Migrant Mothers and Divided Homes: Perceptions of Immigrant Peruvian Women about Motherhood

Article excerpt


While migration is a phenomenon characterized by extensive amounts of data world-wide, migratory flows have been adopting new forms in recent decades, in terms of both direction and composition. The direction has shifted from "north-to-south" in overseas migration to one of "south-to-north" in labor migration in the context of recent globalization. In terms of composition, migratory flows have ceased to be predominantly masculine, with increasing numbers of women who migrate mainly to cities in search of better opportunities (Martinez, 2008; Stefoni, 2003).

Some of the factors that apparently explain voluntary female migration are pressures in the social or family environment, political crisis and economic crisis. There are also cultural factors emerging from the daily life of migrant women that act as push-factors for leaving, among which we can mention domestic violence, sexual abuse, sexism and other practices that set limits to their personal development (Cortes, 2005).

In the case of Peruvian migration to Chile, the feminization of migration is particularly significant. Peruvian women have gone from accompanying men in labor migration to being primary actors in migration. Of all Peruvians living in Chile, 60% are women. In terms of the areas of labor activity, Peruvian women are highly concentrated in domestic service (43%), representing almost 80% of all foreigners who work in this area (Martinez, 2003). According to data drawn from the 2002 Chilean census, 73% of Peruvian women in the country are between the ages of 20 and 40, which coincide with the life stages of sexual fertility and active participation in the labor force. This suggests that there are a high percentage of young women among female migrants, possibly mothers of small children. However, to these data we must add a low percentage of children (9%), revealing that Peruvian women in Chile tend to leave their children in Peru, as a strategy--perhaps the most extreme--to reconcile the demands of work (in this case, formulated at the transnational level) and the demands of family life. (2)

The feminization of migration emerges precisely in the context of recent globalization, where the principal motivation for migration is work, and when the market and its demands have transcended national limits. With globalization, traditional feminine labor markets have been revitalized at the international level, as in the cases of domestic service and prostitution, as a consequence of which thousands of women have decided to migrate alone in search of better economic conditions (Ariza, 2004). (3) Many migrant women are young single mothers or are acting as the main provider of their households (Cortes, 2005). Their leaving produces transformations in the family organization and structure, which tend to be more profound than when men migrate (Martinez, 2008).

This article addresses one of these transformations, specifically that concerning the relationship between mother and child. The hypothesis that orients this article is that when the migrant woman is a mother, her leaving and the consequent geographical distance from her children create a challenge of the culturally inherited image of motherhood, in which the physical presence of the mother is a central element. This challenge is interpreted as a cultural tension. In this sense, the article asks how migrant mothers resolve the struggle or tension between images and practices that is produced by transnational migration. To respond to this question, we explore the meaning that is assigned to motherhood by both Peruvian migrant women in Chile whose children are far from them and women without children. Some specific practices are also identified through which migrant mothers exercise motherhood from afar.

Firstly, some aspects contained in the idea of motherhood, understood as a historic and social construction are presented, as well as the perceptions of migrant women about motherhood (I). …


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