My mother, Dania, is eleven in this photograph. It was taken in the Dominican Republic in 1965, four years before my father married her and then brought her to New York City, separating her from her family. Her parents were the ones who made her do it, though she was still a child. They did it because it would eventually mean the rest of the family could immigrate, too.
This photograph is one of the few of my mother at that age. She’s wearing her Sunday dress and knee-high white socks. On her left are her three brothers: Rolando, Johnny, and Andres. On her right is her sister, Isabel, smiling, embraced by their father, who looks off in the same direction as the littlest brother. What are they looking at? Who else is there? They are all dressed up, so it’s either one of those rare planned visits or a festive occasion. Perhaps it was one of the many times my father would stop by with his entourage of brothers to woo my mother. On these visits, they were fed by my grandparents, who looked up to the brothers who traveled to New York City to work at restaurants, factories, and hotels. My grandmother would make my mother dress up and sit pretty for him. In this photograph, my grandmother, Leoncia, turns her body away from the camera, looking sternly toward my mother whose body is stiff, her arms long and straight, by her side. My mother’s dress is a little girl’s dress with its high waist, square neck, and puffed short sleeves. The hemline, midthigh, looks like she’s outgrowing it. My mother’s focused, soulful eyes look straight at the camera. What does she know? More to the point, who is she looking at?
I was reminded of this picture, and this moment in my mother’s life, the other week when children were separated from their parents in Mississippi during ICE’s largest statewide scoop in U.S. history. Eleven-year-old Magdalena Gomez Gregorio was captured crying on camera, advocating for the freedom of her father, who was taken away along with 679 other undocumented immigrants, many of whom had already established their lives in the United States. She’s wearing a striped pink-and-white T-shirt, her long dark hair pulled back away from her face. A 12 News microphone is recording her, most likely without parental consent. She says to the world about her father, “He’s not a criminal.” When I look at the video of Magdalena, I see a child who needs her parents.
My mother was eleven, Magdalena’s age, when my father first proposed to her, promising her a better life. What did she know? He was old enough to be her father. It’s possible that Magdalena’s father migrated to protect his daughter. My mother’s family was in such desperate financial circumstances that sending her away was better than keeping her, no matter what awaited her in the United States. In a flash, the innocence of both Magdalena and my mother was stolen. They were pushed into adulthood by forces greater than themselves, to fend for their lives.
People judge immigrant parents for putting their kids in danger when they undertake the journey to cross the border. For many years, I vilified my grandmother for marrying off my mother, for not giving her a choice, for coercing her to sacrifice her body, desire, and liberty. She was just a child. But then I think my grandmother was trying to save her. These parents today, like Magdalena’s, make difficult choices for their children.
In 1965, post-Trujillo Dominican Republic, during the occupation by the United States, my mother and her family lived in the countryside, Los Guayacanes. Trujillo’s thirty-one-year dictatorship systemically and culturally encouraged the notion that women are inferior to men. And the vulnerabilities women faced then are still real today. In the Dominican Republic, according to a 2014 report from Centro de Estudios Sociales y Demográficos (CESDEM), 20 percent of teenage girls are likely to become pregnant, and abortion is illegal. If employed, women get paid a fraction of what men are paid. One in three women, according to the UN stats, experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and the fourth leading cause of death is femicide. In 2017, UNICEF reported that one in ten girls are married or living with a partner before the age of fifteen. And World Bank reports that one-third of girls in Dominican Republic are married before they turn eighteen.
What my grandmother may not have known is that for women in the United States, the statistics aren’t much better when it comes to sexual assault, abuse, and violence: one in four girls are sexually abused; one in six women are victims of attempted raper or rape. Machismo in the United States is just as toxic. So why immigrate when it’s clear that immigrant women are vulnerable and largely unprotected no matter where they go?
Because of my mother, everyone in this family portrait immigrated to the United States. My mother, while working full-time in a factory, put herself through college and received a degree in accounting, which landed her a job at a small company where she worked for twenty-five years. My grandmother Leoncia, my grandfather Andres, and aunt Isabel, all worked in factories with health benefits and a union up until retirement. My uncle Johnny trained as a mechanic and received disability benefits until he passed away. The youngest in the photo, Rolando, earned multiple graduate degrees and currently works as a teacher in New York City.
I have an eleven-year-old child. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have no choice but to give him away, not knowing if or when I will see him again. I can’t imagine what it’s like not to have the power to protect my child.
What you cannot see by looking at the photograph:
You can’t hear the merengue or bolero music that undoubtedly plays from a small battery-operated radio. The sweet and rotten smells of passion fruit and mangoes that overwhelm the yard. The burning wood, the roasting potatoes, the faint scent of cow manure, the gamey goats tied up to the fence. You can’t see the hardwood dining room chairs that were brought out from inside so the visitors could sit. The pesky mosquitoes, the chirpy birds, the harsh sun, the thick humid air that makes everything sticky and salty. The tire swings, the rusted bikes, the loud freight trains carrying cane that rolled by the house. The dress my mother is wearing is yellow, not white. It was her one dress, a hand-me-down from her sister. She wore it for every special occasion.
My mother may not have escaped and I didn’t either—we are both survivors of abuse and assault. When my mother thinks about the sacrifices she has made, she says that at least we all have some financial stability and education. Sometimes she tells me things like, “What you can’t see is that we were dying of hunger,” and, “If it wasn’t for me where would my brothers be today?” Often, around the dinner table, when my father’s name comes up, my family will still praise him for saving them from a life of extreme poverty. I have to remind them that it was my mother who did all the paperwork and who saved money for all the immigration application fees.
More than fifty years after the photo of my mother was taken, I look at the video of Magdalena, pleading for help, from us, from politicians, from anyone. I think of the thousands of children being held in detention waiting to see if they will be deported or reunited with their families. So many girls are still forced to grow up quickly and make sacrifices and impossible choices. When you don’t have to look through the lens of desperation, it’s easy to question and condemn these so-called choices, but so often it’s children, girl children, who bear the burden.
When I look at this photo of my mother, I might be looking at her look at my father, the man who will bring her to America. I am looking at the eyes of a child who understands she has no choice in the matter. My mother has said that poverty and the will to survive gives you no choice. If it wasn’t my father, it could have been someone worse.
But also, what if she’s looking into the camera, a portal that can see far into the future, and who she is looking at is me? Can she, at eleven, see that one day she will live a life where she is not beholden to any man, that she will raise two children on her own, that her son will study physics and become an IT engineer and her daughter who will become a tenured professor and a published author?
What I wish to say to that girl, my mother as she was then, in this picture:
I am so sorry for all you will lose to give me what I’ve got. I am forever grateful. And still you deserve more. Our girls deserve more. Our children deserve more.
Angie Cruz is the author of Dominicana, forthcoming in September. She is the editor of Aster(ix) journal and founder of the @dominicanasnyc visual archive on Instagram.