Woman. Civil war. Undocumented immigrant. Single parent. Working-class. These terms describe my mother, a young woman who fled a violent civil war that was perpetuated by the U.S., and who upon arriving in the U.S., was denied the protections and support of refugee status. She was forced into an undocumented status, obliging her to find any means for survival in a foreign country. The path to survival in Los Angeles was through underpaid and arduous factory work that was performed under a looming fear of potential INS raids, which were so common in the 1980s.
As a young woman she also wanted to live life by doing the things young women are supposed do: meet a man, fall in love, and eventually have a family. Nevertheless, the ideals of family-and-motherhood escaped when she was left behind to fend for herself and to raise a newborn daughter on her own. Becoming a single parent was not only difficult for emotional and economic reasons, it also came with cultural sanctions as she had become one of “those” women who have children out of wedlock and are unwanted by their children’s father. I cannot imagine the emotional and psychological wounds these experiences caused my mother. A woman, who due to her position and the circumstances that surrounded her, was forced to wake up each day with the sole purpose of working and providing for herself and child. She did not have the time or resources to seek the emotional support she needed… she was back to survival mode, similar to when she escaped the violence of her country, and has continued to live her life in the U.S. in this way for over thirty-two years.
It took my mother over 14 years to become “independent.” We spent most of my childhood living with others, often being reminded that the place where we lived was not our home. Together we endured many necessities, humiliations, and violations of our character and bodies. But it was the combination of structural limitations and cultural norms that forced us to internalize the pain and the suffering, and to ignore the transgressions. Indeed, having to go on as if these experiences were not occurring led to the accumulation of anger, resentment, and disappointment… Further, these experiences have also had lasting effects on how we develop our own relationships. In the case of my mother, deciding to forgo the possibility of a future marriage due to the trauma caused by the experiences she had with her daughter’s father. And in my case, a distrust and suspicion of men, and conflicting emotions towards intimacy that are related to cultural perceptions of how a Latina woman should relate to sex, with the traumas of unwanted sexual contact and exposure at a very young age.
Now as a young adult, I seek to liberate myself from these traumas as I also try to understand my mother’s decisions and what at times I saw as inaction. I seek to liberate myself from the ideas that have been so effectively ingrained into my subconscious of what it means to be a woman and what my role should be in society. I seek to be liberated from the emotional wounds that at times still feel so fresh, while at other times I manage to numb away. I want to be free… but sometimes I don’t know how to get there. If only my background would have been different… If only I would have had the privileges afforded by legal status, class, traditional family structure, male gender, and the protection of a father… but if I would have had these “privileges,” I wouldn’t be who I am today.