Little Flower and her Transnational Family
“Good morning my Little Chuño Flower!” says grandpa to the reddish curly hair baby girl. Chuño is a dried potato, so chuño flowers don´t exist. The six young aunts and uncles to the child laugh at grandpa for this. But grandpa knows best. The three year old girl is the iris of his eyes, he loves her more than he has loved any of his sons and daughters… and he has seven of them!
Every morning at five, the girl comes to his bed and, being the first granddaughter of the family, takes over the middle space between him and grandma, who giggles at her daring granddaughter’s morning deed. She loves the baby so much, that she agreed to take care of her while her mother migrated abroad to make some money and come back. Her second son also left to Europe when he was seventeen. Little Flower’s Grandma takes care of her during the day, while grandpa and all aunts and uncles play with her all day.
“Bamba, bamba, to go to heaven you need two staircases, one big and one small…” is the way the song goes while Little Flower moves her behind. The happy girl is delicious when she dances, and being loved by everyone, little can they tell how much harm life will do to her when she grows up. This is her fate, loved by everyone, cared by grandpa and grandma (who she calls daddy and mommy), but no mom or dad to take responsibility directly. Dad died when she was two, and mom fled abroad in search of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
In the meantime, no one knows of her mourning for her mom, or the many times she gets hungry and does not ask for food… because food at night is “only for the uncles”, as men need it more than women. Or the times that her aunts make clothes for themselves and tell her that her mom didn´t send money yet, so she doesn´t deserve anything new. Money is scarce and feeding seven kids has been really hard for the young grandparents, who were also urged to leave their small rural village to the big city, looking for better education, better housing… better lives for their children.
Little Flower is intelligent and begins school. Her youngest aunt, five and half years older than her, goes to school and Little Flower wants to go with her; so they sign her up in first grade instead of pre-K. There is no milk for her, so she takes coffee with grandpa in the mornings. When she has an extracurricular activity at school, Little Flower doesn´t attend, or she is left at school until one of the family members can leave work to fetch her. Long hours sitting alone at the doorstep of the school building, by herself, waiting. Sometimes she cries, but she is sure this will get better when Mom comes back, with money, with love in her arms, with enough time to take care of her. She loves mom and misses her. She usually stays alone at home, and when everyone is playing, she hides. She is afraid of everything, and she doesn´t know why.
Little Flower’s mind soars when she hears an airplane go by. At school she uses the physical education class to lay in the grass and watch the blue skies. She dreams that her mother is thinking of her. She can almost feel the touch of her mother in the sun bathing her face. These relaxed moments are only stopped by the reality of the PE teacher shouting at her to go back to work, and by the other children, most of them two and even three years older than her, who can´t understand why this girl is so timid and barely speaks.
She was only three when her mom left and she became granny’s little girl, but she never forgets. How could she. These were the happiest moments of her life, until life went on to show her she was alone in the world, more so when Mom came back and got married and had two kids when she was 13. Mom’s husband was a nightmare. She didn´t want to let him beat her mom, and mom sent her back to living with granny, at her oldest sister´s home, because she thought she was safer there. Little Flower’s oldest auntie was an angel. She took her in and fed her, she was like a second mother to Little Flower, until she got tired of the teenager. Too much trouble for her already troubled life. Grandpa, her daddy, could not bear seeing her suffer. He passed away when she was only 20. He was 62.
Little Flower always felt guilty for not turning into the woman he wanted her to be. He thought that she would study, be professional, lead a good life and then get married. Instead she got married out of nowhere at the age of seventeen. She didn´t tell him she was marrying because she knew he would not give his permission. The day she received a call telling her daddy was in the hospital, she knew he would pass away. She couldn´t stop crying. She kneeled by his hospital bed asking for forgiveness. He said not to worry, he would always love her. She didn´t want to leave him, but two babies needed her at home. When he passed away, she cried so much that her family had to grab her and take her away from his coffin, she wanted to be buried too. She couldn´t stop crying. And when her eyes dried up, her heart kept weeping, for ten long years.
Little Flower lived a life that most of her family members, and society in general, blamed her for. They all thought that she should have known better. She should have never accepted to get married, she should have studied instead. Twenty five years later she has not been forgiven by her family, or by her society. She fled away from all the blaming 15 years ago. She had kept weeping in her heart, but the memory of daddy gave her the strength to go to college, with her two kids in her arms, finishing with top grades. Hard times that make her proud. Mommy passed away when she had been living in a smaller city for five years already. God’s gift to her. If she loved daddy, she was ten times more fond of mommy. She was not present in her funeral, thank God.
Where were her mother’s three uncles and three aunts that shared Little Flower’s girlhood when she turned a rebellious teenager who got married? Leading their own lives. Trying to cope with their own families. Some of them went abroad, some went to live to other Bolivian cities. Only two aunts and her mother stayed in La Paz, where the oldest sister of all died from cancer. Mommy spent her last days living with grandchildren from the deceased daughter. Her mother and her aunts stopped talking to Little Flower for about three years back when she got married. Only the deceased aunt was more merciful and helped her out in many hard times.
Was Little Flower’s Life Predictable?
Everyone thought Little Flower was to be blamed for everything that happened to her. Of course everyone didn´t read the last report on migration released by the International Labor Organization, that you can download from here. Social scientists and economists from this organization have gathered data that shows how the pattern of Little Flower’s life is the same for other five million Bolivian girls living in the country and abroad. This story repeats itself over and over again, and we are now witnessing what happens in nations whose women migrate, leaving girls adrift in a harsh world, in search of better paid jobs, and it has been so for the last 50 years.
Let’s see the findings of the ILO and how Little Flower’s life has followed the pattern nearly a hundred percent :
Note: These numbers refer to the year 2000. Ciphers have changed by now, only to worsen the situation, especially in Bolivia, but the local institutions called to render official information in this matter, such as the National Statistics Institute and the National Elections Organization, have not released official numbers since 2006. This study was chosen because it is comprehensive for Latin America.
- Latin America in general is experiencing a high level of migration, with 3.8% of its total population leaving, while it is only receiving 1.0% of newcomers. The country with more migrants is El Salvador, with 14,5% of its population migrating every year. Bolivia is the highest exporter of labor in South America, though. As shown in the graph enclosed, migration is higher in Central America than in South America, being the central part of the continent poorer in general. The two poorest countries of the region are Haiti (Central America) and Bolivia (South America), with percentages of 6.4 and 4.1 respectively.
Bolivia has been exporting its best people since the 1950s. We have reached a point where there is the same amount of Bolivian people living outside than inside the country, and people who stay also migrate internally. The girl of the story, Little Flower, has also migrated fleeing from the disapproval of her family, that never forgave her marriage.
- Higher numbers of single parent homes, as only 30% of urban households keep the regular two parent nuclear form of the family. Single parent homes are mostly run by women.
Little Flower’s home was a single parent household, run by her mother. When her mother left to work, she had to stay with her grandparents, and five of her mother’s six siblings, as the sixth brother was already living abroad.
- Advancement in the demographic transition between rural and urban areas. This process is taking to a reduction of fecundity levels and a change in the population pyramid of the countries. The proportion of older people rises, and with that the need to care for the elderly also rises for next generations.
Little Flower’s grandparents migrated from rural areas and had seven children, whereas the seven kids have no more than three children each. They were cared by the oldest sister until she died. After that, grandma was cared for by a granddaughter.
- Advancement in the economy of care: certain patterns of care, socialization and education is reproduced “in cascade” in Andean families. Older boys and girls – mainly the girls- take care and give company to the younger. This pattern is present in correlation to the incorporation of women into a place of work outside her home. In the case of rural families, certain patterns of solidarity also appear, and the interrelation takes place between brothers and members of the same family: a part of them will remain in the rural place of origin, while the others will migrate to the city and probably another part will go abroad, in a partial spatial distribution according to the hierarchy of family responsibilities.
Little Flower´s extended family had this solidarity pattern, whereas the oldest sister made an extreme sacrifice to hold the family together, dying at the age of 45 after having taken care of everyone, given opportunities to study to the younger brothers, and constructing a family business that was prosperous until she got sick with cancer. Little Flower helped this aunt to raise her children while her mother was away until her adolescent years arrived and her aunt didn´t want her in the house anymore. Little Flower began to work at the age of fourteen. She wanted to emancipate, but the law said she had to be sixteen to do that. She was not the only girl striving to do that. Three other girls at school searched for emancipation, they also came from families that had one or both parents abroad.
- Discredit of schooling: even though the access to primary education is almost universal and the access to secondary schools is progressively on the rise, the worsening of public education sets a doubt in the relationship between the cost and benefit of schooling. The heads of the family, disenchanted by the quality of schooling and the lack of adaptation to the conditions of labor reality in each country, tend to expose their sons and daughters to fountains of “social and cultural capital” that compensate this poor offer, which stimulates their early incorporation to diverse forms of work.
This is the only part disconnected from Little Flower´s reality, as her family always valued education over everything else, but more and more families are getting involved in this exploration of socially dangerous jobs that will give them fast changes in their situation. This can mean getting involved into drugs (most common activity), the commerce of arms and or the sexual services area, or sometimes a strange combination of some or all.
- Instability and variation of Latin American families at present: the transformation of life in rural areas, the patterns of urbanization and concentration of basic services in the cities, the migration and displacement of populations in whole, the incorporation of the woman to the market labor, political arrest, and other factors explain many of the mutations that are taking place in family patterns.
Out of seven siblings in her mother’s side, five out seven households are supported mainly by the woman, and Little Flower’s first husband didn´t have a good job either, so she also ended up supporting her family by herself. The market labor for her has not been easy, and she had to give up many expectations in order to raise her children to the best of her knowledge. She has experienced the mutations and has been able to raise her children through all political arrests. It has been really hard, and she made it. But she is telling her story to make us all realize that most of the bad decisions she was blamed for when she was seventeen, were mostly the natural outcome of her reality as a Bolivian girl.
Little Flower as a Case Study Unit
Little Flower is telling her story because she wants to become a case study unit, to make the today’s girls realize that she is very lucky to have had the strength to overcome this reality that was overwhelming for her. Statistics show that most girls in Bolivia, as in the rest of the Americas, who belong to the so called “transnational families” don´t get to make it, and end up swallowed in the whirl of the statistical trend. She wants them to know that they can stop being one more statistic. It will take a lot from them, though. As a case study, both mothers and girls can see these statistical trends in her life coming true, awfully true, and can do something to prevent this to happen in their lives. Governments, hopefully, will also be able to recognize the need for better international legislation, and for knitting society nets that keep women and their children together for the longest times possible.
My voice, her voice, all Bolivian women´s voices must be united to recognize the reality of this situation. We must put an end to the suffering of our girls, who are being left out of their mother´s lives because of the lack of decent work for their mothers in Bolivia, or even in their local villages. We need families that are more supportive of girl´s lives. We need to see the light at the end of the tunnel not through unbelievable suffering, but through loving support from every family, as well as from the aid of comprehensive government nets.
Bolivian women have spent the last four years waiting for national policies that could help them not to leave the country, but the government said it needed complete power in the parliament to do that. Today, after sweeping the opposition in last December´s election, these four months have not brought any meaningful change for women yet. Only one out of the nine states (departments) of Bolivia has a sound and complete program for women to get jobs, health care and food for their babies. Women of any condition, but very especially poor women, are given special food during pregnancy and for six months for their babies. They also get jobs that pay more than what they make as maids, while receiving training that gives them the opportunity to stay in other better paid jobs. This is thanks to the local state government, not to the national one.
We need the central government to work with local state governments to put the same kind of program to work for women in all nine states, forgetting about political differences. The national government’s bonus of thirty dollars for pregnant women is not enough. We are not asking for charity, just for decent jobs and food to support the most vulnerable stage of lives: pregnancy and early childhood of our sons and daughters. It is time that the national government takes on the good example of a local state government, even if it is an opposition one.
We are sure the Bolivian government, being a socialist one, will listen. The world is watching closely, and international organizations are providing thirty times more money to this central government than to any other government in Bolivian history. This is why it is urgent for women to take a stand to reclaim comprehensive government actions to avoid and alter women’s migration trends.
Less vulnerable mothers will raise less vulnerable girls. Less Little Flower’s stories will need to be told, as the duet of Mother and Daughter will dust its old meaning, recovering the feminine strength of love in Bolivian families. Girls of yesterday and girls from today are tired of the migration reality of transnational families. Let us break the chains of abandonment, while it is not too late.