Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

To be the mother of smugglers: 'People judge children like my sons'

Caught between poverty and stigma, smuggling is one of the few jobs available for María's sons. And she's already lost one to it

9 May 2022, 6.00am

Migrants crossing to the US near Juárez in 2021


David Peinado/Xinhua/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved


I came to Ciudad Juárez with my dad after my parents went their separate ways. It was just the two of us and he had relatives here. My father was a merchant, you could say. He sold chicharrones laguneros (fried pork rinds) in the streets.

My dad brought me here, but he didn’t raise me. I didn't grow up with him. I lived with an aunt for a while, then I lived with another aunt, and so on. I went to school, I played, everything that happens during childhood. I started working when I was 14 years old.

I began in a maquiladora (assembly factory) assembling vacuum cleaners. At the time it was easier to forge your documents, and I started working there by showing the birth certificate of one of my aunts. It was my first job and my first salary, and I felt truly proud of what I earned. It was, as they say, my first triumph. I was working, I was earning my money, and I could buy what I wanted. The first thing I bought was shoes.

I started to work because there were always needs at home. Always. Although our uncles and our parents tried to give us the best they could, it was obvious that, even if they tried, there would always be need. My uncles didn’t want me to work. They said that I was very young and should be studying. ‘You have to go to school, darling,’ they said. ‘You have to work hard so that in the future nobody bosses you around.’ But it's always the need that makes you work. They had children of their own, and though they were helping my dad raise me they weren’t obliged to support me.

I didn't finish elementary school in a normal school. I finished it after studying independently. The same with high school. I got married at 18, and at least I graduated before then. I wouldn’t have been able to do it afterwards. I had duties to fulfil. I needed to buy my own things and help my husband. My priorities were my children and my home.

No matter how hard you work, you never manage to give them all they need.

I stopped working in the maquiladora because my son was killed six months ago. He had been involved in people smuggling. I was depressed, and life didn't make any sense. But the need is always there. I now clean houses once or twice a week. One way or another you have to get by. You never stop working.

The only thing that motivates me now is my grandchildren – my son’s children. One is two and the other is four. Sometimes I don't feel like taking a shower or getting up, but they make me get up. When they ask about their father, it makes me get going because I tell myself, ‘Their father is not here anymore. I have to keep going for them.’ My daughter-in-law lives with me. She’s 20 and works in a maquiladora, but those two children have a lot of needs.

I don’t have words to explain my son’s death. When my grandchildren ask when their father will wake up, it hurts so much. Some of my friends’ children have died and that felt horrible as a human being. But now that I’m going through it, it’s inexplicable. I feel mutilated, as if part of my body is missing. As if I’m incomplete.

No matter how hard you work, you never manage to give them all they need. They hang out with boys with nice clothes and shoes, and they also want those things. Sometimes they make bad decisions because of that. I gave birth to five children, and now I only have four – twin boys, another boy, and a girl. One of the twins got shot at the same incident where my son was murdered. The bullet cracked his jaw in five places. I had to borrow money to pay for both the funeral and the surgery. There was no option but to take out a loan from one of those banks that lend money at high rates to people like us. My son now he has a scar where the bullet went in, and he tells me he has no feeling in his mouth. He needs more medical attention, but Mr. Money is always the one who stops us.

Employers won’t hire them because of their tattoos and the colour of their skin.

The first time my sons tried to cross the border to make money they were 14 or 15 years old. They wanted, as they say, the ‘American dream’. They wanted to dress in nice clothes, to look like they belong. They wanted to help me because they saw the need at home. I told them I preferred to work myself, or that they should wait until they have reached the age to work because they could be risking their lives. But they have aspirations.

They didn’t tell me they were going to cross the border. If they had I wouldn’t have let them. I woke up that morning and went into their room looking for them, but they were not around. After a while I got a call. They had been detained by US immigration and repatriated. The local welfare office called to say I had to go pick them up.

I thanked God when I saw them again. I asked them why they had done it, and they said to help me. I then looked at their feet. ‘I need shoes, mom,’ they said. ‘I don't have any shoes. I wanted to buy new shoes.’ It makes me feel bad to say it, but they really were not wearing shoes – they were all worn out. As a mom, it hurts. You feel guilty because you could not give them what they need in the moment. It’s easy to point fingers, for the child protection advocates to say, ‘You, madam, don’t take care of them.’ They don’t know what I have to do, what my husband has to do, to support our children. If I were with them all the time I could not work. And if I did not work, I could not feed them.

People judge children like my sons. When they do smuggling, people say ‘Oh, they’re just looking for an easy way to make money.’ They see the tattoos and think my sons are criminals. But smuggling is not easy money. They could fall or drown, or run into somebody who just leaves them in the desert. They’re risking their lives.

They’re also judged when they aren’t involved in smuggling. My children have worked many jobs. They have done construction work. They’ve worked 9, 10 hours a day under the sun. They come back with dark skin, and then other employers won’t hire them because of their tattoos and the colour of their skin. It’s hard for them, and none of it is easy money.

It makes me angry as a mother, and it makes me angry with my children. I tell them, ‘Soon you will be able to work. There is work here in Juarez too. You don’t have to run before you know how to walk. Not everything in life is achieved from one day to the next. I didn’t have shoes before, but now, thank God, I do. One day you too will achieve your dream.’

My son, the one who was murdered, worked crossing people over. He told me that the US immigration agents put him in a room with a really hot, bright light. He said that he sweated and sweated, and then all of a sudden they put him in a freezing room with the air conditioning at full blast. He used to get sick because of those things, but he didn’t abandon the dream. He used to say, ‘I'm going to earn good money there, and I'm going to give it to you.’

I am always worried about my children when they are not at home. Always. I fear that they won't come back. I see on Facebook how many kids go missing here in Juarez and I feel the pain of those mothers. At least I saw my son again after he was killed. Those mothers who never see their children again will feel dead all their lives.

This story is part of a series of testimonies from children and mothers living in Ciudad Juárez, on the US-Mexico border. The children were all caught crossing into the US, either to pursue personal aspirations or to smuggle people, and are now receiving restorative justice services from the NGO Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción. The testimonies were prepared alongside DHIA's advocates and have been edited for clarity. The illustration of the speaker is a fictitious rendering produced by Carys Boughton (All rights reserved). The speaker's name has also been changed.

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