Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

‘Undocumented Motherhood’ explores family separation, challenges in healthcare access

Kristen Cabrera
Texas Standard

The Washington Post once described motherhood as exhausting, inspiring, soul-sucking and purpose-giving. It makes you question everything, while also feeling like you know it all – or at least, you’re expected to.

Describing motherhood as a challenge doesn’t suffice. But imagine being undocumented, too – and in need of health care.

University of Houston professor Elizabeth Farfán-Santos shines a light on this and more in her new book “Undocumented Motherhood: Conversations on Love, Trauma, and Border Crossing.” She’ll be discussing it during the “On Mothers and Borders” session 3 p.m. Sunday at the Texas Book Festival in Austin. She joined Texas Standard to share more.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I want to ask you about some of the players mentioned early in your book, Claudia Garcia and her daughter, Natalia, who’s deaf, as they make their way to meet up with Natalia’s father in Houston. Could you tell us a little bit about that journey and why you chose their story to begin the book?

Elizabeth Farfán-Santos: Yes, so I chose Claudia’s journey – you know, Claudia was one of several women that I was working with at the time. I was doing research on health access for undocumented immigrants. It was kind of the time when the Affordable Care Act was going into effect and undocumented immigrants were very clearly excluded from those changes in healthcare policy, and I was working in community clinics and very quickly found myself meeting a lot of mothers that were interested in talking about their children and their children’s access. I found Claudia interesting because she was very candid from the very beginning and, unlike others, was really interested in telling me about her entire journey and the ways that it had affected her life and was continuing to affect her life.

I understand that this sort of had you thinking about yourself and your own family’s journey regarding motherhood, and that’s in the book, too, right?

Yes, absolutely. One of the things that we started off talking about was the migration to Houston and how difficult and scary and traumatizing that was, namely because there were moments where Claudia had to put Nati in the care of other people. The journey across the border for her as an adult was very different from the kind of journey that her daughter would take, so this reminded me of my family and my mother’s experience.

Now, my mother is not undocumented. My mother is actually a Chicana; she was born and raised in Chicago. But my father was undocumented, and I grew up with my father’s family, so I grew up in an immigrant family, and there was a time when my mother also had to put us in the care of my grandmother and our family members in Mexico so that they could work and make money to support our family. Because of my dad’s status, because my parents were very young, they had a very hard time making ends meet. Paying for daycare is prohibitive – has been prohibitive for many, many years, and, you know, I always remembered those years of living with my grandmother in Mexico as just beautiful memories, and I never really thought about what that experience may have been like for my mother until I started listening to Claudia’s experience and how emotionally heavy and difficult it was for her to be separated from her daughter.

Could you say more about that? Because that’s sort of at the heart of a lot of what’s in this book.

The separation? Yeah. You know, one of the things that is happening now that I don’t think a lot of people realize, the media tends to scandalize certain issues about immigration, and so there are these big things like, oh, there’s just all of these people that are coming across the border, but there really isn’t a sense of what is actually happening on the border, who’s coming.

For several years now, the majority of migrants have been women and children, and we’ve seen that more and more so, and, you know, particularly these situations where mothers are often being separated from their children, whether it’s because they’re being detained and they’re being put in detention centers or because children are crossing – you know, women are having to send their children in to safety in hopes that they will have a safer experience where they’re going than what they’re experiencing in their home countries. Nobody puts their children in the care of people they don’t know unless they’re absolutely desperate.

And what mothers are experiencing speaks directly to that sense of desperation, and we haven’t even touched on the difficulties of dealing with the healthcare system. Are there discrepancies in how the healthcare system treats undocumented mothers here in Texas and the U.S. more broadly?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s one of the hardest things and one of the things that people don’t necessarily understand – again, because there’s so much misinformation in the media – this idea that immigrants are coming over to take resources, when actually that’s not the case. There’s so many resources, especially in Texas, that are not available for undocumented immigrants. Undocumented immigrants cannot apply for any federal services, any state services. There’s very few programs that are available for them, and so when it comes to healthcare, and particularly somebody like Natalia that has a chronic condition, that has a condition that’s going to require her to go to specialists and to see various kinds of doctors, you know, there’s no help for that.

So one of the things that I talk about in the book and that Claudia goes into detail about how much money they pay for private insurance to be able to access all of the specialists – we’re talking thousands, tens of thousands of dollars that her and her husband are pouring into insurance and into the medical system, public and private, to get their daughter the care that they need, because that’s the only way that they can really do it.

I want to shift just a bit to some drawings that are in this book of Claudia and others that you did in a specific technique. Could you say more about that and why you chose to illustrate the book in this way? 

Yes, thank you for asking about that. So the drawings in the book are called blind contour drawings, and blind contour drawings are basically studies. They’re studies of a subject; they’re an intense way of observing a subject. When you do a blind contour, it’s a single line drawing where you’re looking at the subject without ever looking down at the page and you’re trying not to lift your pencil from the paper. And you’re trying to take in all of the details. You’re really trying to stay honest to the subject, and one of the things that happens is because you’re so intently looking at the subject, you think, you know, “I got it; I did this exactly right,” and when you look down at the paper, what you have is an abstraction, right, or something that’s not even close.

You know, this is so important to the book because ultimately the book is about perspective. It is about my life and my perspective intertwining with Claudia’s, me really trying to understand her story, but also knowing that what I’m getting from her is a moment in time. It’s a memory, and there’s so many things that perhaps she has forgotten because of trauma, or that she doesn’t want to tell me, or that get expressed in that particular moment, and then when I sit down and write it, there’s other things that come up because of how my memories become intertwined with the story, and, you know, my emotions as an author, and a writer, and a creator become intertwined with the story.

The book isn’t supposed to be an authentic truth about Claudia. Claudia is completely different now … she’s constantly changing. We’re always changing and evolving. That’s humanity, and I think that’s so important, especially to remember about undocumented immigrants because they’ve been so objectified and pathologized by the media. We forget that they change, they have memories, they have experiences just like anybody else.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on and Thanks for donating today.

Kristen Cabrera is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, where she saw snow for the first time and walked a mile through a blizzard. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, she graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American (now UTRGV) and is a former KUT News intern. She has been working as a freelance audio producer, writer and podcaster. Email her: