Veronica was only nine years old when she had to learn to use video-conference software to speak and see her mom’s face through a low-resolution image. Veronica's mom, Margarita, like thousands of other women, moved to Spain in early 2000 to work as a babysitter, leaving her daughter with her mother back in Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital. Since then, their only form of communication has been via the internet at public computers.
About half of Paraguay’s population in 2003 suffered from extreme poverty and thousands of people lined up at their local passport offices attempting to move to Europe in search of employment. Historically, this has been the largest migration of Paraguayans; In Spain alone, the Paraguayan population spiked from 7,000 people in 2004 to over 82,000 by 2009.
By 2007, 70% of Paraguayan immigrants in Spain were women, and 90% were working as housekeepers or caregivers for the elderly and disabled. Just like Margarita, more than half of these women had children of their own and yet had to leave them in someone else’s hands to take care of other peoples’ families to provide for their own.
Veronica was raised mainly by her stay-at-home grandmother who she calls “mom.” She calls Margarita, her biological mother, “mommy.” Veronica shares her ‘abuela memby’ status with peers like Niurka Colman in circumstances very similar to her own. Niurka was also raised by her grandmother in Paraguay when her mother moved to Asturias, Spain to work as a caregiver for a disabled person.
“Abuela memby,” ‘a child of their grandmother,’ comes from a mix of Spanish and Guarani, and is often used in Paraguay to describe children like Veronica and Niurka, who have been raised by their grandmothers when their own mothers are unable, having migrated in search of work and education. These grandmothers are very strong figures in Paraguay’s culture where women support and care for each other’s children.
The grandmother has become a cultural icon featured in popular songs, a phenomena first appearing in Paraguayan culture as part of the population’s migration from rural to metropolitan areas, then to Argentina and later to Spain. According to a study produced by the United Nations, this is not a new parenting practice in this society, no new rules or patterns have been created, it has only grown stronger from something that already existed.
A crucial financial agreement exists between the mothers and grandmothers. Grandmothers take care of the children while their mothers work away from home and send money back to their own mothers to cover their children’s expenses. As elderly women, their daughters’ financial support is essential. At the national level, international money transfers make up the top four types of income generation for the country, and the only one that goes directly to the population.
The majority of international money transfers come from working mothers who moved to Spain during the economic downturn of 2003. For years, this was the only source of income for families like Niurka’s or Veronica’s. Fresh money flowing into the country eventually helped boost the economy. “The money wires allowed to include thousands of people in the newly opened financial services of the country,” said Manuel Ferreira Brusquetti, Paraguay's tax office.
Some mothers can return. Others cannot.
According to anthropologist Nicolás Granada, the women who have migrated to Spain are considered ‘pseudo-residents.’ The term ‘residents’ (in Spanish, residentas) dates back to the Chaco War, a conflict between Bolivia and Paraguay, and refers to women who were forced to evacuate the Paraguayan capital to work from any given ‘residence’ assigned. Granada references women from this time period to describe modern day Paraguayan women's dilemma: they need to move due to economic reasons and many do not return. Granada tells stories of the families who had to migrate to Spain in her documentary “Distances from Gua’u.”
Life circumstances are quite different for women who moved to Argentina compared to those who moved to Spain, according to Patricio Dobree, a researcher focusing on migration and labor, including the housekeeping market. The migration to Argentina was massive, but known as ‘circular,’ “meaning that women are able to return and take care of their children again if special circumstances call for it, such as illness or disability of the children or their grandmothers.”
The situation is much more complicated for women who moved to Spain. In emergencies or special circumstances, “they have more trouble returning due to distance and cost of travel,” explains Dobree. These dynamics present a different set of challenges for their families as well.
Micaela Martinez, like Niurka and Veronica, is also an ‘abuela memby.’ Her grandmother raised her after her mother went to Spain. Her grandmother, now 71-years-old, “needs someone to help her,” said Martinez.
Dobree explains how the ‘chain of care’ suffers when women cannot return to Paraguay. “Children grow up and turn into teenagers who represent a new set of challenges for their elderly grandmothers. These grandmothers also develop health issues and limitations over time; they also deserve and need care for themselves, which is challenging to accomplish.”
Micaela, now a college student, cares for her grandmother since her mother is away. Due to her responsibilities as a student, Micaela and her grandmother decided to hire Graciela, a housekeeper and caregiver. Graciela, in turn, has a two-year-old daughter who stays with her grandmother while Graciela works, and so the cycle of ‘abuela memby’ continues.