By Gabrielle Rabon, Medill, Immigrant Connect
Nina Rivera* sits on the streets of Matamoros, Mexico. She hasn’t eaten in days. Yet she’s continued to breastfeed her infant son. Her arms ache from carrying her baby, and she’s exhausted from the long journey.
The baby, five months old when they began the journey from their hometown of El Progreso, Honduras, is crying. He has a fever and is covered in sores. Rivera has neither money nor connections, so she’s resorted to begging in the street to afford medical care. The people of Matamoros, seeing her beg, give her enough to bring her child to the doctor.
Matamoros is just one stop on Rivera’s three-month-long journey to the United States. Though it took place many years ago, Doris says her journey feels like yesterday. She left her home country of Honduras in April, 2000, carrying her infant son in her arms.
Rivera traversed three countries on her way to the United States—Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico—while caring for her baby. Day and night she nursed him, bathed him, bought him diapers. She smiles now recalling how another mother on the journey noticed that no matter how hungry Rivera herself was, she always managed to produce milk for her baby.
She never considered staying in Guatemala because there was similar economic inequality there. Had she been unable to cross the border into the U.S., Rivera would have stayed in Mexico.
Despite all this, Rivera says, voice cracking, she felt like a bad mother. She brought her baby on a long and arduous journey, putting him at risk. She initially left her daughter in Honduras. She tries to reconcile this with the belief that she was doing what was best for her family.
“I couldn’t abandon my responsibility to my family who couldn’t do this themselves, so I decided to risk it all and I came [to the United States],” Rivera says. She didn’t want her children to grow up in the vicious cycle of poverty.
According to the World Bank, Honduras faces great economic inequality. Its poverty rate is at 17.2%, the second-highest in Latin America.
Rivera says that she believes politicians’ greed causes the inequality, that the political leaders are so invested in getting re-elected, they’ve lost sight of the people they represent. “No hay nada” for the poor, she says: there is nothing.
“I didn’t have a stable job. I didn’t have a decent house. I didn’t have a dignified life, which all human beings deserve,” Rivera says. “I believe that to be human means I deserve something better, and I deserve to give something better to my children.” When, at 34, she had this realization, she decided to leave.
Rivera left her then 16-year-old daughter behind because of how dangerous she knew the journey would be. Rivera also left behind her brothers and extended family, whom she now supports financially as best she can.
Rivera says their journey was incredibly difficult. At different points throughout the journey, she walked. Her child became sick or cried because he needed a bath or rest. Rivera often slept in the streets, streets just like those in which she begged in Matamoros.
From Matamoros, Rivera and her baby travelled to the U.S. border, where she discovered that the person she’d paid to help her on her journey would not help her cross because she no longer had enough money. She improvised, attempting to cross on her own.
Her first attempt was around midnight. Rivera crossed the Rio Grande alone first, scouting the path she was to take with her son. However, Rivera didn’t see the border patrols agents among the reeds along the river. They brought her back to Mexico, leaving her baby lying in the mud. She was able to find him soon after, still wrapped in his blanket, wet but not crying.
She managed to get across on the third attempt. Two men helped her cross safely into Brownsville with her son. She and her son wandered in Texas. She was unsure of where to go, until she was picked up by Border Patrol and brought to immigration officials who interrogated her for seven hours, not believing the child was her son.
“Do you want to rest or do you want to leave today?” Rivera recalls the officer asking her at the end of the interrogation. She thought he meant she was being returned to Honduras, but instead he brought her to a Greyhound station and handed her a document giving her passage to Chicago.
Rivera doesn’t fully understand why she wasn’t deported, but she says she believes it was because she came with her baby. Rivera says she didn’t know at the time that bringing her child would keep her from getting deported. It’s not why she brought him.
“I brought him because he’s my son, and I didn’t want to leave him behind.”
Since then, Rivera says, times have been difficult. She cleans houses and cares for children, but hasn’t been able to find much work.
“I’m not going to say I’ve gone forward like I wanted. I haven’t really, but I’m not complaining.”
In the years since Rivera came to the U.S., her daughter was able to come to the U.S. legally and gain citizenship because Rivera’s husband is a U.S. citizen.
Rivera says regardless of any hardship she faces in the U.S., it could never be as difficult as in Honduras. Here, her children can be just like any other, and they will not face the extreme poverty they did in Honduras.
The path hasn’t become any easier for women immigrating to the United States in the way she did, Rivera says. “The path is equally difficult. The political, social and economic situations…the extreme poverty in our countries… it hasn’t changed,” she says. “When I immigrated, it was very difficult. It wasn’t better then and it isn’t better now.”
Rivera has opened up about her past, working with Familia Latina Unida/Sin Fronteras, a community and advocacy group in Chicago that deals with immigration.
“I’m still undocumented, but I’m not afraid.” she said. “If I were afraid, I’d lose. I’m confident that it will all be okay, and there will be changes for us.”
All quotes have been translated from Spanish.
* Name has been changed to protect source’s identity.