A Mother's Story: Three Immigrant Mothers of Pomona College Students Share Their Personal Stories

In between clapping, the occasional wave of laughter, and a few sniffles, the audience was silent as three immigrant mothers of Pomona College students shared their personal experiences at Rose Hills Theater April 2. 

IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success), a 5C organization dedicated to representing the interests of immigrant students, invited the mothers to speak. The goal of IDEAS, as stated on its Facebook page, is to help create an accessible environment for immigrant students in university education and bring increased awareness of immigrant struggles to the Claremont Colleges.

The first speaker was Irma Camarena, a mother of four children, including Sergio Rodriquez PO '16. Born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, she is the third of 10 siblings. In 1991, she immigrated to the United States while pregnant with her first child in a dangerous border crossing. 

“I remember not having money for food that day we crossed through Tijuana," Camarena said. "I don’t know why they made us walk five hours without food or water. Halfway through the journey, we came across smugglers who kidnapped people. Nothing major happened, since there were many of us and we were fully alert.

After over a year, Camarena returned to Mexico for reasons related to money, only to return to the United States in 1994 and repeat the back-and-forth move again in 2001.

“The third time was when we suffered the most," Camarena said. "We didn’t have money for food, and we walked for more than five hours. I lived through the dangers that come with crossing the border. I came so that my children would grow up with their father, so that I could provide them with the best, and most importantly, for them to study.”

A longtime single mother, Camarena said she was very strict when it came to her children’s education. “Only A’s,” she said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

Camarena works 14 hours per day, making it hard to spend time with her children. She also misses her parents and siblings, whom she has not seen in over 13 years. Still, she thinks the improvements to her life have been worth the struggles.

“I came to the United States seeking security and a better life, and even though we work a lot, I think that we’re doing better here,” she said.

The next speaker was Saira Noriega, the mother of three children, including Paola Noriega PO '17.

Noriega's father abandoned her family when she was just three years old. She and her siblings were raised by the their single mother, who eventually decided to immigrate to the United States to sustain them.

In 2006, Noriega’s husband and the father to her children abandoned them. They had just moved into an apartment after living in a garage for two years; before that, they had lived with another family of 10 people in a two-bedroom house. She used the money she had earned selling paches, a traditional Guatemalan type of tamale, to support her kids for a couple of weeks, but she was jobless and expenses piled up.

“For a second, I thought the future of my children was in jeopardy, my dreams were on the ground, and [I was] totally discouraged; I cried until my chest began to hurt,” Noriega said. “We lived day-by-day. I remember one Friday in June 2006, I ended up with $3 in my bag, and I wouldn’t get paid until Tuesday.”

But things have gradually started to get easier for the Noriega family.

“The road hasn’t been and will not be easy, but I’m sure that together and with the hand of God everything is, and will be, possible,”  Noriega said.

The final speaker was Pilar Martinez of Mexico City, the mother of three children, including Sichen Hernandez-Martinez PO '15.

She came to the United States 20 years ago to reunite with her husband. At the time, she was pregnant with her youngest child. Her husband worked, but his pay rate was approximately $9.25 per hour, so Martinez started working days while he worked nights.

Martinez highlighted the difficulty of leaving her family behind in Mexico and becoming accustomed to a new culture, but she also emphasized her pride in her children, especially her daughter.

“I have always admired her desire to move forward," Martinez said. "I admire her for being a woman, for being my daughter and for being my friend.” 

The reaction to the talk was overwhelmingly positive.

Jonathan Contreras PO ’18 said the event helped him gain insight into some of the struggles his own parents faced immigrating to the United States from Mexico.

“I think this experience, listening to their stories, has inspired me to go gain some insight into my own roots,” he said.

Ernesto Gutiérrez PO '17 translated the question and answer portion of the event. To Gutiérrez, telling these stories is important because it humanizes immigrants in a society that is constantly dehumanizing them.

“Many times in society, we just talk about numbers, we talk about laws, we talk about money, but we never really talk about the stories behind these faces,” he said. “It’s a perspective that can make many people change their minds.”