From the Archive: “A Mother’s Heart is Weighed Down with Stones”

In our “From the Archive” series, we highlight an article from a past issue of the journal. In this installment, we explore Sarah Horton’s “A Mother’s Heart is Weighed Down with Stones: A Phenomenological Approach to the Experience of Transnational Motherhood,” available here. This article was featured in Volume 33, Issue 1 (March 2009).


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While there is still considerable confusion and uncertainty surrounding the current state of immigration in the United States and the international movements of people, our journal article authors have continually acknowledged the importance of focusing on the lived experience of individuals within these larger political contexts. In her article, Horton discusses transnational motherhood through the embodied distress of mothers and children, showing that their suffering cannot be examined separately. Through her analysis of the narratives of undocumented Salvadoran mothers living in the United States, Horton explains the pain of these mothers’ undocumented status is experienced within the intersubjective space of the family.

Horton begins by describing Elisabeta, a Salvadoran mother working in the United States while her young son and elderly mother remain in El Salvador. Elisabeta was part of Horton’s research at a Latino mental health clinic in a New England city. Since Elisabeta was unable to hold or touch her young son, Carmelo, she instead carried his photo with her wherever she went. Elisabeta described her life as divided, “I work here but my heart lives there.” This division of “here” and “there” in transnational motherhood is not uncommon for undocumented immigrants who left their children in their home countries.

As the postindustrial, technology-based economy has grown within the U.S., women are increasingly migrating alone to find work in the high-tech sector, reshaping the immigrant family and trans-nationalizing the meaning of motherhood. At the same time, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) increased both border policing and militarization as well as deportation and family separation in border communities. This meant that mothers working in the U.S. have found it more difficult to be reunited with their children, fearful of the dangerous and expensive crossing for their undocumented children, and the inability of the women to return home to visit. Thus, while many women had originally imagined their separations would be only temporary, the transnational relationship between mother and children can last years.

Horton explains that even though family separation has long been a reality for immigrants, scholarship has often ignored this lived experience as an independent factor of stress and trauma. Further, mental health analyses are frequently positioned at the individual level, and neglect the larger context of how such familial changes and separations are experienced and endured in the inter-subjective space between parents and children. Elisabeta described the aching in her chest when she would speak to her son on the phone each weekend. Later, when her son became seriously ill, Elisabeta felt an acute sense of failure – as both a mother unable to care for her ill son, and as a provider unable to pay for the operation he needed. Elisabeta was often unable to sleep at night, surrounded by thoughts of Carmelo’s words and tears. Horton explains Elisabeta’s vivid narrative expressed her embodied distress of being a transnational mother and the relational nature of the family’s suffering.

Gloria, another immigrant from El Salvador, left to find better economic opportunities after a series of devastating earthquakes in her home town. Gloria decided to leave her birthplace after it had become a space of death and scarcity, and the small business she and her husband had established had been destroyed. “There wasn’t enough food to give the kids. There was no way for me to keep them alive. And so I came here,” she said. For Gloria, and other women Horton interviewed, traumatic events reshaped familiar places and people, and triggered their decisions to migrate. Further trauma of the women having to explain their departures to their children were overwhelming.

The paradox of parenthood for these mothers is often having to choose between either financially supporting their children from a distance or physically being their caretakers. Horton explains that these parents have a profound sense of moral failing, perceiving that their inability to serve as “proper parents” is compounded by the difficulties of succeeding economically. Horton argues that placing these issues of “choice” and “decision making” against the backdrop of limited agency and “illegality” in the U.S. causes the parents’ immobility and powerlessness to reverberate through the space of a family stretched across international borders.

Children left behind in El Salvador often shoulder adult burdens, attempting to either prevent their mothers’ departure or requesting to join their mothers on the dangerous journey to the U.S. According to Horton, when the realization of the uncertainty in their separation becomes overwhelming, children respond to what they perceive as their mothers’ withdrawal of love with their own form of withdrawal. “My daughter then told me she had erased me from her heart, and that she didn’t love me anymore,” Gloria recounted. “El corazon de madre es un monton de piedras.” (“A mother’s heart is weighed down with a mountain of stones.”) This “weighing-down” is the burden Gloria had assumed in suffering the anger of her children while she only wished to protect them from hunger. Horton explains Gloria’s narrative demonstrates that suffering is relational, experienced through social connections and threats of uncertain future relationships. Horton says this transnational separation strains the bond between mother and child, as their distance is experienced both physically and emotionally.

Horton discusses strategies these transnational mothers undertake in order to attempt to substitute their parental presence. One strategy of sending gifts and luxury items, such as a color T.V. or special toys, is a way of feeling as if they are giving their children love and support. Yet this happiness from the fulfillment of financial support is temporary, and quickly overshadowed with sadness as children will often ask when they will be reunited again. Both the mothers and children know the gifts are double-edged, symbolizing the mothers’ love yet justifying their absence.

Horton concludes by calling for researchers to bridge the gap between subjective experiences of families living with separation and objective analyses of structure “illegality” and immigration policies. In hoping for more phenomenological accounts of transnational family life, Horton shows how sociopolitical inequality shapes individual experience and produces patterns of social suffering. She also places transnational mothers’ distress within a larger framework of social conditions that reproduce powerlessness and disadvantage. The sophistication of phenomenological approaches illustrates the ways that undocumented immigrants may experience embodied stress of strained family ties.

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Guest Blog: ‘In-Betweenness’: Liminality, Legality, and Migrant Health in Siracusa, Italy

This week on the blog, we are hosting a guest post by Adam Kersch, an MA Candidate who will begin his PhD in anthropology at the University of California – Davis this fall. Here, he presents findings from his ethnographic research on the health and wellbeing of migrants entangled in the legal webs of relocation in southern Italy.

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In January to July 2015, I conducted ethnographic research at a reception center for migrants in Siracusa, Italy, focusing on the struggles they faced upon arrival. Although the legal difficulties and hurdles that migrants faced were readily apparent, the toll that these policies took on the health and well-being of these migrants became increasingly visible during my research. Migrants coming to Italy and to Europe have often endured traumatic events resulting from war, violence, and poverty. Once migrants come to Europe, this crucial period of psychological and physical recovery is marked by ongoing anxiety and hardship as they navigate a complex web of legal processes as they seek asylum. That is, procedures and policies that compose the migration reception apparatus commonly have direct and deleterious effects on migrants’ health.

Abraham was one such migrant whose mental well-being was harmed by slow moving legislative mechanisms. Abraham, a 25 year-old Pakistani man, had been waiting in Umberto I, a primary reception center for migrants in Siracusa, Italy, for nearly six weeks and had heard nothing regarding the status of his asylum request. The poorly-supplied center was only designed to hold migrants for 72 hours, and no legal information was provided to its residents, leaving the migrants waiting in Umberto I without a clue as to their futures in Italy. Abraham left Pakistan fleeing sectarian violence and lack of economic opportunity. After some travel, he found himself in Libya, seeking passage to Europe. Like many other migrants, he was tortured and robbed by militias while in Libya as he worked to pay for his passage to Europe. Reeling from torture, the stress of his liminal status in Italy became unbearable. The center had given him no idea as to when he would be transferred, why he was there, or what his future might be like. Like many others before him, one day Abraham had enough of the waiting and clandestinely left the reception center. He contacted me a few days after leaving, begging for help. He was in Northern Italy, trying to cross the border into France to meet with a friend in Spain, but he kept getting caught and sent back to Italy. “I want to die,” he confessed, “I am a failure. I cannot support myself, I cannot support my family. No money, no work.” Having come to Europe for safety and to help support his family back in Pakistan, the painfully lethargic process of legal recognition prevented Abraham from being able to achieve his goals. His lack of documents prevented him from legally seeking work, but the longer he waited for these documents, the longer his family in Pakistan went hungry, unable to support themselves. Trying to seek asylum elsewhere seemed to him the only logical choice.

During my fieldwork in 2015, I found that migrants waiting to hear about their legal status in Italy had little to no access to legal information, and that this state of liminality facilitated social, psychological, and somatic trauma. Centers like Umberto I function as a part of the migrant reception apparatus in Italy that treats migrants with spotty assistance at best, and absolute negligence at worst. This lack of legal knowledge contributes to an environment of anxiety and leads to the physical and mental suffering of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have come to Italy in recent years. This dearth of information violates United Nations and European Union (EU) policies on migrant reception, both of which stress that migrants should have access to any legal personnel willing to provide services. In this way, these policies suspend migrants in an ambiguous, unresolved legal status that both directly and indirectly impacts the psychological and somatic health of the migrants and their families.

Lamin, a 20-year-old migrant from Gambia, was another temporary resident of Umberto I. He, like Abraham, experienced deteriorating health as a result of the migrant reception policies and procedures in Siracusa. He had unknowingly agreed to serve as a legal witness for the state against the captain of the boat that brought him across the Mediterranean, who was being charged with human trafficking. The police had effectively coerced Lamin to sign the papers, which were in Italian. They assured him the papers were for his own benefit as they would secure him legal protection. However, since signing them, he had no updates about the court proceedings or about his own legal status. Lamin languished in Umberto I for the moment that he might be transferred or summoned, all the while ignoring the severe pain he was experiencing as a result of holes that had been drilled into his teeth when he was tortured in Libya. He refused to seek medical help, fearing that he may miss his chance to leave Umberto I and finally move forward while getting his teeth fixed. It was only after significant encouraging that he finally sought care from Emergency, a local medical NGO. Thankfully, Lamin successfully recovered and was finally transferred a few weeks later.

In cases such as Lamin’s, legal liminality takes priority over physical suffering. As a result, the slow and onerous migrant reception apparatus exacerbates and prolongs the wounds of migration, whether they are psychological, physical, or social. Those in Umberto I are far from the only sufferers of legal liminality. Cutiyo and her daughter, both refugees from Somalia, came into the legal office late one night in Siracusa. Cutiyo had regularly been coming to speak with Giulia, a local legal activist, to help file a family reunification to bring her husband living in Somalia to Italy. She often saw Giulia simply to ask about the progress of her husband’s case, wondering when she might finally see him again and when he would finally be safe from the violence in Somalia. Cutiyo spoke softly and left quietly after speaking to Giulia. Giulia turned to me, on the verge of tears, and explained that Cutiyo’s husband had been shot in the head five times by militants the night before in Somalia. This happened only a day or two before Cutiyo’s husband was finally to be brought to Italy to be with his wife and daughter. If the sluggish process had been streamlined, perhaps the family could have been reunited. Instead, Cutiyo was now alone in Italy with her daughter, faced with both an uncertain legal status and the social distress and strain caused by the death of her husband. The slow-moving Italian legal system had produced another casualty.

These moments of “in-betweenness” that migrants experience are crucial periods of temporal and social displacement that exacerbate the traumas from which many migrants are attempting to recover. As migrants wait to receive documentation or for their families to be reunited, the physical and psychological risks inherent to seeking a new future in Europe are placed in migrants’ peripheries as they seek legal recognition. As observed by anthropologists Cristiana Giordano (2014) and Miriam Ticktin (2011), granting asylum is often a process of recognizing and validating the suffering migrants experience before arriving in Europe. In circumstances such as these, suffering can become a migrant’s path to legal protection, functioning as a perverse currency that promises security and safety. But during the period in Europe preceding asylum decisions, migrants’ pains are perhaps ironically exacerbated by obtuse and labyrinthine legal processes in the very countries they have come to for protection. Whether it be by anxiety that defers attention to health issues, an uncertain future prompting a rejection of the reception apparatus, or documentation that arrives too late, migrant legislation and reception procedures in Siracusa, Italy have severe consequences for the well-being of people seeking a new future in Europe.

Sources Cited

Giordano, Cristiana. (2014). Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ticktin, Miriam. (2011). Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France. Berkeley: University of California Press.


 

About the Author: Adam Kersch is currently a MA Candidate at the University of Central Florida and in September 2016 will begin his first year of PhD studies in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of California, Davis as a Mellon Institute Comparative Border Studies Fellow. His research is focused on provision of health and legal services to migrants in Italy. He is particularly interested in human rights, imaginaries of Europe, and the politics of care in the context of austerity.