Cultural and language barriers have not stopped parents from trying to get their children back.
More than two years have passed since Tomitina and Ovidio Mendez began their battle against the U.S. judicial system in order to regain custody of their children: Angela, Angel, Ever, Miriam, and Debby. The parents, of indigenous Mayan descent, live in Dalton and barely speak English or Spanish. However, ever since the Division of Family and Child Services (DFCS) took their children away for alleged medical negligence, the language barrier has not stopped the parents from fighting against what they consider to be an injustice.
Pareja indígena no se da por vencida
Las barreras culturales y del idioma no detienen a dos padres en la búsqueda por recuperar a sus pequeños. Han pasado más de dos años desde que Tomitina y Ovidio Méndez comenzaron su batalla contra el sistema judicial estadounidense para recuperar a sus pequeños Ángela, Ángel, Ever, Miriam y Debby. Los padres indígenas mayas residen en Dalton y apenas hablan español e inglés. Sin embargo, desde que el DFCS (Departamento de Servicios al Niño y a la Familia) les quitó a sus hijos por presunta negligencia médica, la barrera del idioma no les ha impedido luchar contra lo que consideran una injusticia.
When Beatriz Illescas become the director of the Guatemalan Consulate in Atlanta, she discovered that the families she was representing were misunderstood by social workers. There was little knowledge of Latino culture, resulting in separation for some families and jail time for others. Illescas also noticed that social workers, “in their eagerness to obey and protect, failed to see things that were important.” This realization drove Illescas to start thinking of ways to help the Division of Family and Child Services (DFCS) improve their operation.
Cuando Beatriz Illescas llegó a dirigir el Consulado de Guatemala en Atlanta se dio cuenta que las familias a las que representa eran incomprendidas por los trabajadores sociales, que había poco conocimiento de la cultura latina y que esto ocasionaba la separación de las familias y la cárcel para algunos. Illescas también observó que los trabajadores sociales “en su afán de cumplir y proteger, dejan de ver cosas que son importantes”. Esto la llevó a pensar en formas para ayudar al Departamento de Servicios al Niño y a la Familia (DFCS) a hacer mejor su trabajo.
Our culture’s shadow
Certain traditions common in Latin America are against the law in the U.S.
Reprender a los niños con una nalgada o ennoviarse con un menor de edad, algo común en Latinoamérica, está prohibido en Estados Unidos. “Adonde fueres haz lo que vieres” dice un conocido refrán que puede salvar a muchas familias latinas de tener problemas con las autoridades estadounidenses. Y es que cuando llegan a EE.UU., según los cónsules de varios países, muchos inmigrantes siguen actuando como lo hacían en sus tierras natales, sin percatarse de que aquí algunas acciones, como la disciplina física o el proveer alcohol a un menor de edad, son consideradas faltas graves y en algunos casos un delito.
Story Behind the Story
When I began the research process for my project about cultural differences, I approached the Guatemalan Consulate in Atlanta, because I knew that Consul Beatriz Illescas was concerned about the situation and was working to help the community.
Reaching her was easy, as was getting her statements. The most difficult part was finding a family that had been affected and would be willing to talk to the press in spite of being undocumented.
I found out about Tomitina and Ovidio Mendez, who were trying to regain custody of their five children, and went to the Dalton courthouse to speak with them. Both parents were very timid and fearful in the beginning, telling their story little by little. After we got to know each other, they kept me updated about their case.
The Guatemalan couple are of indigenous Mayan descent and barely speak English and Spanish; their lawyer said authorities failed to provide an appropriate translator. Their children had been taken from them on the grounds that they were malnourished. However, Consul Illescas said the children had a medical problem that prevented their bodies from absorbing nutrients properly.
I also reported the assessment of psychotherapist Rocio Woody, who said, “it is much more likely for Hispanic parents to lose custody of their children, because–in addition to not knowing local laws–they face a system that does not know their culture and sometimes lacks willingness, compassion or patience.”
The Mendez couple failed in an attempt to regain custody, but their story isn’t over yet. As I reported, they continue to fight for their children, and Consul Illescas is still helping them to get their children back. This is an ongoing story that I personally hope has a happy ending.
I believe that, thanks to the knowledge I gained at the IJJ Fellowship in March 2011, I was able to go beyond my initial plan for this story. I sought out other sources such as psychologist Woody, a university expert and representatives of two other consulates. Thus, I was able to bring greater recognition to this underreported issue.
Speaking with officials in the state’s Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) was the most challenging part. Government entities sometimes refuse to open their doors to us in the Hispanic media and don’t return our calls.
In this case, I tried to reach the DFCS main office in Atlanta. On several occasions, the officials promised me interview opportunities that never came to fruition. This went on for weeks until one day I left a voice message saying: “This is María Alejandra Bastidas, from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.” In a matter of minutes, I had my interview.
I was telling the truth. For more than six years, MundoHispánico has been an associated publication of the AJC, and sometimes its name opens doors.
Because of the importance of the topic, my article made the front page of our weekly newspaper. We achieved a pickup rate of 94.4 percent for that issue, the newspaper’s highest this year.
In addition, once my article was published, the Mendez family’s case became public, and in the following weeks every local Hispanic newspaper and local Hispanic television station such as Univision and Telemundo ran a similar story.
I also wrote a profile of consul Illescas, and what she calls her “crusade.” She is providing training to social workers and other involved in family service issues so that language and cultural differences can be bridged.
In addition, I received comments from several readers who asked that –instead of people criticizing the authorities– efforts be focused on educating the community. This same idea was suggested to me at the IJJ fellowship: to also focus on writing an article that would be educational for the community.
That’s how I came to write my third article, “Our Culture’s Shadow.” In it, I explained how some customs that are allowed in Latin American, such as severely spanking an unruly child or marrying a very young girl, are against the law in the United States. In this educational effort, I provided various examples of U.S. laws that differ from Latin American countries.
The reactions to this article were mixed: Some readers thanked me, while others were angry and criticized the American system, arguing that children raised in the United States are more prone to drugs, alcohol and teenage pregnancy than Latin American children.
Participating in this fellowship allowed me to not only learn about new ways to find angles for stories, but also how to obtain information from government officials and carry out more profound research.
The best part about working on this project and attending IJJ conference sessions is that, upon returning to the newsroom, I had the opportunity to share what I learned with my collegues. Not only did I benefit from this fellowship, but my team of reporters did as well.
Thank you very much for allowing me to be a part of this excellent program. I hope that in the future, other Hispanic reporters can have the experience of gaining valuable knowledge about immigration reporting.