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Parenting Across Borders

El Tren de la Muerte

by Erin Freeman

“El tren de la muerte” is the name Central American immigrants give to the freight train traveling north through Mexico that they ride, hoping to find a new life in the United States. The notorious train winds north from Tapachula, a Mexican city near the border with Guatemala, to Mexico City. Immigrants cling to the tops and sides of the cars in both the excruciating heat of the day and the bitter chill of the night. Included among the hundreds of Central American immigrants on these trains are children as young as seven. These children often have one goal in mind: to reunite with their mothers.

Desperate poverty drives thousands of Latinas to make the agonizing decision to leave their children and find work in the United States. Knowing that their families would starve if they did not find a steady source of income, women from all over Central America have left their homes to make the arduous journey north, sometimes without saying goodbye to their children to avoid the pain of a tearful separation.

Stories from friends and relatives describing “el Norte” mislead these mothers about the reality of work in the United States, and they frequently leave thinking they will either return or send for their children in about a year. Promises are made and broken, and the separation takes a serious toll on the mother, the children, and the family that is left to care for the children. The children left behind have only pictures and infrequent phone calls to connect them with their estranged mothers. As the time passes, the bonds between the parent and children are weakened, and mothers and children alike claim that they do not really know each other.

Although cell phones and computers have increased access to international communication, technology is a poor substitute for in-person interactions. Studies have shown that Latinas who were separated from their children were over one and a half times more likely to suffer from depression than those who lived with their children. These mothers witness birthday parties, graduations, and developmental milestones through pictures and retellings. When leaving, they expect to be away for a year at the most, but separations frequently extend into multiple years. In one study, Latina mothers reported that the length of time spent separated from their children was between 1 and 13 years. Some doubt they will ever see their children again.

Children left behind in their home countries also experience frustration resulting from the departure of their mother. Most often, at the time the mother departs, the children are still too young to understand why she is leaving. As they age, the children feel increasing pain at the absence of their mother. They are confused and assume that their mothers have abandoned them. These questions of abandonment breed frustration, anger, and resentment. “Why didn’t she love me enough to stay?” “Why doesn’t she come back?” Some children become withdrawn, reject their families, and turn to drugs and gangs. Other children are determined to move north themselves to end their separation. However, the journey north through Mexico is fraught with danger. Riding the trains leaves many amputated from failed attempts to board moving cars. Gang members and bandits patrol both the trains and train stops to rob, beat, or kill travelling immigrants. Mexican immigration authorities have many checkpoints and return a significant portion of travelers back to Guatemala, whose border towns are notorious for trafficking. Most children will never make it. Many lose their lives trying.

Some mothers are able to gather enough money to bring their children to the United States. Unfortunately, reunification is rarely the end of the emotional difficulties caused by the separation. Mothers and their children have each changed very much during their time apart and frequently describe the other as a stranger. Both the mother and child have dreamed of the day they would see each other again, and as a result, interactions can seem forced. Although relations may appear smooth in the weeks after reunification, resentment begins to surface on each side. The child is often still bruised from feelings of abandonment and lashes out. The mother is often frustrated at the child’s inability to recognize her sacrifice and feels that the child is ungrateful for her efforts. Presented with reality, it may seem impossible to recreate a strong bond between mother and child.

Short of widespread reform in socioeconomic policies in Central America or immigration policy in the US, little can be done to prevent the circumstances that compel Latina women to leave their children and travel north to find work. However, there are numerous organizations within the US that provide resources for mothers who are separated from their children. Latino organizations that are familiar with the depression common among mothers who are separated from their children can provide counseling within a comfortable and understanding environment. They also provide therapeutic services for the children to help deal with their many emotions and the family as a whole to assist in the reunification process.


Community organizations in the following major cities:

Boston: La Alianza Hispana

Chicago: Healthcare Alternative Systems

List of additional service providers in Chicago

New York: Hispanic Counseling Center

Los Angeles: Amanecer Community Counseling Services 

National: Catholic Charities

Local Latino community centers can also make referrals to counseling services.

Groundbreaking legislation is being drafted to establish a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the US. Included in the proposed legislation is a provision for travel permission for those who are currently undocumented. This travel permission would allow mothers to legally visit their children in their home country. Though it would not solve all problems caused by separations of mothers and children, this momentous change in policy would facilitate the desperately needed contact between families that would provide hope for Central American mothers and children to rebuild their relationships. The progress of this legislation is continuously updated by the Immigration Policy Center, a research center of the American Immigration Council.

Until this legislation becomes law, the most important step in easing tensions both during and after the separation is for the families to seek counseling. Seeking professional counseling is especially difficult in the Latino community in large part because of the stigma attached to issues of mental health. Many cultures view those in therapy as “crazy” or “weak”, labels that are contrary to those valued in their home countries. In addition, many clinics and mental health offices lack bilingual and multicultural therapists, resulting in a lack of confidence in the provider. However, competent counseling centers dedicated to providing resources specifically for Latinos exist in cities across the country and can assist families during their separation and reunification. Through therapy, parents and children will be able to communicate their frustrations in a safe environment and become more understanding of the emotions of their other family members. Families experiencing long-term separations are not alone and can work with professionals who have experience in these types of family living situations. Together, they may be able to rebuild strained relationships and reunite their families.


Has your family experienced separation due to immigration? How were you able to rebuild your relationships? Was therapy useful to you? Please tell us your story.


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