Conversations Among First-Generation Latinas on Migration and Social Work

Curated by Celeste Sánchez, MSW

In 2016, 15 social work students from Loyola University Chicago attended a summer immersion course about migration in Mexico City. Many of us—as immigrants or children of immigrants—found ourselves in new territory as we gained insight into our own families’ histories and our communities in the U.S. and Latin America. Yet, this trip—and indeed our graduate education—was largely geared for white students, not for us. In this series, we reflect and grapple with our experiences, perspectives, privileges, fears, challenges, and hopes as first-generation Latinas. We share here some of our conversations, poetry, and reflections as we lean on our mutual discoveries and ongoing conversations during this impactful experience.


Migration and Social Work Education

By María Vidal de Haymes

I am a professor of Social Work at Loyola University Chicago, and I am also an immigrant.  My decision to enter into social work as a profession was deeply influenced by my experience as an immigrant.  

I am from Cuba, and my family migrated to the United States and Venezuela in pieces following the Cuban revolution in 1959.  My two older brothers left the island first. In 1963 my parents, my sister, and I were reunited with them. A small Cuban community formed in Lincoln, Nebraska as some of the children of the orphanage were reunited with their families and some formed families of their own.

My earliest memories are of playing on the floor in a classroom where my parents attended ESL classes. By the time I was in my middle school years I accompanied older members of the Lincoln Cuban community to doctors’ visits, appointments at the welfare and social security offices, banks and so on, to translate and to help them navigate these complex systems. It wasn’t because I was so knowledgeable of these systems at young age; I just spoke English and there were not any bilingual professionals or translation services available in Lincoln at that time. Here, I began my path towards social work. As a child my eyes were opened to the vulnerability of the immigrant adults and families around me, including mine; the barriers they confronted to employment, integration, and needed services. I also quickly began to understand the difference access to the services could make in the life of individuals and families. My role expanded to teaching newcomers that were living with us how to take the bus, apply for jobs, search for an apartment, enroll in ESL classes and basically make their way in a new context.  

By the time I enrolled in college, I knew that I wanted to study social work. After all, it seemed as though my life experiences were already taking me down that path. I feel that my undergraduate and graduate studies in social work prepared me well in many ways but never addressed the concern that first drew me to social work – the situation of migrants. Yet, I found my field placements and employment invariably focused on work with immigrants and refugees. It was my language abilities that once again positioned me to work with immigrants, but again, with no other specific preparation. I do not even recall a single article assigned for any of my classes or a lecture that focused on social work practice with immigrants and refugees.  

In 1992, having completed my doctoral studies, I accepted a faculty position at Loyola University Chicago, teaching social welfare policy, community practice, and diversity courses. It wasn’t until seven years later that I rediscovered my inspiration for entering into social work when I met founder and Director of Jesuit Migrant Services of Mexico, Fr. Vladimiro Valdes, and later attended his migration studies certificate program for parish leaders in communities heavily impacted by out-migration and Central American transit migration. While five of our six team members in attendance were immigrants and all were social workers working with immigrants, we realized how limited our vision was. Our work and understanding of the immigrant experience was largely that of immigrants in destination communities, of social workers engaged in immigrant and refugee resettlement. We were quite blind to the situation of communities of origin impacted by emigration and the associated family separation, or situation of migrants in transit. This experience profoundly marked us and inspired our development of a program of study that would provide the similar experiences and insights to our students that Jesuit Migrant Services had provided us.

Given the limited advances in the integration of migration studies content in social work curriculum, in 2010 Loyola University set out to address this curricular focus on migration in social work by establishing a sub-specialization in Social Work Practice with Immigrants and Refugees. We have partnered with a number of researchers, academics, and activists from U.S., Mexican, and Central American institutions of higher education, and transnational governmental and non-governmental organizations[1] to offer students opportunities for migration-focused study abroad for short and extended periods, including:


Prayer of migrants. Photo credits: Carly Miller.

Prayer of migrants. Photo credits: Carly Miller.

●      A 2-week long migration-focused summer immersion course in Mexico City;  

●      A two-way undergraduate and first and second year MSW summer–block field placements Mexico for Loyola students and in Chicago for our Mexico partner institutions;

●      A border immersion course during Spring break in Nogales, Arizona/Sonora, Mexico; and

●      Credit bearing Spanish language classes for social workers in partnership with the Universidad Autónoma de México (UNAM) Chicago’s satellite campus.


Our migration studies program is a work in progress. It is far from perfect, but it offers a sincere and earnest attempt to provide a rich migration focused course of study for our students. We were recently awarded a three-year grant to incorporate inter-professional and transnational practice dimensions to the program. Over the next three years we will be working towards 1) integrating a U.S. and Mexican students from our partner organizations in the course and fieldwork offerings; 2) adding a U.S. based immersion course and field research options; and 3) integrating students from the fields of medicine, anthropology, psychology, and law. The goal is to prepare a transnational cadre of health, law, social work, and human service professionals for practice with immigrants and their families in communities of origin, transit, destination, and return. 

We are confident that we are offering our students a unique opportunity to develop a more complex understanding of migration from multiple vantage points and perspectives, but we recognize the need to continue to adapt and refine the program. Adaptation is need to reflect the ever-changing dynamics of migration, governmental policies, changing country contexts, professional practice trends, as well as varying class composition. A recent challenge, and one that is quite welcome, has been the increase in the number of 1st and 2nd generation Latino students participating in the program. For them the experience of migration is palpable. After all, for many, it is a variant of their family experiences that they witness in our visits to shelters and with nongovernmental organizations. Their family narratives are echoed in the testimonies of the migrant/teachers that we encounter, and that, in turn, becomes abstracted and theorized in the academic lectures. The inclusion of these narratives and experiences as a focus of study in the curriculum is a step forward from my era as a social work student, but we still have a long way to go to create spaces that are both relevant and targeted for 1st and 2nd generation students.


Dr. Vidal de Haymes is a Professor in the School of Social Work and directs the Migration Studies Sub-specialization and coordinates a migration-focused international social service exchange between Loyola University, Universidad Iberoamericana-Mexico City, Jesuit Migrant Services of Mexico, and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

 [1] Our primary partners have included: Universidad Iberoamericana-Mexico City,  Catholic Charities of Chicago, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente (Jesuit University of Guadalajara- ITESO), Jesuit Migrant Services of Mexico, the Network of Jesuit Migrant Services of Central and North America (Red de Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes Centroamerica y Norteamerica -SMJ & CA/NA), Kino Border Initiative, and  Escuela Nacional de Trabajo Social de la Universidad Autónoma de México, ENTS-UNAM (The National School of Social Work).


The Unseen

By Cynthia Velasquez

Photo credits: Author.

Photo credits: Author.

A desire

A plan

A lifeline

A must

A journey of hundreds of miles

A journey

A journey full of danger




La Migra


La Bestia







The Unknown






Sore Feet

A journey for a better life

A better life-

For Money

For Jobs

For Safety

For Dignity

A life without documentation

A life in fear

A life away from loved ones,

from the land you love

A life surrounded by foreign language

A life working long hours for low pay

A life being discriminated

A life...




A life deserving dignity

A life seeking better opportunities

A life fleeing violence,




A life deserving to be seen


To be seen more than by status

By birth country

By language

By skin color

A life deserving to be known more than as ILLEGAL



A phrase

A title

A word

A word that does not define a life









Words to describe-



Cynthia Velasquez is a child of two Guatemalan immigrants. She graduated with a Master of Social Work degree in May 2017 and now works with young adults to achieve their passions through care management and therapeutic services.



Lo Que Vi

By Gisel Romero

Solidaridad. Creditos: Autora.

Solidaridad. Creditos: Autora.

Fue muy fuerte ver a tantos centro americanos
Rumbo a los Estados Unidos, en tan peligroso camino
Incluyendo a una madre con su bebé y jóvenes de la edad de mi hermano

Ver a mi gente lejos de su tierra, en busca de otra vida
Una vida que no se da en su propia tierra
Me sentí tan conectada a ellos
Pero también mundos aparte
Por mi privilegio de ser ciudadana del país de las barras y las estrellas
Sin necesidad de ir a buscar una "vida mejor"

Y peor fue ver que entre nosotros mismos, latino americanos
Nos tratamos como extraños, cuando somos hermanos
Con una historia compartida y más de migración

Que impotencia y rabia
Los sistemas de opresión y dominación
Como nos tratan, como trapo viejo
Y como nos ciegan a dividirnos entre nos

Lo que me queda es la esperanza
Que es nutrida de la lucha de mi gente
Y la certeza que como están las cosas, vamos mal
Toca pelear


Gisel Romero is the proud daughter of Honduran immigrants, which has greatly shaped her perspective of the world and instilled in her an inclination for social justice from a very young age. She imagines a much more beautiful, just, and inclusive world where there will be liberation for all peoples; she is committed to making such a beautiful world a reality. Gisel received a Master of Social Work degree and currently works as a counselor with high school girls, many of whom are the daughters of immigrants in a predominantly Latino and immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois.


La Distancia

By Gisel Romero



Es la distancia…

Que duele tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable como pasan las horas

Sin alcance a la familia

La pérdida de sonrisas

Abuelos, Hermanos, Tíos


Aún Más Doloroso

Madres y Padres


Es la distancia

Que duele tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable lo que hace falta

Y quien hace falta

Las caricias que no se sienten

Los abrazos, los besos, las lágrimas


Aún Más Doloroso

La briza calurosa de la madre patria

Que se convierte en remembranza


Es la distancia

Que duele tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable el sueño lejano

La incertidumbre de lo extraño

El anhelo de los recuerdos

Los cuentos de la infancia


Aún Más Doloroso

Haber perdido un momento especial

Y el miedo de nunca regresar


Es la distancia

Que duele tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable el corazón roto

El confín de una foto

La separación

Solo sosegada por una línea de teléfono


Aún Más Doloroso

Solo oír la voz

De los que me vieron crecer

Sin un encuentro cercano


Es la distancia

Que duele tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable la convicción de la oración

Sin poder dar una bendición

Pero permanecer fuerte

Porque de mi depende mi gente


Aún Más Doloroso

El reto de la producción

Por la meta de un millón

Que nunca veré yo


Es la distancia

Que duela tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable el dolor

De la impotencia de no poder cambiar

La condición de la pobreza

En la tierra donde nací

Aunque trabajo sin fin


Aún Más Doloroso

Querer regresar

Pero no poder


Es la distancia…

Que duele tanto

Por necesaria y detestada

La puta distancia


Gisel Romero is the proud daughter of Honduran immigrants, which has greatly shaped her perspective of the world and instilled in her an inclination for social justice from a very young age. She imagines a much more beautiful, just, and inclusive world where there will be liberation for all peoples; she is committed to making such a beautiful world a reality. Gisel received a Master of Social Work degree and currently works as a counselor with high school girls, many of whom are the daughters of immigrants in a predominantly Latino and immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois.



‘Guilt’ in Spanish

By Jessica Tapia

Collage credits: Author.

Collage credits: Author.

It has been several months since my trip to Mexico City (CDMX) and what I now remember as the two most emotional and overwhelming weeks of my life.

I felt a mix of emotions, including frustration, sadness, and disappointment over the current state of immigration, and I also experienced happiness because I truly enjoyed the time I got to spend exploring such a vibrant city. However, I also felt sick to my stomach because no matter how many nightly group reflections I sat through or how many pages of my journal I filled, I still struggled inside. It was not until I got back home that I finally understood that what I had been carrying around with me was a feeling of guilt. I realized I felt guilty over my level of privilege.

I had tried talking to my parents and colleagues about my CDMX experience, but they did not seem to understand. I felt like maybe I was not explaining myself well enough. Sometimes I would even wonder if my experiences were as impactful as I had made them out to be in my mind.

I picked up a Spanish-English dictionary because I thought that by using the word ‘guilt’ in Spanish that my parents would better understand me. In Spanish, ‘guilt’ translates to remordimiento. The definition of the word says that it is a feeling you experience after having done something bad. I thought, “Something bad?” But I didn’t do anything wrong.” I went on this trip to bridge my own experiences with immigration with learning ways I could help immigrant communities back home in Chicago. After all, this was the community that raised me.

I did not anticipate such significant feelings of guilt. I had not done anything wrong, yet it felt so unjust. I was born in the U.S. I received a quality education. I can work legally. I can get health benefits and I can travel freely. Others cannot.

Sometimes it feels like my struggles do not matter – that I am first generation or that I have served as a cultural broker for my family my entire life. It does not matter that growing up most of my clothes were from the Salvation Army. It does not matter that I put my mother to bed instead of the other way around because most of the time she was so tired from work that she always—and still does—falls asleep before the 8 o’clock telenovela. When comparing my experiences to those of the teenage boys we met at the comedor alongside the infamous train tracks of La Bestia, the struggle does not compare.

The comedor is a soup kitchen we visited in a town not far from the Mexican capital. We arrived in our half-empty, air-conditioned bus equipped with a bathroom, as migrants stood outside the comedor in the shade. I immediately felt embarrassed for our ridiculous display of American privilege. I offered to help in the kitchen thinking that by hiding in the kitchen, I would feel less ashamed.

The migrants at the comedor were mostly teenage boys, the same age as my little brother back home. As I thought about the reasons why these boys had to leave their home countries, the traumas they endured, and their uncertain futures, I began to cry because I thought about how unjust the whole situation was. I tried not to let them see my face and thought to myself: “What are you doing, Jessica? Why are you the one crying? You are not the one living day-to-day and putting your life at risk like these young men are!”

It was a privilege to serve them even one meal. It was uncertain when they would eat again. How many would actually make it to the border? How many would get picked up and sent back? And, how many of these boys would die before they arrived in the U.S.? I wish I could relive that experience with more respect and dignity.

My parents were born in Mexico and grew up in large, poor, and uneducated families. They left their country because they needed better financial opportunities. They wanted to better themselves and provide for their families back home. Now, most of my aunts and uncles are living in the U.S., both lawfully and undocumented. At family gatherings, I listen to their conversations and they all say the same thing: it is better to be here than in Mexico. I grew up in an incredibly diverse neighborhood with neighbors who were also immigrants from countries all over the world. I went to school with their children and I was lucky to learn about their lives.

I still have family in Mexico. I have cousins who cannot find jobs. I have cousins who want to go to college but their parents cannot afford it. I think about them and how they want to better their lives but systems and institutions prevent them from doing so. I compare all that I have to what little they do have and it just is not fair.

My privilege exists and the guilt continues.

Now when I sit with my students in counseling sessions, I remember this. I remember that I need to be stronger and more present to my clients. I cannot let these feelings of guilty and privilege weigh me down. And, I should respond with respect and dignity. I remind myself daily that I must use my privilege to help those who have less.  


Jessica Tapia is a bilingual mental health clinician providing therapy and case management services to clients of all ages and stages in life. She is daughter to Mexican immigrants and honored their sacrifices and dreams by graduating with a Master of Social Work from Loyola University Chicago.


Comedor El Samaritano

Por Celeste Sánchez

(English translation below)

Créditos fotográficos: Autora

Créditos fotográficos: Autora

El comedor “El Samaritano [1]” ubicado en Bojay, Hidalgo, México apoya a migrantes, principalmente centroamericanos, con atención médica, alimentos, un lugar para descansar, y ropa. Durante una tarde nosotras tuvimos la oportunidad de ir a visitar el comedor, las personas que a diario laboran allí, y a los migrantes que buscan apoyo y descanso en esta casa del migrante. La siguiente pequeña reflexión intenta capturar un poco esa experiencia.

Mi gringitud quedaba completamente expuesta. No había manera de explicar ni disfrazar mi privilegio al bajar de ese bus. Nosotras estábamos viajando cómodamente para “apoyar” a migrantes centroamericanos que dejaban sus países a pie, en bus, en tren y encontraban un pequeño refugio en el comedor de Bojay. Creo que nunca había sentido tanta pena como en ese momento. Aunque yo no quisiera, mi realidad era la siguiente: yo era parte de ese grupo de gringas que bajaba del autobús de “rock stars.”  

Justo al bajar del lujoso bus, pasaba el tren en las vías que nos separaba de los jóvenes migrantes que hacían fila y se recostaban contra la pared del comedor. El temblor que dejó el tren tardó en irse. Fue como un gran sacudón que llegó a plantearme en una realidad de la cual yo me debo, pero una realidad que jamás tuve que experimentar personalmente.

Es la experiencia que yo más esperaba; lo que más anhelaba en este viaje. Ya no quería escuchar a más “expertos” de diversos temas que tienen que ver con migración, ni quería creerme “experta” porque había escuchado y anotado algunos datos sobre personas que migran y sus circunstancias. Quería compartir y aprender de los expertos verdaderos.

Después de saludar a los jóvenes migrantes que esperaban hacer una llamada a sus seres queridos y buscaban descansar y alimentarse, las monjas y voluntarias nos dieron un pequeño tour del comedor. Sentía pena y no podía concentrarme completamente en lo que nos contaban y nos compartían sobre los acontecimientos y trámites diarios del comedor. No podía dejar de pensar que le quitábamos tiempo preciado a las voluntarias y le quitábamos el tiempo a los que en verdad merecían esa atención que nos brindaban a nosotras.

Pensaba y sigo pensando en las personas que inician un viaje, sin saber exactamente qué les espera, pero que de igual manera encuentran el coraje para intentarlo. Estas mismas personas, con sus penas, su cansancio, sus esperanzas compartieron con un grupo de extrañas sus nombres, sus viajes, sus vidas en sus países, sus sueños al llegar a EEUU…Nos permitieron compartir alimentos, nos permitieron cargar y arrullar a su bebé, y nos contestaron nuestras curiosidades a pesar de que éramos unas desconocidas.  

Nunca quites la sonrisa más bonita. Créditos fotográficos: Autora.

Nunca quites la sonrisa más bonita. Créditos fotográficos: Autora.

Sentí y sigo sintiendo un gran privilegio al saber que, aunque fue breve, pude servir a estos hombres, mujeres, jóvenes. Me regalaron el honor de poder apoyar en dar acceso a las necesidades básicas que ofrecen las voluntarias de Bojay todos los días para que las personas migrantes descansen y sigan su camino con un poco más de fuerza.

La experiencia de asear inodoros y regaderas para el uso de aquellos que buscan cruzar fronteras para llegar al país en el cual yo nací, y que me hace dar por hecho tantas cosas, es algo que jamás quiero, ni debo olvidar. Que gran honor sentí al asear para ellos. Que orgullo el poder ayudar a preparar para los que inevitablemente utilizarían ese espacio al día siguiente. Un pequeñísimo gesto de solidaridad al hermano luchador que pasa por el mismo camino que les tocó a mis padres.

Mil gracias a todos aquellos que nos permitieron compartir y aprender con ellos.


Celeste N. Sánchez, MSW, es una mujer centroamericana nacida y criada en el sur de California. Tiene varios años de experiencia en el trabajo directo con niños y adolescentes en Guatemala y Honduras. Actualmente es trabajadora social para el Programa de Defensa de Familias Refugiadas en Public Counsel en Los Ángeles, California y asistente de investigación en una investigación sobre la deportación y reintegración de jóvenes en Guatemala.


[1] El comedor está en proceso de expansión para convertirse en albergue.




Food Kitchen: El Samaritano

 By Celeste Sánchez

The following is an English translation with the acknowledgement that it does not fully encompass what was felt, and expressed in the original Spanish language piece.

The soup kitchen “El Samaritano[1]” located in Bojay, Hidalgo, Mexico provides support for migrants, mainly Central Americans, with medical attention, nourishment, a place to rest, and clothing. During an afternoon we had the opportunity to go and visit the soup kitchen, the people that on a daily basis work there, and the migrants that look for rest and support in this home for migrants. The following small reflection tries to capture a part of this experience.

My gringa-ness was completely exposed. There was no way to explain or disguise my privilege as I got off of the bus. We were traveling comfortably to “support” Central American migrants that left their countries on foot, by bus, on a train and found a small refuge in the soup kitchen of Bojay. I think I had never been as embarrassed as in that moment. Even if I did not want to, my reality was the following: I was part of that group of gringas that got off of the “rock star” bus.

Just as we got off of the luxurious bus, the train passed by on the track that separated us from the young migrants that were in line and leaning against the wall of the soup kitchen. The tremor that the train left lasted a while. It was like a violent shake that planted me in a reality to which I owe myself to, but a reality that I never had to endure personally. That was the experience I was waiting for the most; what I was yearning for on this trip. I no longer wanted to listen to more “experts” on various themes that have to do with migration, nor did I want to think I was an “expert” because I had listened and taken some notes on people that migrate and their circumstances. I wanted to share with and learn from the real experts.

After saying hello to the young migrants that were waiting to make a phone call to their loved ones and were seeking some rest and nourishment, the nuns and volunteers gave us a small tour of the soup kitchen. I was embarrassed and I could not fully concentrate on what they were telling us and shared with us about the daily procedures and happenings of the soup kitchen. I could not stop thinking that we were taking away precious time from the volunteers and taking time from those that truly deserved the attention they were giving to us.

I thought and continue to think about the people that begin their trip, without exactly knowing what awaits them but that still find the courage to try. Those same people, with their hardships, their fatigue, their hope shared with a group of strangers their names, their journeys, their lives in their home countries, their dreams when arriving to the USA…They allowed us to share their nourishment, they allowed us to carry and lull their baby, and they answered our curious questions even though we were strangers.

I felt and continue feeling great privilege knowing that, even though it was brief, I was able to serve these men, women, and youth. They gifted me the honor of being able to help in giving Access to the basic needs that the volunteers of Bojay give every day so that migrant people can rest and continue their journey with a little more strength.

Never stop your most beautiful smile. Credits: Author.

Never stop your most beautiful smile. Credits: Author.

The experience of cleaning toilets and showers for the use of those that look to cross borders to arrive in the country where I was born, and makes me take things for granted, is something that I never want to or should forget. I felt a great honor cleaning for them. What great pride to be able to help prepare for those that inevitably will use the space the following day. An extremely small gesture of solidarity to the fighters that go through the same path my parents had to go through.

Many thanks to those that allowed us to share and learn with them.


Celeste N. Sánchez, MSW, is a Central American woman born and raised in southern California. She has several years of experience in direct work with children and adolescents in Guatemala and Honduras. She is currently working as the social worker for the Refugee Family Defense Program at Public Counsel in Los Angeles, California and as a research assistant on an investigation regarding the deportation and reintegration of youth in Guatemala.



[1] The soup kitchen is in the process of becoming a shelter.


A Conversation

by Celeste Sánchez

The following audio recording emerged in response to the written pieces presented in this series and a general desire to share more about our experience as children of immigrants during the trip to Mexico. We invited other Latinos/children of immigrants to analyze our contributions in an effort to further unpack the meaning(s) of our lived experiences. We felt our reflections and poetry might resonate with others who shared our experiences as children of immigrants. Here, we share their questions and our responses. Many thanks to Alejandra Montes, José Ortiz-Rosales, and 2 other friends for taking the time to read our work and providing genuine and thoughtful comments that simultaneously challenged us and provided solace.