Above: Mother’s Day celebration in Morelos, Mexico, 2013. (The image has been altered to protect participants' identities.)

La dejé, pero no la abandoné.”

“I left her, but I did not abandon her.”

“Children left behind” is a phrase commonly used to refer to children of immigrant parents who reside in their country of origin while the parents live in a host country. But the notion that leaving a child behind is synonymous with abandonment is soundly rejected by mothers who have migrated to the U.S.—a crucial point at the heart of Lynch School of Education and Human Development and Human Development Assistant Professor Gabrielle Oliveira’s recently published book, Motherhood across Borders: Immigrants and Their Children in Mexico and New York.

Gabrielle Oliveira, assistant professor and author of Motherhood across Borders

Gabrielle Oliveira, assistant professor and author of "Motherhood across Borders"

Drawing on more than three years of ethnographic research, Oliveira, an anthropologist and São Paulo, Brazil, native, provides insights into the many consequences of maternal migration, and particularly parenting from afar; how transnational families stay together; how violence and poverty frequently drive a mother’s migration; and how education plays such an important motivational role in family separation.  

She relayed the comments of an emotional Guatemalan mother, now in the U.S., who called into WNYC-FM’s The Brian Lehrer Show during a recent book tour interview with Oliveira: “I came here,” said the caller, “but I never stopped caring about my children; I never abandoned them.”  

“Did I represent the participants in the most truthful way possible?” Oliveira asked rhetorically. “That is what I cared most about in writing this book.”

More than half the migrants worldwide are women, and an increasing number of Mexican female immigrants migrate solo to the U.S., leaving their children behind in the care of relatives or friends. Most work to support their children, and a critical justification for the mothers’ move was their child’s access to better education.  

Picking limes from backyard trees in Puebla, Mexico, 2010 (the image has been altered to protect their identities)

Picking limes from backyard trees in Puebla, Mexico, 2010. (The image has been altered to protect their identities.)

Oliveira noted that migrant mothers who leave their children behind are frequently and unfairly demonized, but she argues that they’re “being the best mothers they can be, and they’re in fact re-assembling motherhood, and still playing a central role in their children’s lives.” Mothering, she says, becomes an “unbounded practice, where mothers do not necessarily live in the same household but are very much present and involved in the everyday lives of the children they have left behind.”

In her 272-page book, Oliveira shares the story of Sara, a Mexican single mother who migrated to New York City 14 years ago, leaving her five-year-old son Agustin behind in the care of his maternal grandmother in a small Mexican town. While in New York, Sara met a man, and they had a son, Felipe. When asked about separation from Agustin but also having a child in New York, she said: “One feels divided, you are here, but your heart sometimes is there. I know I left him with the best care I could ask for and now I have a child here. It’s hard, but I think it’s better this way.”  

During their conversation, Sara received a text from Agustin, in Mexico, asking to go out with his friends. Sara responded: “It’s late already; what did your grandmother say?” Agustin replied that she said it would be OK as long as Sara allowed him to go. Sara agreed, with the stipulation that he had to return home by 9:00 p.m.—it was a school night—and he had to text her when he returned. When he did not abide by his curfew, his grandmother called Sara instead of Agustin, asking her to phone him because she was concerned. Simultaneously, Sara was coping with her East Harlem-based son Felipe, who was crying in frustration because he couldn’t play with his cousin’s action figure.

Mothers do not necessarily live in the same household but are very much present and involved in the everyday lives of the children they have left behind.
Gabrielle Oliveira, Assistant Professor
In Hidalgo on the way to school, Mexico 2014

In Hidalgo, Mexico, on the way to school, 2014. (The image has been altered to protect their identities.)

Oliveira characterized the numerous, daily interactions of cross-border parenting as “transnational care constellations,” with mothers assuming the central role of authority. As she outlines in her book, the mother supplies financial support, grants or denies permission, and makes decisions about school-related activities.  

“However, when she did not deliver...she was criticized, and blamed for everything that went wrong, and felt guilty and helpless,” wrote Oliveira. “When the discussion was about schooling—homework, classes, teachers, uniforms, books, summer classes, field trips, grades, parent-teacher conferences—the mothers were able to communicate their desires and assert their authority by giving children orders. Providing a better education was the topic that participants in the care constellation thought to be the most important or the reason behind familial separation.”

Oliveira, no stranger to immigration herself, stressed that the influence of migration cannot be fully understood by examining just one side of the border.

“Schooling, achievement, and educational experiences differ for separated siblings in Mexico and New York City,” she says. “This book provides a nuanced analysis of migration’s many faces, and contributes to existing scholarship on how transnational migration and people’s mobility shape the lives of children and youth ‘left behind,’ ‘brought over,’ and ‘born here.’”

Jacket cover: Motherhood across Borders

Motherhood across Borders: Immigrants and Their Children in Mexico and New York has won the Ethnography in Education Research Forum’s inaugural “Outstanding Ethnography in Education Book Award,” which honors a book-length academic publication, issued within the past three years, that draws on ethnographic inquiry into education.

Oliveira was presented with the award at the forum’s 40th annual conference at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education in February.