Montana State University

MSU scientist studies new type of family straddling national borders

January 25, 2005 -- by Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Leah Schmalzbauer, MSU professor of sociology, found that pressures of immigrating to the U.S. to escape poverty are transforming traditional family patterns of Honduran migrants. MSU photo by Erin Raley.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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Bozeman -- A new type of family system has developed among Latinos who immigrate to the U.S. in search of better financial support for children left behind, according to a Montana State University professor who has spent several years researching Honduran immigrants.

Leah Schmalzbauer, an MSU professor of sociology and anthropology who studied families of Honduran immigrants to the U.S., found that the global economy is reshaping the traditional Latino family. She reported her findings in "Searching for Wages and Mothering from Afar: The Case of Honduran Transnational Families," published recently by the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Schmalzbauer studied survival strategies of 157 Hondurans over two years. She found that the recasting of families in Latin America is more pronounced now that an increasing number of women are leaving their children in the care of proxy mothers while they migrate to the U.S. in search of a better living for their extended families.

"Millions of families are living in a permanent, transnational limbo," said Schmalzbauer, whose research was done in the Boston neighborhood of Chelsea as well as in Honduras. She also found that oftentimes, the immigrants feel that they have little choice in migrating to the U.S.

"Without transnationalizing (families living between two countries), poor families often can't secure their survival." Schmalzbauer contends that the new transnational family has a profound impact in both native countries and in the U.S. "It's changing demographics," she said.

Conversely, nearly all of the income that the self-less immigrants make in the U.S. while working at low-paying jobs is wired back to their native countries, creating a flow of money out of the U.S. to support life in poor Latin American countries.

"Their goal is to send back every available penny except those spent for necessities," she said. In fact, "Money wiring services mark the center of all of the Honduran towns and villages I visited exemplifying the centrality of these economic flows to the survival of transnational families and communities."

While Schmalzbauer points out that transnational families are not new, undocumented immigrants have been a part of the U.S. subculture for about 50 years. Schmalzbauer said the "bifurcated global economy" also contributes to an increase in financial migrants. And women migrate nearly as often as men today, lured by an increased demand for paid domestic workers in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.

Schmalzbauer found that emotional struggle is a daily part of life for the parents who live far away from their children. And it is difficult for children as well, many of who have "identity issues."

"Young children have more difficulty understanding why their parents(s) leave and they often do not remember the parent well," she said.

Schmalzbauer, a Minnesota native, first became interested in Honduran families while she worked for a Central American human rights organization in Boston from 1991-1994, after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a bachelor's degree in economics and international studies and a minor in Spanish.

"I heard thousands of stories about these people being separated from their families," she said. Many of the migrants lived in "very, very tough circumstances, packed in small apartments to cut costs."

She said Honduran parents were very devoted their children as well as their extended families and were in agony at their finance-mandated separations. When Schmalzbauer entered graduate school at Boston College in 1999, she had already established a strong base of trust with the immigrants, of which about half had legal documents. "Research themes had emerged," she said.

Schmalzbauer spent two years on the participant-based research in the U.S. and Honduras interviewing the immigrants as well as the family members left behind. She found just as the families were changing, she also needed a new language to describe the systems. For instance, the grandmothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, neighbors and friends who care for family and kin when mothers are absent or unable are called "other mothers." Mothers of birth are "bloodmothers." Money from the U.S. is called a "remittance." If terms of family description are blurred, so are the methods of survival.

Schmalzbauer said while the subjects all spoke of the day that their families would be reunited, long-term reuniting of transnational families is rare, particularly if the family member is an undocumented immigrant.

"I call this 'the Myth of Return,' the notion that keeps you going that you are going to be united sooner or later."

In fact, Schmalzbauer predicts the transnational family phenomenon will continue to reshape Latino and American culture. For instance, she is concerned about who will take over the child-care responsibilities in the home countries of the global south as fewer adult women stay behind to serve as caregivers. Even the influx of Yankee dollars to Honduras may cause yet another wave of educated Hondurans one day.

"Because of family remittances, many of these children have been afforded a Honduran education, yet few employment opportunities await them upon graduation," said Schmalzbauer, whose work on the immigrants has been quoted in the New York Times and other international publications. "If they follow the migration paths of their parents, we will likely begin to see a more educated undocumented Honduran labor force in the United States."

Contact: Leah Schmalzbauer (406) 994-7224