Two Worlds


Exploring the intergenerational impact of migration on the families of migrant mothers from Central America.

When it feels like one of her worlds is crushing down on her, Vicky A., 47, turns to her faith and lights a candle.


On the eve of the birth of her grandson in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Vicky left her room, walked down the hallway to the kitchen to light a candle and prepared breakfast for her husband in their Laurel, Maryland, home. Vicky, born and raised in San Pedro Sula, was more than 1,800 miles away from her children. In 2003, she crossed the Mexican border in search of a better future for herself and the young children she left behind.


On this Wednesday in early April 2020, Vicky’s daughter, Victoria A., was hospitalized in Honduras, in critical condition with pregnancy complications. Back in Maryland, Vicky lit the white candle and closed her eyes to pray.


Sitting in a bedroom in her home 10 miles away, Raquel S., 21, took off her glasses to dry her tears as she remembered the dream that she had as a child.


“When it was my birthday, I grabbed a flower we called “Little Angel”. I always asked “Little Angel” to see my mom and dad, and when I lost a tooth, my wish was also to see them,” Raquel said.


Raquel S. was born and raised in San Salvador. She left El Salvador at 16 in 2016, crossing the Mexican border to reunite with her mother who migrated to the United States when Raquel was three years old. Now, Raquel has Special Immigrant Juvenile status and has authorization for employment.


Although both Vicky and Raquel have different stories and struggles, they share the same ideals: love of family motivated their journeys, and the experience of motherhood has shaped their lives in the U.S. Due to fear of deportation, both women asked that their last names not be used.


These two women, a generation apart, are among the roughly 500,000 people who leave El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the countries of the Northern Triangle, every year. Migration from this region began in the 1960s and increased in the 1980s. Since 1980, the number of migrants from these countries went from 354,000 to almost four million in 2019 according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2010, the 2019 American Community Survey (ACS), and the Migration Policy Institute.


Before the 1970s, migration was predominantly intraregional. In the following decades, a first wave of migration from Central America occurred as citizens escaped the civil wars. From 2000 to the present, key factors in migration have been the mixture of persistent economic challenges (exacerbated by drought and failed crops), the severity of U.S. immigration policies, the war on drugs, the extermination of gangs, and the deportation of their members to the countries of origin.


Vicky grew up seeing her mother work as a nurse. This made her dream of becoming a doctor. She wanted to help others, just like her mother did. Her family could not afford medical school, so she began to study nursing. The course of her life changed at 17 when her mother died, and her father lost his job.


Vicky left nursing school to work and care for her younger siblings. She got a job as a supervisor in a garment sweatshop in San Pedro Sula, an hour and a half away from her home. Though she left for work at 5:30 a.m. and returned at 7:30 p.m., she enjoyed her job, and her salary was sufficient to meet the needs of the family.


Vicky married when she was 22 and gave birth to Yohenly at 24.  She had two more children: Victoria and Raúl. The course of her life shifted again when the salaries of middle managers began to drop due to the negative impact of trade liberalization of textiles and apparel trade and the long shifts left her with no time to care for family. She changed jobs and moved to another sweatshop to be closer to her family. The weight of her responsibility and the inability to always have healthy food on the table made her realize it was time to leave her homeland.


Raquel smiled when she recalled that “I was told I had an elephant’s memory.” She remembered with detail the colors, sounds and all that happened as early as when she was three years old.


She witnessed repeated acts of violence between her parents. She saw her mother leave the house at midnight many evenings. She slept on a cement bench outside her house with her sister Ana, 6, until her mother returned. The only way she could spend time with her mother was by helping her with the grocery store she owned. Most vividly, she remembered the fear and sadness she felt when her parents abandoned her.


The noise outside Raquel’s room woke her up in the middle of the night. She saw her sister Ana cry. She also saw her mother cry, walk briskly from one place to another, grab her clothes and talk to her father. Raquel recalled the words her mother said. “She told us she was going shopping,” Raquel said. “Then she waved goodbye and hugged us.” A car arrived, and Raquel’s mother was gone at dawn.


Nobody in the family was willing to take care of her and Ana. They stayed with Señora María, a friend of her mom, and occasionally spent time with her father and his partner.


Raquel never forgot the day her father took her and Ana to the zoo for the first time.  At the end of the day, they returned to Señora María’s house with his promise that he would come back the next day.


Raquel explained, “Any time I asked Señora María when I would see my father again, she’d say, ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.” Many months passed before Raquel knew her father was gone and living in the U.S.


We did not say goodbye, and I have not seen him since he left when I was 5 years old,” said Raquel.


After this point, the sisters led itinerant lives in the hands of relatives who sometimes neglected and abused them.  Under the harsh economic conditions of the time family members only offered help in exchange for the remittances that Raquel and Ana’s mother sent.  “No one in the family was affectionate and we were lacking in love,” Raquel said. Though she suppressed her feelings and convinced herself she was strong and did not need love, Raquel yearned to travel to the U.S. to regain her parents’ affection.


Migrants risk their lives to cross the southern border of the U.S. Many succeed in crossing and undertake a new life with hope and great difficulty while an unknown number of migrants perish along the way.


According to Inter-American Development Bank’s (IADB) 2018 Northern Triangle Survey, 29% of Northern Triangle migrants entered the U.S. by plane, and 60% crossed the border and/or river.” A ‘coyote’ or guide is fundamental in the migratory process. Between 30% and 66% of the migrants who managed to reach the U.S.  paid between $4,000 and $8,000 for this service.


Tormented with guilt for not offering her children adequate support and education, Vicky decided to make the journey north on a Friday after work.  She could not bear the sadness or find words to tell her children they would not see her for a long time. She took them and her nieces out to eat, wanting to see them smile to keep the last memory of a happy family together. On Sunday night, she kissed her children goodbye. Holding back tears, she left on Monday before sunrise.


The perilous, monthlong journey with two relatives took Vicky to “places I never imagined, crossing long distances on foot many times, not eating for entire days, not sleeping at all, many mosquitos biting and crossing rivers in Mexico where were told not to take hands off the raft because there were crocodiles or lizards.” That gave Vicky the strength not to put her children at risk. She left them in Honduras to give them the opportunity to study.


After crossing the border in 2003, Vicky arrived in Houston, Texas. Donaldo P., who helped her finance the trip and became her husband in 2009, was waiting for her. The next day they both traveled to Maryland, where they began a life together.


For her journey, Raquel took only a backpack with long, loose pants, long-sleeved shirts, a jacket and a pair of shoes that she could run in. She left in December 2015 with two uncles on a four-month journey to the U.S.


The crossing took them through several Mexican checkpoints, and the “fear of being deported was like an adrenaline shock,” Raquel recalled. The journey ended with the apprehension of Raquel and her uncles by the U.S. Border Patrol. They were deported and she was transferred to a detention facility.


“They put me in a room with bars and there I cried. Everything was white; you don’t know if it’s day or night, and it was horribly cold,” Raquel said. “There was a cement seat that was freezing cold, a toilet and a sink with [ice water]… The trip was easy compared to that night.”


As a minor, Raquel was given protection and transferred to a shelter and she was eventually reunited with her mother in April 2016. In August 2017, Raquel’s mother received sole legal and physical custody of her. Ana crossed the Mexican border and reunited with her mother and Raquel in 2018. Ana lives in Maryland.

“I was happy and could feel my heart pounding. When I saw my mom, she touched my back and said, ‘Hi, daughter. Let’s go.’ My heart sank,” Raquel recalled.

Little job training and the unauthorized migratory status of the majority of migrants from the Northern Triangle limit opportunities for getting a formal job and generating income in the U.S. Most of these immigrants have low-paying jobs, and according to the IADB’s 2018 Survey, almost half work in construction, cleaning or food preparation when compared to 20% of the entire migrant population residing in the US. About 70% pay taxes and only 23% receive benefits from a social program.


During the first five years after her arrival, Vicky worked for cleaning-services agencies in exchange for low salaries and no benefits.


“It was a trying time,” Vicky says, “I felt secure in my job, and that gave me the strength of Goliath to continue each day.”


As her health deteriorated due to the strenuous work, she began to work independently in 2008. She now works as a cleaner, making about $35,000 a year and paying taxes, despite her unauthorized immigrant status.


“It seems that we live in another world that other people do not realize what we contribute to this society. We work on jobs that most Americans would not do. We pay taxes and do not have social security to claim rights,” Vicky said. When she gets sick, she has to pay out of pocket for her medical expenses.


Raquel lived with her mother in Washington, D.C., while she attended Roosevelt High School, where she met her partner, Jonathan B. Soon after she arrived, she began working after school as a cleaner in a luxury hotel in Washington D.C., until 5:00 am. She was forced to drop out of school in 10th grade.


Raquel gave birth to Axel in December 2019. Later, Raquel and Jonathan rented an apartment. Mami Coralia, Jonathan’s grandmother, lives with them and takes care of their son when they go to work.


Raquel imagined the U.S. would be different, like her country, where she woke up with the crowing of the roosters, and distances were short. She works at a restaurant and makes about $25,000 a year, has health insurance and pay taxes.


“Everything here is so expensive and my life here is “work, work, and work,” said Raquel.


Life for Vicky and Raquel is not only about surviving. From afar, Vicky continues to perform her role as a mother. She makes the first call to her children at 7:00 am and talks to them three to four times a day.


“My family here are my strength, my support. [Seeing] my nieces [here in the U.S] is like seeing my daughters grow, a birthday party, small moments here and video calls with the loves of my life there reduces the pain of not having them,” she said. I live in two worlds and only have one life.”


Family also gives Raquel the strength to live and work. Despite her problematic relationship with her mother, Raquel still visits her. Above all, her son is her biggest priority.


“The beauty of immigrants is the ability to adapt to challenging circumstances regardless of trauma…They wake up every single day and keep fighting, working and dreaming,” said Angie Castro, a counselor at La Clínica del Pueblo, a nonprofit that offers health services provided by Spanish speakers to the Latino community.


For essential workers like Vicky and Raquel, living fully these days is especially challenging. COVID has had a disproportionate impact on Latino communities, as this population makes up large percentage of the U.S essential workforce. They have been, as a result, overexposed to the virus and have had insufficient social protection. Many undocumented immigrants have extremely limited access to health care.


“In these challenging times,” said Vicky, “I fear COVID and [being] arrested by immigration at any time and even more now that racism has increased in the last four years.” Many members of her family have had COVID-19 and Bessy, her sister, was hospitalized with respiratory complications due to the disease.


Raquel’s major concerns are COVID-19 and the fear of deportation. Her workload has increased during the pandemic anytime a colleague gets sick with the coronavirus.


“Although I have earned asylum,” Raquel said, “I fear that the laws change, and I will be deported.”


Both Raquel and Vicky bluntly said, “If I do not work, I do not eat.” This mindset helps them cope with their simultaneous fears of deportation and getting COVID, but the anxiety comes back to haunt them at night or when they are alone.


Over the course of U.S history, not all immigrants have been treated equally both in terms of their entry protocols and the legal system. According to Claudia Martín, professor and co-Director of the Academy on Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University, this differential treatment and less access to rights “have forced unauthorized immigrants to remain in the shadows to avoid deportation or prolonged detention. Their irregular status has also placed them in abusive working situations, that affect their rights to be paid a fair wage, to have access to medical insurance and safe working conditions.”


Immigrants, in general, do not regret the decision to leave for the United States despite all they leave behind. For many, escaping the situations in their home countries is worth the dangerous journey and uncertain future. Success could mean a chance of life, education, and money for themselves and for the family members who remain in Central America.


The perils of Vicky’s journey pale in comparison to the pain she felt after the death of her mother and the separation from her children. However, she finds comfort in the financial security she has attained and the realization that her children can fulfill their dreams. She does not regret coming to the U.S.


“Life has definitely improved for my entire family and even for close friends there,” said Vicky.


Raquel does not regret coming to the U.S. either. “I have taken a big step, my life has improved a lot here,” Raquel said, “I have a son, and I’ve gone from sleeping in a closet to having a bed and an apartment. We don’t have money, but we don’t live badly.”


For Vicky, the consequences of the long journey are the physical and emotional distance from her children.  “That is the price that must be paid so that they have [all the things] that we lacked. Not even all the gold in the world makes up for it,” Vicky said. She wants people to know it was a difficult choice leave her family behind in Honduras.


“It’s not like that. Nobody thinks about the sacrifice that one makes,” Vicky said. Suffering is real. “The first years I couldn’t sleep if I didn’t have two pillows to feel them.”


For Raquel, the conflicts with her mother and the hard work she’s had to do since arriving in the U.S. have given her an appreciation of opportunities and helped her mature.


“I have been an adult since the age of 16,” Raquel said, reflecting on the consequences of a demanding life.


Many older migrants who left family behind and have memories of their country feel rooted in their homeland and wish to return whereas those who arrived very young are not interested in leaving the United States.


Thousands of miles separate Vicky from her country but not from her roots. She keeps all the traditions from Honduras, most of her friends are Honduran and she speaks Spanish most of the time. Her dream is to reunite with her children one day.


“The dream of every immigrant is to return to their homeland,” Vicky said, “and I want to go back to Honduras one day.”


In contrast, Raquel does not miss her native country. “People say El Salvador is beautiful,” Raquel said. “I do not know my country and have no good memories from my country; the zoo is the only place I knew.”


She knows she’s Salvadoran, not American, but she likes the U.S. She is on a path to residency but if immigration laws change and she gets a deportation order, she would go to any other country but El Salvador.


If she becomes a resident, she wants to have her own business, a beauty salon, because she says that “working for someone for many years is not life.”


“I see my life here with Jonathan and my child. I can have a life here,” she said.