Wednesday, June 23, 2004

A Great Familial Divide

A Great Familial Divide

7:56 PM PDT, June 22, 2004 E-mail story Print
A Great Familial Divide
As one family's ordeal illustrates, child custody conflicts are vastly complicated when the U.S.-Mexican border separates the parties.

By Jennifer Mena, Times Staff Writer

GUANAJUATO, Mexico — One night as she was practicing her penmanship, 10-year-old Daniela Cazares overheard her grandmother and uncle talking in hushed tones in the bedroom next door.

Her mother had called, she heard them say. She had threatened to kidnap Daniela and bring her back across the border to Southern California.

"If my mom loves me, why would she do this?" Daniela recalls wondering.

Daniela was born in Orange County — 2,000 miles from this city of Colonial churches and winding cobblestone streets. Her mother, Maria Gutierrez, who works as a $14-an-hour nanny in Tustin, sent her to Mexico nine years ago when she felt overwhelmed by financial worries and health problems.

Now, Gutierrez wants the girl back. Her grandmother, Maria del Carmen Ramirez, will not let her go.

Ramirez and other relatives have decided Daniela is better off in Mexico than she would be in the United States, where they fear she could be lured into a world of drugs and sex.

Gutierrez, 37, has few legal avenues to get her daughter back. She said she made the kidnapping threat out of desperation, never intending to do any such thing.

Many immigrant parents are waging similar cross-border child custody battles with their families, according to Mexican government officials and U.S. legal experts. No one has an accurate tally because the complaints are not filed in courtrooms; instead, they fester unresolved for years, exacting a heavy emotional toll.

Families quarrel over which country provides a better quality of life and whether an aunt, grandmother or neighbor can truly replace a mother.

The custody disputes are commonplace — and destructive, said Jorge A. Bustamante, a professor of sociology at the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana and an expert on migration.

"When children are separated from their parents, we are creating problems that can potentially affect the communities where these children live," he said. "Every child deserves to be with their mother, if that mother is kind and loving."

Battling relatives don't turn to the courts for various reasons. It is expensive. They find it distasteful to air family feuds before a judge. And many — like Gutierrez — won't pursue litigation in the United States because they are here illegally.

"This is a cancer affecting Mexican families, and it's spreading," said Miguel Ortiz Haro, the Mexican consul in Santa Ana. "We are seeing more and more cases like these, and there's very little we can do to bring parents and children together again."

Gutierrez settled in Orange County after a hair-raising trip across the border. She disguised herself as a boy and joined a group of young men dashing across the desert at night.

She gave birth to a son in 1989 but soon left the child's father to marry another man — Guadalupe Cazares, who treated the boy as his own.

In 1994, five months after Daniela was born, Cazares was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. Gutierrez feared her husband, who had struggled with alcoholism, would be in jail for months. She had no job at the time and had been suffering seizures.

She worried that she would be unable to feed her children. So she sent Daniela and her half-brother, Dany, to stay with her mother in Mexico.

Cazares, it turned out, was released within days, and Gutierrez asked her mother to return the children. Home, she said, was Orange County.

"My mother obviously didn't see it that way," Gutierrez said. "Once I began asking for them back, she kept putting me off. 'Just let them finish this school year, just a little while longer,' she'd say."

By 2000, Gutierrez had been working as a nanny for several years, and her seizures were under control. She said she told her mother that if Dany, then 10, wasn't returned, Cazares would divorce her.

The grandmother permitted a family friend to bring the boy back to the United States, where he now lives with his mother and stepfather in a two-bedroom apartment in Orange.

Ramirez, 63, said she relented because Dany wanted to see his mother: "He knew her. He remembered her," Ramirez said. "Daniela was another story, though."

Ramirez said the girl has never known her mother. She refuses to let her go to Orange County even for a visit.

"This girl is not a billiard ball meant to be tossed from one place to another," Ramirez said. "If her mother is so interested in her, she should try to know the girl first. She should come here."

Gutierrez said that would put her way of life at risk: She would have to leave her job, her husband and the couple's two other children — Marisol, 7, and Gabriela, 8 months. The journey back would require a risky, illegal reentry to the United States. Moving back to Mexico for good would mean starting over.

Ortiz Haro, the Mexican consul, has tried to help Gutierrez. He contacted Ramirez several months ago, hoping to persuade her to send Daniela back to the United States. The grandmother wouldn't hear of it. He said she handed the phone to a lawyer, who informed him that Daniela would stay in Mexico.

More recently, the consul asked Mexican child welfare authorities to intercede with Ramirez.

The grandmother and other relatives say Gutierrez caused the rift, and it is up to her to heal it.

"It seems that if she wants it bad enough, she could do something to get her [immigration] papers and come for [visits with] her daughter," said her sister, Leticia Gutierrez Ramirez, 42.

Maria del Carmen Ramirez sees her daughter's life as a rejection of their nationality and of Mexico.

Gutierrez "has no reason to be there," said Ramirez. "She is there because she wants to be. We are not rich here, but we are not bad off. We have comfortable lives. She is there on a whim now."

The story is familiar to many immigrants from Mexico.

Ofelia Jimenez, 29, has been fighting with a sister for 10 years to regain custody of her 10-year-old son, Esteban. She said left the infant with her sister in Mexico City when she decided to make a new life in the United States.

"She's made the determination that I'm not a fit mother," Jimenez said of her sister. "Who is she to decide that?"

Jimenez, who is in the United States illegally, returned to Mexico to visit the boy in 2002 — but said her sister wouldn't let her in the house. She paid a smuggler $3,000 to help her return to the United States to be with her husband and toddler son in Orange County, where she worked in a clothing factory before quitting to raise her family.

She said her sister changed her phone number and Jimenez can no longer reach her, or her son.

Other custody fights are focused north of the border, in efforts to return immigrant children to Mexico.

Sergio Bravo, 36, said his wife, Sandra, took his three children — now 11, 14, and 15 — from Michoacan to Denver with another man two years ago.

"I didn't want to file a complaint because it would cause more trauma for our children and more problems," Bravo said.

Determined to live with his children again, Bravo crossed illegally into California last year and made his way to Santa Ana, where a sister helped him get a job at a clothing factory.

Bravo phoned his wife but could not persuade her to relinquish the children. Nor could he afford to travel to Colorado. He finally got lucky when his oldest son, Sergio Jr., visited a friend of a cousin in Santa Ana.

Now, father and son have become reacquainted, and Bravo hopes to arrange for them to return to Mexico together.

"In Mexico, he studied and they had the support of family," said Bravo. "Here, there are many bad influences. I want to take him back to Mexico."

Bravo said he had no idea whether he would ever be reunited with his two younger children.

From Guanajuato's Juan B. Diosdad Elementary School No. 6, Daniela Cazares walks home in her woolen knee-high socks, pleated blue uniform skirt, white ruffled blouse and red bow.

Her black, bobbed hair shines in the hot Mexican sun. A half block later, she makes a beeline for the back of the family's variety store and smooths her skirt out as she sits on the arm of a large chair.

"I really don't even know who she is," Daniela said of her mother. "I only have seen photos of her face. I wonder what her hands look like. I want to be with her. I just don't want to go to the United States."

She and her grandmother live in the back of a shop, selling clothes, sodas and snacks. On an upper floor, an uncle runs an Internet cafe. Her room is an alcove with a curtain.

Barbie dolls sit on compact disks. Larger dolls and stuffed animal toys wait on the bed. She likes Nintendo games and a popular television variety show. She takes English lessons from a private tutor twice a week.

Other days, she plays with cousins, and three pets: Bola the dog, Meow the cat and Bucho, a fish.

On a dresser sits a tiny photo of her mother, taken when Gutierrez herself was about 10.

Sometimes, Daniela talks to her mother by telephone. But other times, Ramirez won't give her granddaughter the phone, saying the youngster is too upset by her mother's calls.

After overhearing the conversation about the kidnapping threat, Daniela said nothing to her grandmother, the two later recalled. The girl waited until Ramirez went to sleep, then began to cry. Her grandmother, awoken by the sound of Daniela's weeping, arose to comfort the girl.


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