Care Across Generations
Solidarity and Sacrifice in Transnational Families
Kristin E. Yarris



Solidaridad: Nicaraguan Migration and Intergenerational Care

Vivo en dos mundos, y en cada uno mi vida es diferente pero cruzada por los elementos constantes de mi historia. (I live in two worlds, and in each one my life is different but joined by the constant elements of my history.)

—Gioconda Belli, El país bajo mi piel

On a spring morning in 2010, I accompanied grandmothers Angela and Marbeya on a trip from their neighborhood in a working-class barrio to the campus of the Universidad Centroamericana in the center of Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua. We stepped out of our shared taxi and walked across a scorching hot parking lot into the shockingly cool, air-conditioned studio of the university’s radio station, Radio Universidad. In their fifties, Angela and Marbeya are mothers of migrant daughters and primary caregivers for grandchildren in transnational families. (Figure I.1 illustrates the intergenerational relations in Marbeya’s and Angela’s transnational families.) The women had come to record their stories as grandmother caregivers on a weekly public radio broadcast, called La mochila viajera (The traveling backpack), part of the public education efforts of a migrant-serving Nicaraguan nongovernmental organization (NGO). The three of us shared anticipatory small talk as we entered the soundproof room of the recording studio. Despite our hours of preparation in their living rooms, Angela and Marbeya were anxious about sharing their stories publicly, and they sat down in front of the microphones with a combination of nervous excitement and reluctant discomfort. I began to wonder whether it had been a good idea to invite them to be interviewed for this radio program.

Several weeks earlier, I had brought the women’s granddaughters, Laleska (age eleven) and Vanessa (age fourteen), into this same studio to share their experiences as children of migrant mothers. Angela’s daughter (Laleska’s mother) Karla had lived in Miami, Florida, for over ten years; Marbeya’s daughter (Vanessa’s mother) Azucena had lived in San José, Costa Rica, for more than twelve years, and both girls had a lot to say about living with their mothers’ absence, their grandmothers’ care, and the response of the community around them. While the interview was emotional at times for Laleska and Vanessa, the girls had ultimately enjoyed telling their stories for the radio program and had encouraged their grandmothers to do the same. So it was that Angela and Marbeya came into the studio that day to record their stories as grandmother caregivers in families of migrant mothers.1

Figure I.1   Angela’s and Marbeya’s kin and care relations

After introductions, the radio hosts began the program by outlining Nicaraguan migration dynamics. They recounted the facts surrounding the increasing feminization of migration: 51 percent of migrants are women, a majority in their twenties and thirties, and many leave children in Nicaragua when they migrate. The radio hosts described the dynamics of migrant women’s labor—that most Nicaraguan women migrants find employment in the domestic service sector in receiving-country economies and thus come to form part of what has been referred to by various scholars as global chains of caregiving labor (Hochschild 2000; Parreñas 2000; Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2004; Yeates 2005).

However, the focus of the radio show that day was not on women who migrate but instead on those who stay behind—grandmother caregivers in transnational families. Marbeya and Angela described how, as grandmothers, they were committed to raising their granddaughters as if they were their own daughters (“como si fueran mis hijas”), investing time and energy toward their grandchildren’s well-being in Nicaragua while their daughters labored abroad. In their radio interview, the emotional impact of migration cast a long shadow over Marbeya’s and Angela’s descriptions of their lives as grandmother caregivers. Marbeya described her daughter’s migration to Costa Rica more than ten years earlier as “an emotional blow [un golpe emocional],” her voice interrupted by tears as she recalled falling into a depressive state and then eventually coping with her daughter’s ongoing absence. When the radio host asked Angela about her daughter’s migration, Angela focused on her distance, describing how for the more than ten years that Karla had lived in the United States, visits home were nearly impossible because of high costs of travel and her lack of legal documentation. When asked by the radio host what this meant for her and her family, Angela reiterated that the migration of her daughter had resulted in a distinct impact on her life, saying, “It’s not the same as having her here [No es lo mismo que tenerla aquí].” For both women, transnational migration has upended cultural expectations of gender and care; rather than assuming roles as care recipients, counting on their adult daughters to care for them in later life, these women instead find themselves assuming new roles as care providers, raising another generation of children, in their words, “almost as if we were mothers all over again [casí como si fueramos madres de nuevo].”

And yet despite the disruptions and distresses of migration, Marbeya and Angela’s radio interview called attention to the importance of their intergenerational care as a resource for well-being in transnational families. For instance, the women described how they carefully allocate the remittances their daughters send home twice a month to their granddaughters’ school fees, food, and health care. As they talked about remittances and caregiving, the grandmothers emphasized their sacrifices—forgoing personal desires and needs for the sake of their grandchildren—which mirror the sacrifices made by their migrant daughters. Care in these transnational families becomes a resource extended across generations, a shared responsibility of mothers, who sacrifice through migration, employment, and the sending of remittances from abroad, and grandmothers, who sacrifice through being present and providing care for another generation of children in Nicaragua.

Care Across Generations takes a close, ethnographic look at grandmother care in transnational families, examining on the one hand the structural and gendered inequalities that motivate migration and caregiving and on the other the cultural values that sustain intergenerational care and give it meaning. This book contributes to migration scholarship by broadening our analysis beyond the parent-child relation, situating care across generations and in the kin networks in sending countries that are so important to maintaining transnational family ties. This analysis of grandmother caregiving also contributes to contemporary anthropological theorizing about care, by asserting that care is best understood as both the gendered labor of social reproduction and the moral value of cultural regeneration across generations. The significance of intergenerational care is located here both within the lives of families divided by borders and within the Nicaraguan cultural values for solidarity and sacrifice. Rather than casting the consequences of women’s migration in migrant-sending countries solely in terms of a “care deficit” (Hochschild 2000: 136), this analysis of intergenerational reconfigurations of care shows that care serves as a resource for the well-being of children and other family members who stay behind after transnational migration. Moving our perspective across borders, into migrant-origin communities, and over generations, into extended kin networks, Care Across Generations shows the social and moral value of intergenerational care for contemporary transnational families.

Global Care and Grandmothers

Incorporating an intergenerational perspective, we come to see how grandmothers are central actors in the material and moral economies of global migration and care. Grandmothers like Angela and Marbeya participate in global relations of care, even if they never leave Nicaragua, by raising grandchildren while mothers labor abroad in domestic or service sectors. The globalization of the “care economy” (Leinaweaver 2010: 68) results from demographic, social, and economic shifts in migrant-receiving countries—women’s entry into the formal workforce, aging populations in need of care, and divestment in public programs that support caregiving for children and other dependents—all of which have contributed to a demand for care that has largely been met by low-paid, immigrant women workers (Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2004; Parreñas 2000, 2001). As women migrate to become paid caregivers abroad in the Global North, they leave behind what has been called a “care deficit” in countries of the Global South (Hochschild 2000: 136). Feminist scholars have described the globalization of women’s reproductive labor as constituting a “global care chain” (Yeates 2012: 136; also see Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2004). While analyses of the feminization of global migration highlight the importance of immigrant women’s caregiving for domestic and national economies in the Global North (Sassen 1998; Parreñas 2001, 2005), relatively little attention has been focused on the care that women in the Global South provide for children and families left behind by transnational processes of labor migration. In contemporary Latin America, for example, women make up more than 50 percent of contemporary migrants (Pessar 2003), and most of these women work in service industries (such as domestic workers) in destination countries. And yet the care provided by surrogate caregivers in migrant-origin countries has been relatively underanalyzed.

While this framing of care transfer from poorer to wealthier nations through a “global care chain” (Yeates 2005: 232; see also Hochschild 2000) importantly recognizes the drain on caregiving resources that follows women’s migration, it fails to acknowledge the care work accomplished through extended kin and intergenerational networks in families of migrant mothers. The care-deficit frame is an illustration of how existing migration scholarship has elided extended families and focused nearly exclusively on the bonds between biological parents and children.

The concept of care circulation offers a way of moving beyond dichotomous views of care transfer in the global economy by highlighting social relations of care in transnational families (Baldassar and Merla 2014: 6). Whereas the care chains concept may reify a binary push-and-pull model of migration and care—from sites where low-wage care labor is available (in the Global South) to sites where this care labor becomes exploited (in the Global North) (see Hochschild 2000; Parreñas 2001, 2005)—care circulation attempts to capture the ways care connects people across borders through asymmetrical and yet reciprocal flows of caregiving (Baldassar and Merla 2014: 8). This vision of care in circulation mirrors an earlier generation of critiques by migration studies that found binary models of immigration understood in terms of push-pull factors, origin-destination countries, and assimilation and acculturation problematic for their reification of migration as a linear process overly determined by the nation-state. Scholars of transnationalism have instead argued for a framing of migration that captured the circuitous and simultaneous nature of social fields extended across national borders, such as those found in transnational families (Levitt and Glick Schiller 2004; Stephen 2007).2

The idea of care in circulation helps reveal the ways intergenerational care in Nicaraguan transnational families is a dynamic resource for social regeneration without losing sight of the structural and gendered inequalities that shape migration and care. First, contemporary Nicaraguan migration flows both North and South, following lines of inequality and relative economic opportunity in historically contingent ways. Therefore, this is not just a study of a chain of care flowing from Global South to North but rather an examination of how care in the migrant-sending country of Nicaragua is reconfigured across generations in response to transnational migration, which is influenced by political and economic opportunities. Second, grandmother caregiving is one dimension of the care that circulates in Nicaraguan transnational families, because mothers continue to care for children and families from abroad, albeit by responding to the realities of migration and renegotiating roles of motherhood. Migrant mothers care for their children in Nicaragua from a distance by remaining pendiente, or responsible, for families back home by sending remittances home and using Internet and cell phone communication to stay in touch (Baldassar 2007). Similarly, grandmothers respond to the disruptions of migration by reconfiguring cultural expectations and extending care across generations, caring for their grandchildren and in this way supporting their migrant daughters through the embodied values of sacrifice and solidarity. Thus, analyzing grandmother care in the context of transnational family life reveals the contingencies that shape care provision after mother migration, thereby denaturalizing assumptions about gender and care while reinforcing care’s value as a means of social organization across generations.3

Applying an intergenerational perspective to care in transnational families moves the analytical frame outward, beyond the nuclear family model that has predominated in studies of transnational families.4 Indeed, when grandmothers have been acknowledged in studies of transnational families, they have often been relegated to the background as “middlewomen” negotiating between children and parents (Dreby 2010: 33). In these analyses, the biological-parent (especially mother) and child tie remains primordial, and grandmother (or grandparent) care is analyzed as a temporary, and perhaps inadequate, substitute. Such a framing further stigmatizes transnational families rather than viewing migration, absence, and distance as central features of contemporary family forms in their own right (Baldassar and Merla 2014: 6). Rather than reify the mother-child tie, or any one family form for that matter, in this book I seek to uncover the gendered cultural expectations that shape motherhood and migration and, by extension, grandmotherhood and care, expectations that women negotiate as they assume responsibilities for another generation of children. Certainly, grandmothers do invest emotional energy in supporting transnational mother-child relationships, in so doing reaffirming the cultural importance of this kin relationship. But grandmothers form strong emotional ties with their grandchildren in mother absence, reconfiguring kin ties that complicate the already-ambivalent prospect of family reunification via children’s migration to join mothers abroad. I seek, then, to decenter the mother-child tie and destigmatize grandmother care and transnational families while still acknowledging the particular stresses and strains of family life extended across borders.

The intergenerational perspective advanced here also engages with migration as a temporal as well as spatial process. As Cati Coe argues, migration reconfigures time and temporalities, because members of transnational families come to reconcile differing cultural expectations for care across the life course (Coe 2015). In their insightful volume on age and globalization, Jennifer Cole and Deborah Durham (2007) argue that the changing cultural scripts of aging and the life course should be central to anthropological analyses of contemporary globalization. Similarly, as we see throughout this book, grandmother care emerges out of temporal disjunctures between how Nicaraguan women anticipated living later adulthood (with the support and copresent care of their adult daughters) and how this expectation is challenged by women’s transnational migration and subsequent intergenerational reconfiguration of care. Furthermore, grandmothers experience other temporal dimensions of migration, most centrally the uncertainty surrounding the future of either migrant return or child reunification with mothers abroad.


1. Throughout this book, I use first names to refer to study participants. It is customary in Nicaragua to have two first names. Here, I use one first name, with participants’ permission; otherwise, I have assigned pseudonyms. While participants wanted me to tell their stories in this book and gave me permission to do so, I have changed names to protect identities in some cases in which a lack of legal documentation may pose a risk to migrants or their families.

2. While I use “transnational families” to describe families with members living in more than one nation-state (Fog Olwig 2003, 2007; Levitt and Glick Schiller 2004), I am wary that this phrase may leave an impression of connectedness that would falsely portray the realities of the families in this book, who emphasize that distance, time, and separation matter in their experiences of caregiving and family life. A better phrasing might be “families divided by national borders” (Joanna Dreby uses a similar phrase in her 2010 Divided by Borders), for it captures the materiality of division that comes from state immigration policies that separate families based on nationality, citizenship, and documentation status. Nonetheless, despite the separation of geographic space, political borders, and generational time, the families in this book do manage to remain connected and retain a strong sense of family. Thus, I use the term “transnational families” while cognizant of its limitations and yet finding it conveys part of the complicated realities of connection and distance, closeness and separation, that characterize the lives of the families in this book.

3. Tatjana Thelen argues that anthropologists have “exported a self-understanding” of the essential value of care within nuclear families, thereby reinforcing what are construed to be “natural” (and gendered) hierarchies of care (Thelen 2015: 503).

4. Most studies of transnational families have taken the biological-parent, nuclear family as the model for understanding migration and family life. This is particularly true for studies of Mexican transnational families (Dreby 2010; Boehm 2012) but also for the few studies of Central American transnational families (Abrego 2014; Moran-Taylor 2008). Scholars of Caribbean transnational families, on the other hand, have been more willing to analyze extended family networks of migration and care (Fog Olwig 2007).