El Salvador To Iowa: One Woman’s Journey For Her Family

Photo: early image of “Liz Rivas” when she lived in El Salvador

Occasionally in our lifetime we read something that touches our hearts.

In my case, it was a book written by a renowned American journalist, Sonia Nazario, entitled “Enrique’s Journey.” Nazario describes the story of a Honduran boy who travels alone to look for his mother, who had left 11 years earlier to help her poverty-stricken family by finding work in the United States. I cried as I read each page thinking about the many kids left behind by their parents because the situation in their countries is desperate and hopeless. 

It is unimaginable to leave your children behind in order to support them, yet not many of us are faced with such difficult choice. This is the painful reality of many Central American parents. The root causes of their misfortune are many. 

I had the opportunity to speak to a mother who made that dangerous journey.

Originally from El Salvador, Liz Rivas married a police officer when she was 19 (we’ve changed her name in this article for various reasons). She got pregnant right away with their first son and less than a year later she was expecting their second child, another boy.

Rivas’ husband left her for another woman while she was still pregnant, leaving her with the responsibility of raising their children by herself. Working in a restaurant making pizza and repairing bicycles was not paying the bills for her small family. Her mother offered to care for her kids so she could come to America with her tía (aunt) to work.

Her sons were 3 ½ and 2 ½ years old when their mother left. Rivas’ aunt paid $4,500 for a coyote to guide her across the border. She traveled for a month by car, bus, and by foot until she arrived in Mission Viejo, California, in 1995. 

A well-documented and researched article from the Migration Policy Institute titled “El Salvador: Civil War, Natural Disasters, and Gang Violence Drive Migration” describes some of the root causes of migration from El Salvador to the U.S.

“Migration from El Salvador is shaped by a history of civil unrest, external interventions, and deeply rooted social inequalities,” the report reads. “Home to roughly 6.4 million people, the country is the smallest by territory in Central America yet the most densely populated. A stagnant economy, natural disasters, and high levels of various forms of violence – in part the result of U.S. involvement in the region and U.S immigration policies of the past three decades, as well as the Salvadoran government’s ongoing failure to address systemic social problems – have pushed growing numbers of people to leave over the past two decades.”

Rivas and her family are a product of the circumstances described above, yet she was determined to fulfill her purpose and work hard to help her children and parents. She found a job as a nanny and housekeeper. The terms of the job required her to live in the home and work six days a week. Her salary was $250 per week in cash.

“It was really painful for me to take care of somebody’s boy and not be able to take care of my own,” Rivas said. “He reminded me of my little kids, so I poured all my love into him.”

At least she was able to send money home and her parents had the means to pay for the bare necessities. Calling home wasn’t easy back then, since the town where her family lived in El Salvador didn’t have phones, so she would call another town a half hour away. Her mom would be notified, and she would take the kids there to talk to their mom.

It was an ordeal, to say the least.

After a few years, Rivas decided to find another job where she could have two days off and better pay. She needed to send more money home to family.

She held two more jobs in California before moving to Iowa.

In Beverly Hills, Rivas said, “I had to wear a uniform like in the Latino soap operas, and I was told that I could not eat before the dog. It was really humiliating.”

In March 2001, Rivas finally got a life changing break on her immigration status. The U.S. government announced the designation of El Salvador for Temporary Protected Status (TPS). The TPS program was created in 1990 as a form of humanitarian relief for nationals of certain countries that had become embroiled in violent conflict or suffered a national disaster. She could finally obtain proper documentation and come out of the shadows and live free of fear from deportation. 

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Unfortunately, from its inception, TPS was designed to be temporary, lasting no more than 18 months (though a country designation may be renewed). Unlike asylum or refugee status, TPS does not provide a pathway to permanent residency or other protections that formally recognized asylum seekers or refugees can receive.

Rivas worked in California for eight years until her brother and cousin encouraged her to move to Iowa. She found a job at a meat packing plant in Osceola making $8.25 an hour. Once established in Iowa, she met her second husband, continued working and was able to finally bring her children to America in 2008.

“I was so happy and excited to finally have them with me,” Rivas said.

But reality soon set in. She didn’t know her kids and they didn’t know her. They became rebellious, especially the youngest, who continuously asked to be sent back to El Salvador.

“It was so hard,” Rivas said, with tears in her eyes. “I felt they didn’t love me nor respected me.”

Rivas was caring for her two teenage boys and also had her four-year-old nephew living with her. The boy’s mother was deported to El Salvador in 2011. In August of the same year, his mother tried to come back to the U.S., but died in the process. Her body was found in a ranch, close to Corpus Christi, Texas. She died of dehydration.

“It was a really challenging year,” Rivas said, who also was going through a divorce at the time.

Rivas is a woman of faith. She is grateful and felt strongly that God was good to her regardless of all the obstacles she has faced.

She’s now a proud homeowner and her sons are married with children or their own. She has worked for the same company for the past 17 years and raised her nephew, who calls her mom.

“I didn’t have the opportunity to raise my own children,” Rivas said. “I missed many birthdays and milestones because I was working here, but now I have a second chance with my niño (nephew).

Rivas said since her sister-in-law died, her brother fell into a deep depression and can’t hold a job for long, so she does her best to be there for him and help as much as she can. Family is the glue that keeps it all together.  

One thing she’s very proud of is the fact that since she arrived in the U.S. and started working, she hasn’t missed a month without sending money to her parents, who are now in their 70s.

Rivas’ TPS was extended until January 2021 and she prays that one day she can finally have a pathway to citizenship.

As our conversation came to a close, Rivas said she has a hard time understanding why Americans don’t want people like her in the U.S.

“Since I moved to the U.S., I worked hard, contributed to the economy and my check showed deductions to services I may not even receive in the long run,” she said.

We talked for a long time and my heart aches. I hear too many stories like Rivas’, and I feel nothing but respect and admiration for her and all the immigrants that had the strength to overcome so many obstacles in order to feed their children and help their family. 

I feel Iowa parents would do the same if they had to.


By Claudia Thrane
Posted 12/17/19

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