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  • Consuming Childhood:"Lost" and "Ideal" Childhoods as a Motivation for Migration
  • Sarah Horton

In the introduction to her well-known edited volume, Children and the Politics of Culture, published in 1995, Sharon Stephens argued that fears of a "crisis" in childhood emerged in the 1970s and 1980s with a new, and more penetrating, phase of global capitalism. Media images suddenly brought affluent Westerners—who subscribed to an ideal of childhood as a protected safe space—face-to-face with the conflicting realities of childhood in many developing nations (Stephens 1995: 8). The symbol of the endangered child embodied modern fears of economic exchange encroaching upon ever-more intimate, and previously uncommodified, spheres. Childhood, imagined as a universally idyllic and sheltered stage of development, had fallen victim to the merciless quest for profit. More than a decade later, Stephens' cultural analysis seems unusually prescient. With ever-increasing global movements of people and capital, this discourse of "lost childhoods" has only intensified. In the industrialized West, pundits [End Page 925] and the media lament the fates of children in other countries—motherless babes, toddlers sold into indentured servitude, and children trafficked as sex slaves (see Fass 2007).

Normative Western discourses of the family have long portrayed the fate of women and children as inseparably interlinked (Malkki and Martin 2005: 220). It should not be surprising, then, that the discourse of "lost childhood" travels in tandem with the feminization of migration, as women—many of them mothers—are increasingly migrating in larger numbers. The phenomenon of "diverted mothering" has led to what Rhacel Parreñas (2005) calls a "crisis of care" in the western industrialized core, and now in the peripheral countries from which their nannies immigrate (Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001; Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila 2001; Parreñas 2001, 2005). Powerful moral discourses saturated with normative ideas about gender and generation bewail the breakup of the nuclear family in labor-exporting regimes such as that of the Philippines (see Parreñas 2005). At the same time, there is no denying that the idyllic notions of motherhood and childhood that shape these laments are historically and culturally contingent. They are predicated upon bourgeois, and largely Western, norms that are increasingly globalized (Stephens 1995).

In this commentary, I examine one form of " lost childhood" that is often lamented in Western media, exploring the case of Latin American children temporarily left behind during their mothers' migrations to the U.S. Drawing upon interviews with Mexican and Salvadoran mothers in the United States, I examine the way that the circulation of Western ideals of childhood inform, and interact with, locally- and culturally-specific notions of childhood in Mexico and El Salvador. I argue that global flows of media, goods and people have spread bourgeois images of a commercialized childhood (see Fass 2007, Stephens 1995) that plays a large—though understudied—part in precipitating and sustaining global migrations. Such " ideal childhoods" loom large in mothers' imaginings of life in the U.S., forming part of a "global imaginary of consumption" (Suárez-Orozco 2003) that propels migration. Mothers' decisions to migrate were strongly influenced by ideals of a childhood free from want, ideals they construed as diametrically opposed to their own experiences of childhood in their countries of origin. Ironically, however, such women selectively appropriated from circulating global discourses of childhood, fusing classic Western ideals of childhood as a space protected from adult burdens and the sphere of monetized relationships [End Page 926] with commercialized notions of an ideal childhood, creating hybrid visions of childhood in the process.

Yet the idealized childhood such mothers pursued was attainable only at a price; mothers had to temporarily forfeit their physical presence with their children in order to attain the trappings of domestic comfort. While parents often migrated "for the children" (see Boehm, this volume), the transnational childhoods that ensued did not often mesh neatly with the ideals parents initially imagined. Due to the tightening of the U.S.-Mexico border, separations initially imagined (Horton 2009) as temporary were prolonged. Material gifts became the transnational currency of love and hope, assuring children of parental affections and symbolizing the better childhood they would soon enjoy in the U.S. Yet children often contested...


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