Updated: Mar 30, 2021
By Lara Cerri
Caring Coalition AZ partners with local schools to help families who are experiencing food insecurity. Like many families in Arizona and throughout the country, ours have had financial setbacks as a result of the pandemic due to job loss, losing their homes, or contracting COVID.
According to a recent survey by Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions, almost 32% of Arizona households experienced food insecurity since COVID-19 — a 28% increase from the year prior to the pandemic. Furthermore, Hispanic households, households with children, and households who experienced a job disruption were more likely to be both persistently and newly food insecure.
Lupe* is a stay-at-home mom with 4 children. She shared her story with us. Lupe’s daughter, Holly, translated for her.
(*Lupe and her family’s names have been changed to protect their identity.)
Lupe is no stranger to hardship. She still remembers what it was like to spend three days and nights in the desert after crossing the border from Mexico to Arizona. How the cactus cut her arms and legs. How hungry and scared she was.
When she was 12, Lupe left an abusive household in her small village in Guatemala. The poverty in her family was so dire that she ate just one meal a day. She and a friend fled for El Salvador, but the poverty there was just as bad, so she ended up in Mexico. She didn’t have an education, because girls didn’t go to school for basic reading and writing where she grew up. So she worked for an exploitative rancher in Mexico. Again, she had to run away and escape abuse. Several times, she was caught by Mexican immigration and either jailed or sent back to Guatemala.
When she finally left her home country for good, she decided she was going to risk anything to get to the United States. She would risk starvation, sexual assault or death. She just couldn’t return home, where she was certain she would starve. Like so many migrants, she knew it was her best chance to find a better life. Her journey away from constant struggle took many years.
As a child, she’d heard that getting to and staying in the United States was easy, that anyone could do it and once you got to the border, they would let you in and everything would be fine. She grew up believing that. With the help of a smuggler, known as a coyote, she crossed the U.S.-Mexico border near Nogales. After her harrowing desert crossing, she was blindfolded and taken to a hotel in Phoenix, where her sister had to pay the coyote to release her. Eventually, she found work at a hotel and in a furniture warehouse.
“Usually the stereotype of immigrants is they come here to steal, kill and rape. In reality, they just want an opportunity for a better life,” said Lupe through her 14-year-old daughter, Holly, a bright-eyed, confident straight-A student. “We are honest, hardworking, we use a lot of coupons, save money,” continued Holly, as they sat next to each other on a brown corduroy couch under the awning of their driveway on this cool, spring day. She and her mother have the same long, black, shiny hair. They converse easily with one another, smiling and laughing.
Their family is excited to be in their new home. It’s a vast improvement from the tiny apartment they were renting on a busy central Phoenix street with a small patch of dirt as a front yard. “We each have our own beds,” Holly said excitedly, as her three siblings, ranging in age from 7-12, studied, and played inside.
“My parents always worried about not having enough money for rent, scared they’d get kicked out with four kids,” said Holly. They know other families who have lost their homes, or who have squeezed as many as 15 people into one household. Many families they know would rather take each other in, fearing that if they end up in a shelter they might have their kids taken away.
Lupe used to work occasionally, but her significant other Juan, who is also the father of their kids, is the main breadwinner. His landscaping and renovation business dried up at the start of the pandemic, and Lupe began staying home full time to help with her children’s online learning.
The couple met in an apartment building a few years after she arrived in Phoenix. Juan had recently come from Chihuahua, Mexico, crossing the border into Arizona after riding “La Bestia,” the network of windowless Mexican freight trains which traverse the length of Mexico. It is called “The Beast” because so many people die riding them, or lose limbs. According to a 2014 National Public Radio story, “up to a half-million migrants now ride The Beast each year, sitting back-to-back along the spine of the train cars, trying not to get knocked off their rooftop perch. Journeys on the train can take anywhere from a week to several months, and many migrants have made this trip more than once.”
Arizona has a growing population of immigrants, and many have similar stories of how they arrived. The American Immigration Council says that about 13% of Arizona’s residents were born in another country, and 16% of residents are born in the United States with at least one immigrant parent. "One in six Arizona workers is an immigrant, and state industries like agriculture and construction depend on an even greater share of immigrants," says the council's website. "As neighbors, business owners, taxpayers, and workers, immigrants are an integral part of Arizona’s diverse and thriving communities and make extensive contributions that benefit all."
It has taken months, but Juan is finally rebuilding his clientele. While he was struggling to find work, Lupe stayed home. She, like many people, experienced depression at the hands of the pandemic. She had a hard time being motivated and started gaining weight. “She pulled herself out of it,” explained Holly. Lupe looked at baby pictures of kids, and realized that she had to pull herself together for them. “She helped her kids, which helped her, and she looked for happiness inside of herself,” said Holly. “She brings out the best in us so we can see what we are capable of,” she said. Lupe now has words of wisdom after recovering from her depression: “The most pure thing a mother can do is to make her kids happy so she can be happy herself.”
Caring Coalition volunteers and school officials reached out and offered help. Their concern made Lupe feel like she and her family mattered. She was worried about groceries for her family. “Now, we have that,” said Holly. “We are happy whenever we get the boxes (from Caring Coalition), we always want to see what’s inside.” Sometimes, they share their groceries with others, like an elderly friend from El Salvador. “It’s nice to know that there are strangers willing to help,” said Holly.
Holly is hopeful for her future because her mother has made a better life for her kids than she had for herself — a dream fulfilled. “In the future, I hope to be stable, have a little money, be doing a job I love, and to not have any regrets when I get older,” said Holly, who dreams of being a forensic scientist or FBI agent.
The love Holly feels for her mother is evident. “She pushes me to be the best I can be whether it’s education, helping my siblings, speaking Spanish or getting more connected with my parents’ cultures,” she said.
“She (her mother) perseveres through everything she’s done,” said Holly. “When people tell her ‘no’, it motivates her and gives her strength. Everything is ‘yes’ to her.”
“It gives her peace to know our childhoods were filled with love,” said Holly, as her little brother came outside to sit on her lap. “We are not perfect people,” she said of her culture, “but what keeps us moving forward is our love for our children.”