Does Mother Know Best?
NACLA April 18, 2007
The students were shocked to hear their geography professor say that the United States had the highest infant mortality rate in the industrialized world.
“Maybe it’s because of immigration?” he suggested.
Heads began to nod.
“They were astounded when I laid out the real evidence,” said Michael McGlade, a professor at Western Oregon University.
Immigrants don’t raise U.S. infant mortality rate, he informed them. In fact, sociologists and health experts are puzzling over what looks like a reverse phenomenon: much poorer Mexican immigrants bear healthy babies as often as non-Latino U.S. whites do. But among second generation Mexican-Americans, this advantage disappears.
Academics call this the “Mexican birth-weight paradox” – since no one has been able to say definitively why Mexicans have an apparent health advantage.
But some studies show that all immigrants to the United States suffer an eventual decline in health.
“Migrants to the United States have better health than Americans over their first five years in the country, but their health declines after they adopt Americans’ bad habits,” said Hania Zlotnik, director of the United Nations Population Division.
New York University anthropologist Alyshia Gálvez, who said she was first to study the Mexican birth weight paradox in New York City, found that Mexican women claimed to have received “better” health care in the United States. But “better,” she discovered, really meant free.
“Actually, they’d had some really horrific experiences,” Gálvez said.
In rural Mexico, free health care can be hard to find. But in New York, California and some other states, Medicaid covers prenatal care for poor immigrants, regardless of their legal status.
One family Gálvez interviewed told this story:
“This woman and her husband had no one to leave their three-year-old child with when she went into labor, so they all went to the hospital,” Gálvez said. But upon arrival, the nurses told the husband that he should take the child home, and they would notify him when the baby was born.
“They never called him,” Gálvez said. The woman went into labor alone. When the baby began to emerge, she screamed for help, until finally a nurse came and told her to stop pushing because the doctor wasn’t ready for her. “To tell someone to stop crowning is like telling someone not to sneeze,” Gálvez said. “The woman was in agony.”
Immigrant women may also be cut off from their mothers’ sound advice, or overrule it as backward or old-fashioned.
Jennifer Navarrete, six months pregnant, sat in the waiting room of a New York City clinic. Her round belly was covered with a tight Nautica T-shirt. Beside her was her mother Angela, who migrated from Puebla, a mostly rural Mexican state.
“In Mexico’s countryside, the kids are more respectful of their parents,” said Navarrete in English. “I go back every year and I’ve seen it. But to me, my mom is a joke.” Her mother Angela, who doesn’t understand much English, looked at her daughter with wide, brown eyes, and pulled her purple shawl tighter around her shoulders.
“There are a few things I follow that my mom tells me to do, but I mainly follow what the doctors tell me,” said Navarrete, 18. “Here, if you have pain, they tell you; ‘oh, go drink Tylenol.’ In Mexico, they say, ‘drink herbal tea.”’
This shift away from traditional practices “can have long-term biological and physiological consequences,” Gálvez said.
Maria Chavez, who migrated from Puebla to Brooklyn 10 years ago, called her mother “backwards,” since a midwife delivered all of her mother’s children. But Chavez misses her. “I haven’t seen my mamí for nine years, and I miss her influence,” she said.
Ironically, the fashion among upper and middle class American women is now to have a midwife oversee a birth at home.
Another reason for Mexican American birth health declines could be that pregnancy is held in lower regard in the United States. Pregnant patients covered by Medicaid are often classified as “high risk” simply because they are poor or uneducated.
Not so in Mexico.
“In rural Mexico, the women’s role is solely to become a mother, and that’s what’s going to give you status in your society,” said Sylvia Guendelman, a public health professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
“Pregnancy is not a disease,” added Margaret Sherraden, a sociologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, who researched birth outcomes among Mexican immigrants in Chicago. She found that 3 percent of Mexican-born mothers in the United States bore children with low birth weights – but that 14 percent of Mexican-American mothers did.
Dietary changes are also a factor.
“It’s harder to get fresh beans and yucca here, and easier to get McDonalds,” said sociologist Dalton Conley, author of the book, The Starting Gate: Birth Weight and Life Chances.
“My diet has certainly changed; it’s just not the same kind of food here,” Navarrete’s mother Angela agreed. “In Puebla, the food was fresh, the meat had no chemicals, the vegetables were fresh.”
“I would love to go back and raise my kids in Mexico,” Navarrete said. “But economically, it’s just too hard.”