On Nov. 8, Martha’s 8-year-old daughter didn’t want to go to school.
“When I asked her why, she said she was worried that if [Donald] Trump won, I wouldn’t be there to pick her up after school,” Martha said, in Spanish. “I told her, if he wins or not, I’ll be there for you.”
That certainty could wane in January. The president-elect has pledged to deport up to 3 million undocumented immigrants after his inauguration. Martha, who is undocumented, said the election results have heightened her and her family’s fears about deportation.
“When it happened, it made me laugh,” she recalled of her daughter's early fears. “But later it really bothered me. She’s 8 years old, she’s a child. Why should she be worrying? She should be thinking about playing or studying, not worrying about her parents.”
Martha is one of many mothers in the region who reached out to Sarah Caldera-Wimmer and Sara Johnson-Cardona, two social workers who work with Latino residents in St. Louis. St. Louis Public Radio is not using the last names of Martha and others in this story to protect their privacy.
In the absence of answers about what will happen after January, the social workers are combating the enmity against many of their Latino clients by collecting letters of support from people throughout St. Louis and around the country. The letters, written for children, are gathered online and given to families at non-profit events in the region.
“Kids are scared. "They are somewhat powerless in this situation as to what happens to their parents, they don’t get to vote,” said Caldera-Wimmer, who works at Kingdom House, a nonprofit in LaSalle Park.
"Kids have been [asked] 'when are you moving back to Mexico' — U.S.-citizen children that were born here and have never been to Mexico,” she said. “We want to let them know like, 'We need you; you’re a part of our community.' I mean, if we disenfranchise them, what will that look like in 10 years if we told a 10-year-old 'you don’t belong here?'”
On the Sunday after the election, another mother, Maribel, walked with her 11-year-old daughter from their car to the Schnucks store on Gravois Avenue and South Grand Boulevard. An older white man saw them in the parking lot and yelled at them to go back to Mexico.
“It was a small incident that didn’t hurt me because we were more or less prepared for something like that to happen after the election,” Maribel said in Spanish. “But I worry about the next time — if there are more angry people and there’s no one around to witness or help us.”
Other Latina women whom the social workers serve, regardless of their immigration status, have noted a heightened tension after the election — even if it’s not outright hostility.
“When you walk into a store, it feels like everyone is watching you,” said Alejandra, who has lived in the United States for 10 years. “It feels like, racism is here and now. It didn’t feel like that before [Trump won], but now? Forget about it.”
Others have weighed the pros and cons of returning to Mexico. Marisol is from Michoacan, Mexico, but she doesn’t want to return there with her children. Last year, one of her cousins there was sexually assaulted and killed leaving school.
“I really worry about bringing my kids with me if I have to go back to Mexico — but at the same time, I can’t leave them here,” Marisol said. “Who will I leave them with? What if I leave them with another family that is also deported? What then?”
The two social workers know community letters can't prevent deportations or end harassment — but they hope the messages offer some comfort. Letters have come in from all over the St. Louis metro area, and as far as Mexico.
One letter says:
"I'm thinking that this may be a scary and hard time for you after the election. I know it's been hard for me to hear the hateful things that people are saying to others because of Donald Trump's campaign. I'm writing because I want you to know that lots and lots of us don't agree with Mr. Trump. I am glad that we can live together here in the United States, and I hope that you feel loved and welcome here. I hope as you go to school and play that you will feel safe and know that many people here care about you and want what's best for you and your family. I will be praying for you!”
Caldera-Wimmer and Johnson-Cardona distributed some of the letters at a community dinner last week at Kingdom House. After reading her letter, Maribel’s daughter Mariana welled up with tears and buried her face in her mother’s shoulder.
“I feel like there’s [going to be] people around me who will believe in me and help me out when I’m in a bad situation,” says Mariana. “It just feels like from a letter that they know me enough to know how I feel.”
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