Latina Elders With Imprisoned Children Locked in Hard Times

Latina Elders With Imprisoned Children Locked in Hard Times

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Photo: Margaret Ibarra, 80, shows a photo of her son’s family before he went to prison. After that Ibarra raised her three grandchildren. Image: Ciro Cesar / La Opinión

Part 2 of 2 articles. Read Part 1 here.

SACRAMENTO—At the age of 80, Margaret Ibarra declared she is completely healthy. But something torments her day and night--her son Lino Ibarra is in Soledad State Prison, and she seldom can afford to visit him.

"My son calls me and says, 'Mom come and see me, I need you! But I cannot. Everything is very expensive. One plugs a hole but another opens up," she said ruefully of her efforts to save, only to have a new expense pop up.

Ibarra’s struggle exposes the hardships many of older Latinos struggling simply to make ends meet, or even be able to fulfill basic familial roles. Typical of Latina seniors, her total monthly income is $1,500 a month, barely above the federal poverty line for a family of two.

"I get $800 from Social Security, $400 from a small pension, and the government gives me $300 for a grandson who is my care," she explains.

Raising Grandchildren, Helping Each Other

Folsom Prison where Lino, 48, is incarcerated is located four hours from his mother’s home in North El Monte. He was sentenced to 25 years for domestic violence in 1998 under California’s Three Strikes sentencing law. That's why his mother has become one of the longest living activists fighting to overturn this law—“Like many Hispanic elderly mothers," she stated.

Ibarra, who is divorced, raised three of her son’s children after he went to prison. Their mother abandoned them. She is still raising her grandson, 14, which brings her a modest monthly stipend.

Like this elderly Latina, many grandparents—2.6 million nationwide--are primary caregivers of their grandchildren, according to the U.S. Census — while their children due to such reasons as drugs, military deployment or incarceration.

Grandparents are providing care for between 20 and 30 percent of prisoners’ children in California, estimated Abel Habtegeorgis of the Books Not Bars program at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, based in Oakland.

For elderly Hispanic mothers with adult children in prison, Amalia Molina is an angel.

Molina, who heads the Families of Incarcerated program of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, has collected enough funds over the years to sponsor the prison visits of several hundred of these parents.

"It's the saddest thing that it can be,” Molina stressed. “They are mothers, are elderly, do not drive, do not have money and do not speak English. For them their children, even if they are the worst in the world, are their children. And they want to see them and give them advice and some hope that they will get out one day,” she said.

Molina said she works against all odds to get donations to send older mothers to see their children in prisons, because few have sympathy for prisoners. "I help these elderly mothers because they suffer a lot, because they can not afford to go see their children," she emphasized.

There are no statistics showing how many elderly Hispanic parents have children in prisons. But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) estimates that 40 percent of prisoners in the state’s 33 prisons are Hispanic, so there is little doubt that the figure is high.

"I have brought mothers who have suffered six, eight, even 15 years without seeing them. If you could see how they get when they see them--shout, cry, they hug each other. Keeping them from their children is a terrible thing, a tragedy. These mothers do not want to die without seeing them," Molina declared.

Ibarra is one of many Hispanic seniors receiving a very limited pension, and that complicates her ability to visit her children in prison.

Disability, Poverty Slow But Don’t Stop Mothers

Some older mothers with incarcerated children persevere with disabilities, which deepens their level of poverty.

Bertha Fonseca, 63, lives alone in a rented room in West Covina, and her only income comes from the support she receives for her disability. That is her main obstacle to visiting her son, Timothy Fonseca, at the state prison in Salinas. He is serving a sentence of 39 years for murder.

Fonseca is only been able to visit Timothy when she can carpool with other mothers of imprisoned children for the long drive north to Salinas.

"We share the cost of gasoline. Otherwise with the high gas prices we have now, I would not be able go to see my son," she said. Besides splitting travel costs, she said, as many as seven elderly mothers pile up in a cheap hotel room as they wait to see their children the next day.

A work injury caused Fonseca to rely on her monthly government disability income of only $649 per month.

She explained, "I used to work in a mental hospital, but a child with autism hurt my legs, and I was incapacitated for work for life," she said. Initially, she tried to apply for Social Security early retirement benefits, which people can start at age 62, but instead she took advice to apply for disability assistance.

Disability benefits, although not easy to obtain, proved worth Ibarra’s applying for. Once someone takes early retirement benefits, rather than waiting until they can receive full benefits at 66, the amount remains lower throughout one’s later years.

According to the Department of Labor, Latinos have high rates of disability and therefore they more likely to receive benefits under Social Security Disability Insurance. Also, research has shown that nearly half of older female Latino workers are employed in jobs that are physically demanding or are in difficult, often injury-prone working conditions, such as health or mental health care.

Longevity—The Next Civil Rights Movement

"The reasons we have higher levels of disability are controversial, ranging from poor diet to lack of prevention or health insurance to performing the hardest physical jobs," said Fernando Torres-Gil, vice president of the National Council on Disability and director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging [http://www.latinoeconomicsecurity.org/team.html] at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Torres-Gil, a polio survivor who also headed the U.S. Administration on Aging under President Clinton, urged Latinos to give priority to the issue of longevity.

"The next civil rights movement for Latinos will not be migration but longevity,” Torres-Gil stated. “We are living longer than any other people but with weakened bodies, and that will present many challenges and inequalities that need addressing."

Araceli Martinez Ortega wrote this series as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media.