"Their Struggle, Our Voice," an original essay by Spokane writer and Gonzaga University student Mayra Villalobos

The advancement of Latinos in the United States could not have happened without the agony of our immigrant mothers.  They have endured suffering, tears and the years of abuse to give their children a better life.  I would like to dedicate my story to the mothers, and fathers, who emigrate from Latin America, whose stories are so often invisible, and specifically to my mother, who sacrificed so much for her family.

My mother came to the United States to work and to make a better life for her children.  She tolerated perpetual discrimination, physical abuse and labored under extremely harsh conditions with no legal protections because she was an undocumented immigrant.  In 1972, at the age of 12 and as the eldest of five children, she worked in the agricultural fields traveling from Southern California up to the Skagit Valley in Washington State.  

Her upbringing was one of constant mental and physical abuse. There was no room for school.  In fact, she was so rarely in class due to her work in the fields that my mother only retained a first grade level education, even if she was passed on to the next grade.  She and my uncles were forced to labor in the summer’s hot drenching sun with little food, only to come home at the end of a 12-hour day to household chores. They were forced to hand over their paychecks to support their step-father’s alcoholic vices. No one could speak up about the abuse because they knew that no law would protect them since they were in this country undocumented.  The family never received an education beyond elementary in which contributed to the their level of self worth; to feel that their voice mattered. 

In her early 20s, my mother met my father, ran away with him and started a family.  As a married woman she continued to labor in the fields, at plant farms, in fish hatcheries; anywhere that would allow her to work.  

She remembers being bullied in school for not being able to speak English. She was always referred to as a wetback.  She never had the courage to defend herself.  

When my mother tells me about these things I can’t help but feel frustrated at her:  “Why didn’t you say anything to your teachers?!  Why didn’t you stand up for yourself?”  My innate privilege, having grown up in the United States as a U.S. citizen, receiving an education, and having laws that protect me, has made it hard for me to understand her way of thinking.  

You see, my mother has lived her life passively according to the Hispanic folk culture “marianismo”, which is the veneration for the feminine virtues that dictate female gender roles.  In this culture it is custom for women not to speak up, to suffer in silence, to be submissive to their husbands, but above all embrace motherhood as expected. 

My father was a labor activist in Mexico, and advocated for labor rights to Mexican citizens. Having received up to a high school education, dad held political debates with elite government officials. Unfortunately, the sociopolitical corruption in the late 70s and early 80s lead to the dismantle of his labor union and the disappearance of several well-known members. My father escaped on time and fled to the United States where he met my mother. 

Here, my father converted from Catholicism to the Apostolic doctrine where he preached the gospel to as many people as he can reach out to. My parents worked hard to bring good to this country, as well as to raise all us five children as compassionate and hard working citizens. 

The difference between Latino Americans, born in the U.S., and our undocumented mothers is that we have a voice and more opportunities to better ourselves.  My mother did not have a voice.  My mother, like tens of thousands of others, live life without asking for recognition, without taking credit for the success of her children. To my mother, having her children in this country and seeing us escape the cycle of injustice, of political and economic insecurity is enough. 

I have my own story of motherhood: I have experienced the stigma of being a single mother.  I have been a victim of discrimination throughout my life since childhood, mostly for having undocumented parents. I have been ostracized for not having the same English language skills and American cultural context of my cohorts. Yet I had opportunities. I chose to better myself through higher education. Because education was never talked about during my upbringing, going to school was a struggle especially without much family support. Needless to say, I am the first in my family to have a bachelor’s degree and the only one to have a master’s. 

Receiving an education is a boost to my confidence. It is my power tool to speak up on injustices that happen to the vulnerable and the underrepresented. Whether it is through an institution or self taught, knowledge is power. It is fuel to the brain ready to fight the battle; especially in these days of a new political era. With that, I will use it to inspire others and raise awareness to those who can help continue creating change.