by Elizabeth Farfán-Santos
University of Texas Press (2022); 176 pp.; $83.70 (Hardcover)Buy Book
Dr. Elizabeth Farfán-Santos is a mother, writer, and medical anthropologist who documents the undocumented. In her new book, Undocumented Motherhood: Conversations on Love, Trauma, and Border Crossing, Farfán-Santos gives readers an intimate view of life as an undocumented immigrant mother of young children in the US. At the same time, the book illuminates the often unseen breadth of maternal labor. The book celebrates maternal strength, focusing on one dauntless mother named Claudia, while also asking about the cost of that strength, the price mothers pay for their resilience.
Undocumented Motherhood begins when Claudia sets out on her harrowing journey across the US-Mexico border in search of better healthcare for her daughter, Nati, who is hearing-impaired. Farfán-Santos weaves Claudia and Nati’s experiences in US health and education systems with her own family’s stories of border crossing, healthcare, intergenerational connection, and maternal struggle. Using a unique blend of “testimonio, memoir, and autoethnography,” Farfán-Santos unravels “layers of academic training” to construct a braided narrative that evokes a deep sense of connection. Profiles editor Brianna Avenia-Tapper caught up with Dr. Farfán-Santos on Zoom, where they discussed the effects of our mothers on our mothering, strategies for thinking about your writing in new ways, and the project of “rehumanizing,” that is, recognizing and accepting the messy, multifaceted nature of ourselves and others.
This profile has been edited for content and clarity.
Brianna Avenia-Tapper: Who did you write Undocumented Motherhood for?
Elizabeth Farfán-Santos: I’m interested in mothers reading it. One of the things that I’m trying to do in this book is develop connection. I think that’s the resounding goal of the book, trying to show how much we have in common despite our differences. The differences are important, there’s so much about the political status of an undocumented mother that fundamentally impacts her maternal experience. But at the same time, some of the issues Claudia’s dealing with in raising her daughter, for example, understanding Nati’s needs while also respecting her individual personality or figuring out how to best advocate for Nati with limited support and resources, are very similar to what many mothers deal with, working-class mothers in particular.
I think it’s so important to document the aspects of motherhood that are less visible, the raw human stuff we don’t talk about, the guilt, the pain, the grieving. The concern, the never-ending concern for our children.
There’s a part in Undocumented Motherhood where Claudia is telling me about how she initially felt, realizing she was going to be the mother of a disabled daughter, and her reaction—her very human reaction—to that. She was very nervous to tell me about it. She kept asking me not to judge her. In that moment, I understood the maternal guilt, the fear of judgment for feeling anything other than just joy in mothering. It’s those kinds of deeper connections that I hope people, especially mothers, across racial, ethnic, class, and political status, will feel. Ultimately I think that to respect our differences, we also have to see and feel our similarities—our mutual humanity.
BAT: The part that you just referenced stuck out to me. I related to that sense in motherhood of “Wait, why? This isn’t what I wanted. This part of a person or an experience isn’t what I expected or would have chosen.” I don’t think we talk about that enough, and it made me feel less lonely to read about another woman experiencing it. You said you understood how she was feeling too. How did motherhood challenge and surprise you?
EFS: Motherhood completely consumed me and drowned me. It was like getting hit by a tsunami. I used to be adamant that I didn’t want to have kids. A lot of it was because I grew up seeing my mother and grandmother work so hard. They gave up their entire lives. It didn’t look like a good experience. I wanted to focus on myself. I wanted to have a career. I wanted to be free. I wanted to travel. But then I met my husband and I decided I wanted to create a family with him. I got pregnant while doing fieldwork for my first book in Brazil, basically in the Atlantic Forest.
BAT: Why do you think it felt as though you were drowning?
EFS: The birthing process was very difficult, but I think the hardest part was around breastfeeding. I overproduced milk, which engorged my breasts and made it difficult for my son to latch on. He was getting a lot of foremilk, which can cause colic in babies. I was told to hand express the extra milk, so I spent nights wringing my breasts over the sink. I got mastitis . . . four times? Five times? I don’t know how many times. I didn’t have any breastfeeding support at that time. It was demoralizing.
Now, I know that I had postpartum anxiety. I developed a really, really intense attachment to my child and fear of leaving him, fear of dying, fear of him dying, just irrational fears. I almost completely stopped traveling. I developed a phobia of flying. It was really hard for me to leave him at school. He was breastfeeding and he wouldn’t take any bottles, and so when I took him to daycare, he wouldn’t eat—and so he was skinny. He was losing weight, doctors were telling me constantly that he was too thin, that he wasn’t getting enough nutrients. I felt like a terrible mother all the time, like I was doing everything wrong. It made me so attached to him and so focused on him. That’s why I describe it as a tsunami. Pretty much everything else kind of stopped being as important to me. I pulled away from my job, my husband, my own life. I was just doing everything for him, and it completely consumed me.
BAT: Would you say that motherhood became your primary identity?
EFS: In the beginning, yeah. Besides my struggles, I also had a wounded relationship with my own mom. I was separated from her for part of my childhood when I lived with my grandmother in Mexico, and then when we were together, she had to work a lot so she couldn’t spend much time with me.
When I became a mother, I didn’t want to always be working. I wanted to be on the floor playing with my kids because that’s what I wanted from my own mom. So much of what we grow up hearing from our immigrant mothers is, “We work this hard so you don’t have to work as hard as we did.” My parents gave me everything I needed, and for that, I am grateful, but it was all very functional and about survival. When my son was born, I was very intent on perfecting the kind of mother I didn’t have. I think that’s why I put so much energy into playing with him, reading to him, and making sure that I was physically there for all of the “fun” stuff—for everything, really. It never seemed to be enough for me. I was trying to be the mother that I would have wanted. I had a therapist who told me, “Your son needs the mom he needs, not the mom you needed.”
BAT: My therapist told me the same thing!
EFS: Writing this book unintentionally became a healing exercise for me. When I interviewed my mother about her experience, she shared with me how painful it was for her to be away from me and how sad it made her to work so much and not get to be with us, not get to do fun things with her family because she couldn’t. Claudia’s story forced me to ask my mom questions I never thought to ask. I was convinced my mom and I were just different, and I held a lot of resentment towards her when really there were a lot of things about her experience I just didn’t know. While writing this book, I saw and felt her humanity too. This is how Claudia’s story and mine intersect—the US-Mexico border runs through our maternal identities and relationships in many-layered ways.
BAT: I loved Claudia’s character in the book. She was so ready to fight for her daughter. I admired that. While your interviews with Claudia make up most of the book, the stories from your own life and family create some textual border crossing. In the acknowledgments, you said that to write this book you had to “unravel layers of academic training.” Which writing choices were made available to you by that unraveling?
EFS: In anthropology, there is this idea that when you’re reading an ethnographic story about a community, it’s like a photograph, a replica of what the author saw, and that’s not exactly true. Even the most traditional, most quantitative ethnography is not an exact representation of a community, nor is it objective, because ultimately it’s a story told from the author’s point of view. For this book, I activate the subjective voice by writing more vulnerably and emotively. I wanted the whole text to make people feel something, to connect through their raw human experience, which for me often boils down to emotion.
I was really worried about voice, how to insert my own unique voice and stay true to Claudia’s story. I wanted to include my maternal experiences and memories because they came up in the process of understanding Claudia’s story. But in anthropology it can get a little bit hairy when you’re including yourself and potentially decentering the lives of the people you are supposed to be focusing on. When I teach anthropological writing, however, we talk so much about how there is no objective outsider author.
BAT: The inclusion of your own voice felt like an effective way to dismiss the problematic idea of objectivity, and I think you very much achieved the goal of making your reader feel something.
EFS: Thanks! I’ve been trying to incorporate creative writing into my work for a long time. I was an artist before I became an anthropologist. I’m always thinking across these interdisciplinary fields.
BAT: In the book, you include fascinating pen and watercolor illustrations called “blind contour drawings.” What led you to the decision to include those paintings?
EFS: I had been doing the contour drawings throughout the process. When I’m writing, I’ll do all kinds of journaling and note-taking. There are lots of different ways in which I play around with the stories and the words even before it becomes a piece or a draft of a chapter. Sometimes I’ll put my interviews on my headphones when I walk. I draw pictures. I make all kinds of diagrams. As I was working on this project, I would get frustrated. There was so much that I wanted to say, and it just wasn’t coming together at first. So to unblock myself, I started drawing pictures of Claudia and her family from photos on her social media accounts.
In the book, the drawings help to deconstruct the idea of an authentic subject. So much of the work on undocumented immigrant identity is about “This is who they are.” The media tells us, “This is who these people are, they’re an object, a trope, a stereotype.” Part of showing up in this book means showing up as not just another privileged authority who comes in and says, “This is the real authentic version [of undocumented immigrants],” but instead to say, “Part of humanizing someone is allowing them the imperfection of humanity.” One of the worst things that happens to a marginalized subject is that they are robbed of that right to be wholly human. The drawings help humanize because they are another reminder of perspective and the complexity of human lives.
BAT: I’m just in awe of both your story and Claudia’s—the strength, what you’ve accomplished.
EFS: Let me say something about strength. The strength is inherited. One thing that I grew up hearing from my grandmother, from the women in my family, is that “we don’t drown in a glass of water,” meaning that in life you deal with struggle and hardship and you make yourself strong. To falter, to fall in the face of the most mundane everyday struggle, was to be weak. There’s a lot of shame that would go into not being strong in my family. I think this is true for a lot of Mexican women and Latina women. This goes back to the research and writing about our communities. When our communities are always written about in ways that only represent us as victims and as marginalized subjects of abuse (which is also important to represent), then we don’t see all these other layers of our identity. How we survive and thrive. How resilient we are. How we’ve survived generations of racism, xenophobia, and political exclusion. We’ve been poked and prodded and poisoned, and yet we’ve survived in incredible ways. So it is important to show that our communities, especially women and mothers, are strong and resilient, but we also have to ask, “Okay, now what else is there behind that strength?”
My book is documenting what happens when women are forced to be strong all the time, how they’re not even recognizing that they are in pain until they’re collapsing on the ground or in the hospital. Because they’ve been taught that other people’s health and well-being are more important than their own. Whether that is resilience or marginalization, what we’re talking about are women who are continually sacrificing their needs for the needs of everyone else. Even as a highly educated fourth-generation mother myself, I was doing exactly that! Just with more words (laughs), but the same thing! In the book, I’m trying to show how we’re all just taking one step at a time, messing up and coming back. I am no more resolved than Claudia is, than you are, than any of us are. That’s the rehumanization project at play in this book.
BAT: “We’re all just taking one step at a time, and messing up and coming back.” That is so much what I need to hear as both a mother and a writer.
EFS: In the book, there’s a chapter called “Comadres.” It’s about how special and sacred the relationships between mothers can be. Only mothers can understand certain aspects of the maternal experience. I hope that we can find other comadres out there, and that we remember we need other women: we need to share our experiences with other mothers. Women are, unfortunately, in systems that don’t support us as mothers and that take advantage of our labor and our love and our leadership. As mothers, we can come together and support each other. That’s what literally will save our lives.