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Editor’s Note: Maria Olvera is among 2.6 million U.S. grandparents doing primary childcare for their grandchildren. Older Latinos like her face special challenges—and worries. Maria Olvera is pictured above with Valory, one of the two grandchildren she is raising in Altadena, Calif. Photo: Sarah Reingewirtz courtesy of San Gabriel Valley News Group.
ALTADENA, Calif.--Two-year-old Richard kicked a blue rubber ball inside the home he shares with his family. When he tripped on it he ran up to María Olvera.
"Mamá me caí," he said, "Mom I fell."
But Olvera, 51, isn't the little boy's mother, she is his grandmother. She's been raising Richard along with his older sister Jennifer, 10, since their mother was deported nine months ago.
It hasn't been easy for the family; they've faced evictions, near blindness induced by diabetes and two deaths in the past 14 months. Many of their struggles are common among families headed by a grandparent, researchers say.
The siblings are part of the nearly 10 percent of American children living with a grandparent, according to the Pew Research Center, which analyzed 2000 U.S. Census Bureau data. It was the first year the Census inquired about housing partly or fully headed by grandparents. The report also found that a majority of the grandparents were women.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2008 there were 6.4 million grandparents living in households with grandchildren under age 18, and 2.6 million of them had primary responsibility for parenting their grandchildren. About a half million of those grandparents live below the poverty line.
While the numbers have more then tripled since 1970, being the sole caretaker of young children is increasingly complicated for grandparents, who often face more health issues as they age. This phenomenon occurs among all races and ethnic groups, although the types of arrangements and issues vary.
A house with only a grandparent is considered a single-generation household, while
one with a parent or both parents is considered a multigeneration household.
Whites, blacks, Pacific Islanders and Native American/Alaskan Native grandparents are more likely to be in a single-generation home than either Latino or Asian children.
Olvera used to fit the Latino norm, but since her daughter was deported, the bulk of the
responsibility for taking care of the kids falls on her.
"The problem is that for many Latinos, unless they've been lucky enough to become middle class and have some stability in terms of income, when they take on the additional role of raising their grandchildren it's a hardship," said Carmela LaCayo, president of the National Association for Hispanic Elderly. "Even those that are low-income do it with a very big heart because la familia es la familia," she said.
In the San Gabriel Valley and Whittier areas where Mexican-American families moved from Los Angeles to the suburbs, families headed by grandparents were likely more stable before the recession, LaCayo said. That is probably changing now.
The infrastructure for these families does not exist and is breaking down--as funding for daycare or after-school programs that would offer relief decreases, LaCayo noted.
"If you look at the middle-class and lower middle-class, I would bet you anything they're
struggling when you talk about infrastructure," she said, "especially if the grandparent has to become a guardian."
Even if grandparents have taken care of themselves when they get to their senior years, they don't have the same energy and patience needed to raise kids, LaCayo added.
Some grandparents, such as Olvera, raise their grandchildren with little or no rights or recognition out of fear of being reported to the federal government. All Olvera has as proof that she is responsible for the two kids is a piece of paper signed by her and the children's mother, who is currently living in Tijuana.
Maria Reyes, the children's mother, was deported after being arrested several times, and Richard's father was killed in 2008. The rest of her children have different fathers, who are not involved with raising the kids.
There are four siblings. Henry Reyes, 11, and Valeria Medina, 8, live with a maternal aunt. The family makes it a point to bring the kids together every day.
"Even though they don't live together, it's important for them to know that they're still family," Olvera said.
Standing at a little over five-feet tall, Olvera sits with her hands together, as if she's trying to occupy as little space as possible. A smile rarely graces her face around strangers, but is all smiles with her grandchildren.
Even before Reyes was deported, Olvera would take care of the four siblings. Their mother would disappear for up to a month and leave the kids with her, she said. Police would knock on her door and ask if her daughter was there.
"I would worry when she didn't come back, but I would be more worried when she took the kids with her," Olvera said. "I'm going to help my kids with whatever I can -- we never know what life is going to throw at us."
Custody is hard in this case because Olvera is undocumented. She hopes to gain custody of the two kids, but she first has to acquire her citizenship. As a victim of domestic abuse who helped authorities prosecute her abuser, she qualifies for a U-Visa for survivors of domestic abuse.
Helping Olvera in that quest are Mirsa Serrano and Teresa De La Torre, who run the Madison Healthy Start Family from a bungalow on the Pasadena campus of Madison Elementary School.
"Our mission is to make sure that nothing gets in the way of the children's education," De La Torre said. "Even though Olvera's situation is tough, we see that she is able to take care of the kids."
Gaining legal custody in general can be hard to achieve, said Jaia Peterson Lent, deputy executive director, at Generations United, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for the improvement of youth and older people's lives.
"Not only can it be costly, but sometimes they don't know where to go and there have been a number of instances where families don't want to pursue legal custody because they hope that ultimately the parent will come back," Lent said.
Fixing Olvera’s immigration status is one of four issues she has to tackle. The others are finding a stable job, getting her own place and looking after her health.
When Olvera stopped working at Camellia Gardens Care Center and was evicted from her Pasadena apartment six months ago, she was forced to move in with her three sons in Altadena.
She spends her day inside the home with Richard. Friends and family pick up Jennifer from school. When she's not keeping a close eye on her grandson, she's cleaning or cooking.
The home is dark, with a bare living room. Olvera's proud of the kitchen, which is spotless. The rest of the house could use some love and care, Olvera said.
Still the grandmother is isolated at the Altadena home, afraid of getting on a bus and getting lost. She depends on family and friends for rides to the market.
The only places she'll visit alone are those within walking distance. Olvera doesn't speak or write in English and is illiterate in Spanish.
Olvera was a mother before she could be a child. At the age of seven, her mom would have her babysit the children of other women in her rural Mexican village to earn money. They never sent her to school.
"Even though it's a lot of work, I would die if the kids were to be taken away from me," Olvera said. "It's because of the kids that I ask God to keep me healthy because they still need me."
When Richard got tired of kicking the ball around he grabbed his sippy cup and walked into the arms of the woman who's raising him.
Grandma or mom, it makes no difference to him.
This is the first article in a series by Adolfo Flores a staff writer at the Pasadena News Star. He wrote this article under a MetLife Foundation Journalists Fellowship in conjunction with New America Media (NAM) and the Gerontological Society of America. A Spanish-language version of this story will appear in El Nuevo Sol, as well as NAM.
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