gremio, a fiesta celebrating Saint Tomas, the town’s patron, with music and fireworks. Doña Rosario doesn’t fix her hair. She isn’t going out dancing in the celebration.
Doña Rosario looks stricken. Her mother died a few days ago.
Only close relatives accompanied Doña Rosario at the visitation and funeral. The open casket, her mother’s cold remains surrounded by fans, was undecorated and as gray as Doña Rosario’s expression. Betty was the only daughter who stood by her at the burial.
Doña Rosario reflects on her migrant dreams. She emigrated for a better life. She never imagined it would lead to familial disintegration.
“I want to have all my family in just one country, to be together,” Doña Rosario says. Her eyes well up as she looks out at her birds. At least the birds are clustered in a pen.