KANSAS CITY (AP) — Just putting up the Christmas tree and getting out the decorations was a struggle for Leslie Mora this year.
The 20-year-old Kansas City woman has been in charge of raising her two half-siblings, Jesus and Marbhely Gonzalez, ages 13 and 14 respectively, since July, when their mother returned to her native Mexico because she feared arrest by U.S. immigration officers.
Without her mother, the usually festive season feels empty.
“It’s sad,” Mora said. “Mom did all the holidays. We called her and tried to make the best of it.”
They’ll miss her mothering and her cooking, especially her posole — chicken with red peppers and corn, a family tradition at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Many people have tried to replicate it, but “there’s none other like hers,” Mora said. “I’ve been craving it so bad.”
Jean Ferrara, principal of Holy Cross School in the city’s northeast area, said their situation is similar to what many others in her school also are experiencing: As U.S.-born children of immigrants, they’re fighting to make a life in this country after their parents returned to their home countries.
For the Gonzalez children, the bad news hit on a Sunday morning six months ago. An immigration agent came to their home asking for Maria Gonzalez, 38.
She was out buying groceries, so the agent left without speaking with her, Mora said. The reason for the agent’s visit, and Gonzalez’s subsequent decision to voluntarily return to Mexico, are unclear. Immigration officials did not respond to calls asking about her situation.
Maria Gonzalez had no criminal record. And her children said her only brush with the law came six years earlier when her purse was stolen in California and its contents were used to commit identity fraud. Her children said she was in the U.S. legally.
For whatever reason, she returned to a small farming village in Mexico, about 150 miles northwest of Guadalajara, leaving Jesus and Marbhely in Mora’s care.
“I miss her,” Marbhely said. “It’s not the same.”
Making a home in a small house in the northeast area isn’t easy for Mora, who works full time at an area retailer and studies nursing at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley. She’s managed thus far by establishing a firm routine with her younger siblings.
“I have my moments when I’m overwhelmed,” Mora said. “I don’t want to be a failure. I’m not a mom. I don’t know if I’m doing right or wrong.”
After work and school, they don’t leave the house much, which suits Marbhely because she’s skittish about neighborhood crime. And though Jesus appreciates what his older half-sister is doing for him, he said she can be a little strict.
“She just goes overboard,” he said, rolling his eyes.
That, Mora said brightly, doesn’t bother her a bit. She’s worried about gang activity in the Northeast and because of that enrolled them at the parochial school, which they attend on scholarship. She said she appreciates Ferrara’s help and support from her church.
“Jean is really awesome,” Mora said. “She calls me when he’s slacking off.”
The family never entertained the notion of moving to Mexico with their mother, though Marbhely enjoys the warm weather on visits there. The kids are entirely American.
“It’s like a little village,” Jesus said, describing his mother’s town. “It has dirt streets and houses made of concrete.”
Mora said she speaks with her mother on the telephone three or four times a week, answering her questions about the children and listening to her instructions about keeping up the house. She said she draws strength from those conversations. The lessons she learned from her mother are paying off.
“She was right after me on every little thing,” Mora said. “That’s the way I want to be.”
On a recent snow day from school, the family had time to think about the holidays and even later events that need planning. Marbhely’s 15th birthday is coming up in May and she’s wondering if she should begin preparing for her Quinceaoera, a rite of passage for Mexican girls celebrating purity, chastity and young adulthood.
It’s a big family celebration that will be missing a crucial member. And so will Christmas, which they’ll observe with an aunt who also lives in the area. A little bit of family will have to do.
“We don’t have much money,” Mora said. “Just being together is enough.”