Pasadena News Star
Two-year-old Richard kicked a blue rubber ball inside the Altadena, Calif.
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 the 51-year-old woman isn't the little boy's mother; she's his grandmother.
Olvera's been raising Richard along with his older sister Jennifer, 10, since
their mother was deported nine months ago.
Maria Olvera is one of 2.6 million grandparents raising a child. (Reingewirtz/SGVNG/NAM)
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.
Nearly 10 percent of American children live 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
In 2008, the census bureau says 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. The numbers have more then tripled
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
A house with only a grandparent is considered a single-generation household,
while one with a parent or both parents is a multigenerational 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."
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
The infrastructure for these families does not exist and is breaking down, just
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
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, Maria Reyes, who is currently
living in Tijuana after being arrested several times, then deported.
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 she is all smiles with her grandchildren.
Even before Reyes was deported, Olvera would take care of her four children.
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
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
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 the little boy. 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 and the Gerontological Society of America. A
Spanish-language version of this story will appear in El
Nuevo Sol. This story is published in RedwoodAge.com with