‘Unconventional’ Mothers: Latina Immigrants in the Early & Late 20th Century U.S.

During women’s history month, I highlighted not only trailblazing, pioneering, “noteworthy” or famous women, but also controversial, lesser-known, and everyday women. All women have been a part of history and, like men, deserve to be remembered, documented, studied, and presented in all of their complicated, multifaceted glory. Today’s post explores the ultimate woman in many people’s lives: the mother. But not just any mother, the Latin American immigrant mother of the early 20th century, who sacrificed much for the improvement of her children’s lives. This post also explores the differences and similarities between Latina immigrant mothers in the early 1900s and those of the 1990s who were more often not just working mothers but also transnational mothers.

In the early 20th century in the United States, the ideal mother was one who stayed at home as a homemaker. Immigrant mothers (as well as working class women of all races and nationalities) often did not meet the criteria of what Americans saw as the ideal mother because they were working women. Having a job outside of the home or bringing work into the home made these women unable to perform the role of full-time mother, according to the American society at the time.

In early twentieth century America the family was the woman’s sphere; therefore, women were expected to be home-makers and full-time mothers. “Americanizers,” those who worked to assimilate immigrants into American culture during this time, saw women as the key to the assimilation of entire families, but first the women must be made into the traditional mothers of American society. However, most immigrant mothers could not follow these traditional standards because they needed to have a job, take in boarders, do work from home, or send their children to work in order to make ends meet. Being a working mother made these women incapable of living up to America’s standards of the “perfect mother.”

CarmenEscobar.cr_
UCAPAWA negotiating committee, including labor leader Luisa Moreno, far left, and Carmen Bernal Escobar, third from left with hands around her son Alfred.

Economically, these women simply could not afford to be “ideal” mothers.  In 1920, immigrant women made up just slightly less than half of all the female wage-earners in the United States, despite being in the minority in overall population. Most of these immigrant women worked in either manufacturing factories or in domestic service. Many other women worked at home, producing goods for manufacturers from their own kitchen or living room rather than in a factory. Sometimes, these immigrant mothers also included their children in their work as helpers or occasionally even as extra wage-earners for the family. The advantage of working from home was that mothers could still spend time with their children. Working at night was another option some mothers chose so they could still be at home for their children during the day.

Another way many immigrant women made money was by taking in boarders. Usually, the boarders were friends or extended relatives and were normally men, who were more likely to immigrate alone. These boarders provided women a way to both help friends or family and make extra money for the household.

Work, be it outside the home or from it, was considered outside of the traditional role of women. Boarders also violated the average American’s idea of the home and women’s roles in it. Many Americans worried that the male boarders would act inappropriately toward young daughters of the household. This fear was not entirely unfounded, but did represent a difference between American and immigrant families. It was less common for American families to have extended family or friends living with them; however, to immigrant families this was necessary to help others make the transition as immigrants, help they had probably received from someone else upon their arrival in the United States.

The reason that women would exert themselves, both at work and at home, was that “they saw their children as the main beneficiaries of their endless, exhausting labors.” Immigrant women’s main goal was to provide for their children. But because of the need to engage in economic activities for the family, immigrant women had to find other ways make sure their children were cared for. Immigrant women made use of family ties to help provide for their children, utilizing their kin and their older daughters to provide child care so that they could continue providing financial support.

Kinship was and remains very important among immigrants for many reasons. Kinship networks were important for the facilitation of immigration and transition to the United States. Already established immigrant families would allow newcomers to live with them while they became oriented to the United States. This arrangement often caused two or more entire families to live in one home. In return for allowing the family to live there, the arriving mother would help the hosting mother. One mother would work outside the home, while the other mother stayed home and took care of the children. Thus the children were still well-cared for even if their mother had to work.

Another example of using family ties to help provide care for young children was that of “little mothers.” This child-care practice involved immigrant mothers having their older daughters tend to their younger siblings so that the mother could return to her other domestic duties or work. The use of “little mothers” prompted Americans to allege neglect of the immigrant children, and demonstrates another way in which immigrant mothers differed from the American ideal mother. Immigrant mothers saw the practice of “little mothers” as beneficial because it fostered sibling bonding and taught young girls an important life skill. Through the help of other family members and kinship ties, immigrant mothers were able to better provide for their children economically and ensure they were well-cared for.

Children of immigrant mothers often saw their mothers as strong and not neglectful, as Americans often insinuated. Children also acknowledged all of the sacrifices that their mothers had made in order to provide for them. A mother’s sacrifices in order to provide for her children’s needs communicated her love to her children.  While American society at the time looked down on working immigrant mothers, these women sacrificed their own rest, well-being, and personal time and money in order to provide for their children’s needs. They also made careful arrangements to help ensure that their children received care. They either combined work with their domestic activities by taking on jobs that allowed them to be home with their children, or they used their close family ties to secure the care of their children.

More recently, Latina immigrants have violated the traditional idea of motherhood by being transnational mothers, working in the United States while their children remain in their home country.  In early Latin American immigration history the majority of immigrants were men, whose wives and children may have followed later, but in the past few decades there has been a trend of mothers immigrating to the United States without their children. These women who live and work in one country while their children live in another are called transnational mothers. In one study, forty percent of the domestic workers who had children were living in a separate country. The transnational mothers of more recent decades have used financial means, transnational ties, and communication to provide needs, culture, and encouragement to their children.

Economic need is the main reason why women decide to immigrate to the United States. National economic decline, lack of job options for both men and women, or civil war in the country of origin are the most common conditions which cause many transnational mothers to immigrate to the United States. Usually Latina mothers plan to spend only a certain amount of time in the United States so that they can save enough money to achieve a certain goal such as pay off debt, buy a house, pay for their children’s education, or be able to start a new business when they return to their home country. Some women, however, do not want their children to live in the United States because of fears about safety of travel to the U.S., loss of culture, and economic difficulty, among others.

Some women migrated to the United States to join a husband who was unsuccessful at finding lasting work. In the late 1990s there was a high demand for live-in housekeepers in cities such as Los Angeles, making female immigrants more likely to secure a job quickly than male immigrants.

Transnational mothers rely on family ties in their home country for the care of their children while they are away. Even though the children’s basic needs will be provided for by family ties back home, the transnational mother provides financial support, and advice and encouragement. Continued communication is the key to maintaining close emotional bonds between mother and children. Letters, photos, phone calls, and occasional visits, if circumstances allow, facilitate a sustained connection and relationship between transnational mothers and their children.

Many transnational mothers experience feelings of depression and mental anguish while away from their children. In one mental health clinic, it was found that many Latin American patients’ mental illnesses, such as depression, were accentuated by or stemmed from separation from their families.

Many transnational working mothers were traditional homemakers before coming to the United States. They had been accustomed to being home and seeing their children every day, but felt that they had to sacrifice that part of their lives in order to provide for their children. By providing financial support, using family networks, and maintaining communication, transnational immigrants of the recent decades have managed to sustain relationships with their children.

While the working immigrant mothers of the early twentieth century and the transnational mothers of the late twentieth century are thought of as nontraditional for different reasons, they share many similarities. Both sets of mothers stood out to American society as imperfect types of mothers, and faced economic hardship and necessity as the reasons they could not be traditional mothers. Immigrant mothers of the early twentieth century had to work to support the family financially while transnational mothers left their children in order to pursue better economic opportunities in the United States. Both sets of mothers looked to the United States for the answer to economic difficulties. The difference is that early twentieth century immigrant mothers mostly immigrated with their families or followed their husbands to the United States, while more recent decades have seen immigrant women arriving on their own. Because these immigrant women also share similar socioeconomic backgrounds, transnational mothers were essentially working mothers as well; however, they were working mothers during an era where that practice was much more common. These immigrant women of different eras also have another thing in common: the reliance on family and kin networks, which gave mothers the ability to earn money for the family and the reassurance that their children were being cared for.

A majority of immigrant women cite their children’s needs as their reason for migration. What is the main similarity between the early twentieth century working mother and the twenty-first century transnational mother? Both have found that the definition of mother does not have to be confined to narrow limitations. A mother is a woman who cares deeply for the well-being of her children. As demonstrated, the ways in which a mother shows her love for her children can vary immensely given differing circumstances.

*This post adapted from an paper I wrote for a class entitled History of Latinos in the United States.*

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