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Monday, June 21, 2004

Home News Tribune | For immigrant dads, Father's Day holds bittersweet times

Home News Tribune | For immigrant dads, Father's Day holds bittersweet times

By MICHELLE SAHN
STAFF WRITER
Eliud Hernandez, 29, often takes his 2-year-old to the park to play, but his only contact with his older child comes through the weekly phone calls that are his link to his homeland.

For David Molina, 41, Father's Day comes in a phone call every Sunday, when the North Brunswick man makes his weekly contact with his wife and three children in Acapulco.

The Mexican men came to the United States to work, and both send a portion of their salaries to their families across the border. But as dads across the United States celebrated yesterday, Hernandez and Molina are among the immigrants who received Father's Day well-wishes from their children through a phone call.

About 30 percent of immigrants here have children in their homeland, said Manuel Orozco, a senior researcher at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. His expertise is in Latino immigrants, although he said migrants from other areas, including Africa and Asian, are also often forced to leave their children in their native countries, sometimes for legal reasons, and other times, because of economics.

He said some years ago, it was more common for a father to leave his family behind, but now, more and more mothers are in the same situation.

"It's not necessarily because of legality, but it's because it's expensive," he said. "It's very expensive to bring and to have a family here when an income is limited. Sometimes they have to deal with the fact of keeping them abroad."

Most often, children stay with grandparents or aunts and uncles.

Historically, a portion of immigrant parents have always made their way to their adopted country alone. But today, those parents continue their contact with their homeland.

"It makes it harder in some ways," Orozco said. "Before you would leave and you were gone, and you had to make a complete break. Now, it's more or less a partial break. You're leaving, but at the same time, you're trying to continue the relationship."

Researchers at the Harvard Immigration Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education studied more than 400 immigrant children in the United States and found about 85 percent were separated from one or both parents during the migratory process, according to a 2001 report. About 35 percent of the children were separated from their fathers for more than five years, according to the study.

Molina moved to the United States about eight years ago and works in a restaurant, but he returns to Mexico every other year to visit his family. His wife, Augustina, has considered moving here with their three children, but her elderly father lives with them, and he does not want to leave his homeland.

But for Molina, leaving after last year's visit was difficult. His children accompanied him to the airport, but his wife would not go because she would have cried too much. But he cried too.

"It was really, really hard," said Molina. "It broke my heart."

But when he talks about his children, a wide grin spreads across his face and he describes their accomplishments with pride.

His youngest, Belem, 9, earns good grades, and his 12-year-old Irlanda reads poetry, is ranked second in her class and plays soccer well. His son, David Jr., 19, won a statewide speech competition, knows how to fix computers and wants to study engineering at college. Molina -- who is certified as a professional Mexican soccer referee -- said he is so proud of his son that he does not even mind that the teen prefers basketball over futbol.

"It's satisfactory to me, about my family," said Molina. "I'm coming over here for my family. I'm going to stay here for my (children.) I'm an old man now. . . .I'm over here, making the money for them. Everything is for my family."

He speaks to them on Sundays.

"They say 'Hello father,' " he said. "Father's Day -- it's every week."

Hernandez figures for every 10 Mexicans living in New Brunswick, seven have youngsters in their homeland.

He came to the United States when his wife, Amanda, was eight-months pregnant. Two years later, she joined him in New Brunswick, but the couple could not afford to bring their son, Jemsy, along. The 5-year-old lives with his grandparents -- Hernandez's in-laws -- in the state of Guerrero, although the couple hopes to eventually bring him here for an education.

"I would like to bring him, but it's hard," said Hernandez, a landscaper. "I only have one job. Kids are more expensive here. Everything is expensive. . . .If you don't (make) good money, you can't afford it. So you send money home because $100 -- you can multiple it (there.) It's the only way to save money."

Two years ago, the couple had another son here. Hernandez was with his wife when Edward was born, and he describes the first time the toddler called him "Daddy." He said he takes the little one to the park often and his wife fears he will love his younger son more than Jemsy.

"But I tell her that's not true," he said. "I have the same heart for both of them. I'm sad because, if one day, I go back to my country, and I see him, I'm afraid he won't recognize me as a father. It's very sad. Everything I do, I do for him."

His wife cries often because she misses her little boy. They call her parents every week.

"I only (felt) him in the stomach," he said. "I never saw him, only by picture. Every time I talk to him, he asks me, 'Who are you?' and that's sad."

But immigrant parents also worry about raising teens here, Hernandez said. If moms and dads are working two jobs, teens are often left home alone, and parents fear the children may turn to drugs, drinking and gangs.

"You can't watch them, and they start to turn the wrong way," he said. "It's not that you don't want to see your baby. But you've got to go to work. You've got to pay bills. Sometimes you work 16 hours a day. Sometimes (people) say, 'Where are the fathers?' They are at work. They have to work."

Sometimes, men who miss their families turn to bars and booze, trying to drink away their problems, Hernandez said. But he said, soccer is his solution to that temptation, and through an area league, he tries to help other dads as well.

"They don't find a solution (through alcohol) and they end up spending even more money," he said. "The next day, they feel the same way -- they start thinking about the babies. Soccer keeps you busy -- you don't have time to waste in bars."

Hernandez works during the week and on Saturdays. But every Sunday, he's up by 5 a.m. getting ready to referee games for the Casa Mexico Soccer Program until sundown, he said.

"We're working hard for the community," said Hernandez. "We try to keep the parents out of drinking and drugs, and that's the only weapon we have -- sports."

Hernandez said many parents bring their children to the United States for the educational opportunities it offers, while others send money home to give their kids a better shot at a prosperous future in their homeland.

"Sometimes, we don't have a choice," said Hernandez. "That's the only way for now. You have to sacrifice things to make things better."

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