Looking for Esperanza chronicles the plight of undocumented women working in the Florida fields.
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Paramo, a Colombian anthropologist, embarked on a journey to track down a Mexican woman named Esperanza after reading her story in a local newspaper. Esperanza had crossed the border to the United States on foot with her four children in a desperate attempt to create a better life. When her young daughter died of dehydration halfway through their desert journey, Esperanza strapped the body of her child to her own and continued on.
Looking for Esperanza: The Story of a Mother, a Child Lots, and Why They Matter to Us chronicles Paramo's fieldwork and the anonymous voices of the women she encounters while looking for the mother in the story.
A few years ago, I read in a Florida newspaper the story of a Mexican woman who crossed the border to the United States on foot. Esperanza left Mexico with four children, but arrived in the USA with three. Her youngest died of dehydration halfway through their desert journey. Esperanza refused to leave her little girl behind; instead, she strapped the body of her dead baby to her own chest and without shedding a tear, continued the journey determined to smuggle her into the USA with the rest of the group.
I read the article again and again. I read it with sadness, with anger, with pain, with curiosity, with compassion. Then I read it once more, until the image of this woman trying to smuggle her dead baby into the USA became a mental tattoo. A picture so real in my mind that a part of me began to feel that I knew her, that I had been with her in the desert bearing witness to her baby’s death, that it was a matter of time before we would be reunited.
The other part of me understood that the only way to make sense of the ordeal described in the newspaper was to find her. The article said that Esperanza did agricultural work and was living in a trailer park somewhere in Lakeland, the same small city where I lived. I interpreted this as an omen. So far, the other Hispanics I had seen in Lakeland were successful immigrants who drove SUVs, played golf, attended functions at the yacht club and lived the American dream. Esperanza was not one of them.
I took it upon myself to find her and her story.
Initially I looked for Esperanza because she was a woman like me, an immigrant like me, a mother like me. But as an anthropologist, I also wondered about Hispanic women working in the fields as a subculture within the subculture of farmworkers. Was Esperanza’s tragedy an exception to the rule? Or is tragedy the rule?
And that’s how it all started. My search took me to vegetable fields, citrus groves, ferneries, and packing houses across Florida. It sucked me into an underground subculture of hungry undocumented women, a hidden world of wage slaves, a microcosm of false names, false Social Security numbers, and false hopes.
I went from town to town, from crop to crop, from trailer park to trailer park across Florida, finding different Esperanzas: a Latina who was battered; a Latina who was raped; an illiterate Latina who signed with a cross; a Latina convinced that respect in this country is a privilege of white Americans and will never ask for help; a Latina in jail because she was caught driving without a driver’s license; a Latina spiritually and physically broken by a system that failed her; an indigenous woman who doesn’t speak either English or Spanish and lived a deaf and mute existence.
In Plant City, instead of Esperanza I met Laura, who, bent at the waist over the strawberry rows, told me how her husband’s family had been forced into slavery at a farm nearby.
I went to Immokalee—a Southwestern Florida town that looks like Tijuana. It is a community of forgotten farmworkers who turned whole neighborhoods into little Mexican enclaves marked by poverty and substandard living conditions. There I found Paulina, who told me about her perilous crossings into the USA. All six of them. She walked the desert, swam the river, dug tunnels, crawled under barbed wire—sometimes alone, sometimes with her children. She risked it all to be here.
I looked for Esperanza in a tomato warehouse in Dover where I worked along with other women at the conveyor sorting millions of tomatoes. No, they didn’t know about the woman I was looking for, but they knew about three women who waded in pesticides while picking tomatoes and gave birth to deformed babies. The first baby was missing all four limbs. The second baby had an underdeveloped jaw—he choked every time his tongue fell into his throat. The third was born with no visible sexual organs and died of massive birth defects.
Slowly, a hidden Florida began to unravel.
By the time I found her, Esperanza had put me face-to-face not with the shiny state that glimmers on vacationing brochures, but with a wealthy state that treats its farmworkers like meat scraps on the cutting board of bountiful Florida.
Esperanza means Hope in English. I collected the stories of the women I met while I was “Looking for Esperanza,” which is to say, looking for Hope. These are women in limbo; their only excess is their poverty; their only possession is their version of the American dream.