Latina, Immigrant, Mother: How Intersectional Recognition Shapes Care and Advocacy
The day was cold, dreary, and wet, as so many November days are in New England. The weather kept attendance low at an English class for immigrant parents in Somerville, Massachusetts, a small sanctuary city that has rapidly gentrified in the last decade. The class was provided by the city’s school district, in partnership with a local immigrant rights organization. I was there observing these classes as part of a four-year ethnography with immigrant women and their experiences of belonging in Somerville (where I also live and raise my own children). Open to all parents, the organization’s program participants were nearly all Latina immigrant mothers. So it was that eight mothers gathered around small tables in the meeting room of a local church for their English class. The instructor, a woman whose parents had migrated from El Salvador before she was born, wrote sentences on the board for the other women to practice in pairs: What is your name? Where do you live? What is your phone number?Two El Salvadoran women I knew from my observations partnered up for the exercises. Sara had been in Somerville for several years, having migrated when her first-born was a toddler. Now, she was visibly pregnant with a second baby. Julia had been in the United States for only six months, having sent her two school-age children to live with her husband two years before he could obtain a visa for her. Sara, more proficient in English, easily recited the answers to the questions. Julia struggled and, after several attempts at articulating her phone number, dropped her head to her hands. Her partner, refusing to let her quit, nudged her gently. “You need to keep practicing,” Sara whispered in Spanish. “It’s really important to know your number in English so you can communicate with your children’s schools, with your doctor.” Julia repeated the number, with Sara gently correcting her errors, until the teacher gathered the class together again.
Intersectional RecognitionSo much shapes immigrant women’s integration into their new communities in the United States, from migration trajectories to racialized immigration policies and gendered expectations about family roles. It is critical to document how these broader structural factors influence how immigrant women navigate education, employment, healthcare, and law enforcement, especially as they strive to care for family members here and across borders. Compared to these consequential laws, policies, and institutions, Sara’s quotidian act of encouragement might not seem like it would make a difference in the larger scope of integration. But even though Sara was undocumented, and Julia had the relative security of a green card, Sara had more navigational skills—she knew what Julia would need to fulfill her role as a Spanish-speaking mother while faced with the challenges of immigranthood. In that moment, Sara was acknowledging multiple facets of Julia’s identity—facets that she shared and could affirm. As she recited the numbers back to Julia, she was bringing to life what I call intersectional recognition.
Drawing on work by Kimberlé Crenshaw and Michèle Lamont, I define intersectional recognition as “the process through which individuals and institutions affirm and acknowledge the intersections between multiple marginalized identities.” As I wrote in a recent article in Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, the mothers in my research used their intersecting identities—as Latinas, as mothers, as women, as immigrants—as a foundation for belonging, connection, and advocacy.
The Power and Limitations of Care
Sara was one of these women who used her motherhood and her immigranthood to empathize and share knowledge. As an undocumented Latina mother, Sara knew what Cecilia Menjívar and Leisy Abrego powerfully theorized over a decade ago: that immigration laws impact Latina immigrant mothers in gendered ways, erecting harmful barriers to their efforts to provide for their children. In offering intersectional recognition to Julia that day, Sara wasn’t overturning the structures that keep gendered legal violence a forceful presence in immigrant women’s lives. Yet she pushed back against the anti-immigrant policies and discourses that attempt to situate Latina immigrant women as unworthy of rights and resources. Learn this number, she said, and it will be a tool for you to mother well.Sara’s act of care, like many I witnessed over the years, emphasized individual responsibility for navigating institutions. This was a common theme in my research, as women used their shared identities to recognize the dilemmas of immigrant motherhood, and emphasized the tools and skills others would need to learn. Often, their intersectional recognition revolved around meeting gendered expectations for their familial roles. Their belief in individual responsibility belies the laws and policies that structure immigrant women’s lives and integration. Still, these little moments of care, like a kind gesture or greeting on the street, accumulated into meaningful pathways to belonging for the women who recognized each other’s intersectional identities as a source of strength.
The ruptures of the pandemic meant I lost track of Sara. It took me a while to connect with Julia again, too, but when we finally caught up on her porch one April afternoon, just after our children returned to in-person learning, she was about to become a mother of a U.S.-born baby. Entrenched, and often racist, immigration laws and policies remain hugely influential in Sara and Julia’s experiences. But so are the small moments of intersectional recognition that affirm how multiple marginalized identities shape how we navigate the world and make claims to belonging. When I asked Julia whether the new baby would change where she wanted to live, given that her apartment was already crowded, she held her hand up, blocking the bright spring sunshine. “Here,” she said, peering down the block where she could see the playground of her children’s schools. “Here.”
Sarah Bruhn is at the Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies immigrant youth and families, education, and belonging.