In Bolivia, Erica Martinez ’12 studied what happens to kids left behind by migrant worker parents.

Erica Martinez ’12 (Denver) spent her semester abroad living in South America’s poorest nation: Bolivia. Enrolled in the SIT program “Multiculturalism, Globalization, and Social Change,” Martinez took classes for two months with two dozen other students, then moved into working on a research project exploring one aspect of Bolivia’s poverty: its large number of migrant workers.

According to Martinez, about 60 percent of Bolivians live in poverty and half of those live in extreme poverty (based on the World Bank’s definitions). Because there is so little decently compensated work, approximately a quarter of all Bolivians go to other countries to find work—and 84 percent of those migrant workers are mothers who leave their kids behind, usually with grandparents or other relatives.

But what happens to those kids, who might not see their parents for years at a time? That shift from a traditional Latin American family to a transnational family, and the repercussions it has on children, is what Martinez set out to explore. “It’s a confusing environment to grow up in,” she says. “When the family structure changes and its balance is destroyed, how does that affect the children?”

To learn more about those kids who are left behind, she interviewed sociologists who specialize in migration, principals, social workers, teachers, and school psychologists and also volunteered at an NGO that works with migrant worker families and a school in which 60 percent of the kids had parents working abroad. The most common countries for Bolivians to work in are Argentina, Brazil, Spain, and the United States.

When she finished her project—written in Spanish, of course—she delivered copies of the paper to people she’d interviewed. One school principal started to cry when he read her paper because he was so grateful to learn of nonprofit groups who could help him. “He was so happy to finally have some resources and possible sources of funds to help these kids,” says Martinez.

As for her research, says Martinez, she could continue it for many years given how much there is to study. “Teachers and other adults recognize that it’s a struggle for these kids and the parents who go abroad need to recognize it, too,” she says.

Martinez, an anthropology major with a biology minor and a community and global health concentration, hopes to work in public health for a few years before attending medical school. Her ultimate goal? To work as a family doctor with immigrant families—much like the ones she studied in Bolivia.

April 2 2012

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