Mothering across Borders: Narratives of Immigrant Mothers in the United States

By Hewett, Heather | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Mothering across Borders: Narratives of Immigrant Mothers in the United States


Hewett, Heather, Women's Studies Quarterly


Over the past several decades, motherhood has gained a heightened visibility in U.S. popular culture. A combination of disparate phenomenon - the increased media coverage of celebrity moms, the development of targeted marketing strategies, the appearance of "mommy lit" and "mommy memoirs," the prominence of mama bloggers in cyberspace, and the growing political advocacy of mother's rights - has propelled increasing numbers of images of motherhood, as well as mothers' voices, into the public sphere. Many of the books, magazines, essays, websites, and blogs penned by mothers have reflected the full complexity of mothers 'lives and experiences, thus challenging cultural narratives about what it means to be a "good" mother (Hewett 2006a, 2006b). Yet despite this outpouring, and despite evidence of a growing diversity among the mothers who are writing and speaking, few if any of these narratives reflect the experiences of immigrant mothers.

During the same period of time, quite a few negative images of immigrants have surfaced. These images have a longer history; as scholars such as Leo Chavez (2001, 2007) and Katrina Irving (2000) argue, racist images of, and mythologies about, immigrants have circulated throughout the twentieth century. The 1980s and 1990s have been marked by the flourishing of a "new nativism" movement that has publicly voiced multiple objections to immigration, particularly from Latin America (Perea 1997; Chavez 1997). This recent surge of anti- immigration sentiment has focused on immigrant women's bodies, most of all those of Mexican immigrant women (Chavez 1997, 2007). The resulting narratives in the popular media portray immigrant women (particularly their reproductive rates) as posing "serious threats to the nation" (Chavez 2007, 87) - a nation that continues to be defined by Anglos, its "legitimate" citizens (88). Chavez (2007) further observes that anti -immigrant discourses and images do not simply remain in the popular realm but can have real political consequences. Indeed, since 9/11, increased consciousness about national security has led to stepped-up deportations, increased workplace raids, increased border security, the construction of hundreds of miles of a border wall, the confinement of undocumented immigrants in detention centers, the separation of families, and incidents of human rights violations. Given this hostile climate, one can understand the obstacles preventing immigrant mothers from sharing their stories - as well as the need for them.

One exception to this silence lies in the ongoing research by a group of feminist social scientists studying gender and migration, who not only have begun to analyze and theorize the experiences of immigrant women but also have started to collect personal narratives from many of their subjects. Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo and Ernestine Avila (2007) identified the increasing phenomenon of "transnational motherhood," the practice of mothers living and working in different countries from those of their children, thus resulting in a "care deficit" in many third world/global South nations (Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2003, 8). These scholars are examining the impact of transnational mothering on families as well as on mothers themselves, asking whether the practice of taking on new duties as breadwinners enables immigrant mothers to break free of oppressive ideologies of motherhood - or whether gendered ideologies remain rigid and unforgiving, demanding performances of "supermothering" across the borders of time and space (Parreñas 2005, 103).

As a feminist literary critic, I have found much of this research instructive and useful. Indeed, the insights provided by social science, on the one hand, and cultural productions such as literature and film, on the other, can prove quite illuminating when considered together. Literary studies reminds us that creative texts do not provide transparent windows onto the world, but rather individually crafted frames that require us to ask questions about issues of representation and interpretation - to think about how we see in addition to what we see. …

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