Those Who Remain: A testimony of youth resilience in the face of parental migration

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By Benjamin Ruiz Rosado

I wasn’t processing anything that was happening. I was a little kid, you know. I went back to that house, I thought, “My mom just left… Oh, God. Where did she go? What happened?”… And then I started to cry.

For the last twelve years, Marty Garcia, age 22, has been living a life of independence and determination in Zunil – a small town in the mountainous department of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

Like other youth in Central America, Marty has grown up with a parent living and working in the United States who sends him and his two younger sisters money twice a month for school supplies, food and other miscellaneous expenses. In Marty’s case, both his parents moved to the USA by the age of 10. His father emigrated first and his mother soon after. His father left when was too young to remember. Every now and then Marty thinks about what it would be like to travel to the US and be with his parents.

Recently, there has been an alarming surge in the number of unaccompanied minors from Central America traveling to the US. From Guatemala alone, the number of recorded unaccompanied minors encountered at the US-Mexican border in 2011 was 1,565, rising to 17,057 in 2014 – a 1,100% increase. While 2015 saw a decline to 13,589, experts warn that significant migration flows will continue until international and local policymakers address the socioeconomic and security conditions pushing Central Americans to leave their homes.

Reasons for immigration, collective and individual, are complex – but a common factor is that many youth are being reunited with one or both of their biological parents upon arrival to the United States. While this “urgent humanitarian situation” has gained national and international attention for the reasons behind youth immigration, what has been overlooked by the media and the press is an issue of great importance: the emotional experience of youth who grow up separated from their parents.

I was able to sit down with Marty to hear his story. He said this is something he has never talked about before. It has always been a topic avoided by everyone in his family since his parents left.

I had never talked to anyone about this. When people would ask me about my parents, I would just say, “Oh, my parents are in the States.” And I wouldn’t tell them anything else. Not even all my friends know about it.

The immigration experience for the youth who remain behind can be filled with mixed feelings and lingering questions. Marty recalls not fully grasping the situation when his mother decided to leave and reflects upon how that has shaped his adolescent years. He recalls it feeling unexpected and abrupt at the age of 10 when his mother left:

I remember that day. She told me: “Son, I’m going over there with your father. You all take care. You’re going to stay with your grandparents and I’ll call and write to you there.” And I was like, “Oh. Okay.”

My sisters left with my grandparents and later I went with my aunt and uncle to drop off my mom at the airport. But I still wasn’t processing anything that was happening. I was a little kid, you know. And when I went back to that house, I thought, “My mom just left… Oh, God. Where’d she go? What happened?'”And then I started to cry.

Reflecting on his feelings now, Marty expresses mixed feelings about his parents’ decision to leave. On one hand, he understands that there’s an financial benefit to working in the US to better provide for the family. But one the other, that doesn’t mean he can’t still feel resentment. It can be confusing to negotiate between empathizing with your parents, while also allowing yourself to validate your feelings about the situation.

Honestly, I don’t remember how long it’s been since my parents left. Maybe some 10 years or more. I don’t remember my dad. It’s strange that both parents leave. Normally it’s only one that leaves. My mom didn’t want me [laughter]… She left.

Marty recalls that after his mother left, he and his sisters lived with various family members until over time they got married and started to move out. Currently he and his sisters live alone their parents’ house, on the same street as the rest of their family.

Regarding his communication with his parents, Marty talks about how it is impersonal and brief. It has been that way since as long as he can remember. He has gotten used to it.

“I actually don’t talk to them a lot. Or rather, talking would be having a real conversation. Like, ‘How is everything going with you?’ But in my case it’s more like:’How are you?’ says my mom. I say, ‘Fine.’ My mom says, ‘Oh, okay. I am going to send you your allowance so you can buy what you all need and to eat. I’ll send you the password now. Take care of yourselves.’ I say, ‘Oh, okay.'”

Adolescence is a period of significant biological, emotional and mental development. Many youth separated from their parents due to immigration usually have secondary care-takers, primarily grandparents, but for Marty, the situation was different.

I think growing up without my parents in Guatemala affected me a lot. Because they would have given me advice or something like that. They would have guided us. My grandparents think in different ways, they have their own kids. We didn’t get the attention we needed.

He later added, “But they did a lot [for us] because we were with them.”

Narratives like Marty’s are important not only because they give shed light on a youth population that is often overlooked or under-appreciated, but for also highlighting the important intersection of migration and youth mental health in Guatemala.

Youth in Guatemala is the largest segment of the nation’s population. In 2012, 50% of the population was under the age of 18 years old, the highest proportion of young people in any country in Latin America.

There is no clear data portraying how many youth have and are growing up separated from one or both parents due to migration in Guatemala. However, given the number of unaccompanied young people traveling to the US, it can be assumed that there are many stories similar to Marty’s. Only 0.9% of Guatemala’s health budget is dedicated to mental health, and it doesn’t help that 90% of that budget is concentrated in Guatemala City, leaving 10% for half the population in the rest of the country. Coupled with the lack of mental health services, it’s clear that there is much to be done to support youth who have not been able to process the impacts of their parents’ migration on their emotional development.

Marty is choosing to move toward success and hope. He is currently in his third year at the university – working towards a degree in Graphic Design. He motivates his sisters when they become discouraged about school and say, “Why bother? Our parents are not even here.”

I actually don’t talk to them like a brother or a parent – I just tell them the truth. I tell them that if I made it and no one was supporting me, think about it. I’m here with you now and you have these opportunities that I didn’t because back then I didn’t even have money. Now we’re maybe a little more stable. It’s a more like a serious conversation, so that they react.

Marty has big plans for his future and is determined to make them happen.

It’s like a video game: if you have a goal, you know you’re playing to get to that next step. If you don’t have a goal, that’s when you get off-track. My personal goals are to be successful and to help my sisters do the same. Because I feel that there will be a point when my parents will no longer be able to help us. I don’t want my sisters to get left behind.

Marty’s testimony not only serves as a reminder of the silent discomfort many youth have carried and are carrying within them, but also of their resiliency and strength. His final words of reflection perhaps best convey how those in Guatemala directly and indirectly affected by parental migration should understand the situation. He makes it clear that youth in similar situations are not sad stories nor lost causes to be pitied. They have the power within themselves to thrive.

Honestly, I think everyone should understand about parents: If you’re born alone, you have to go it alone. If you have your parents, that’s great because you’ll have that support. And if not, that’s fine too because you’ll make yourself and that will make you a better person. I see that there are a lot of people who worry and say, ‘It’s just that my parents… I’m going to be lost without them.’ But you have to focus on your goals, no matter what happens.