"I can't walk past a Forever 21 and not think of the dozens of youth who tell me they get paid three cents per sleeve or five cents per zipper," sociologist Stephanie Canizales says. She adds that these are the same children who "can't pay the clinic bills from the headaches and neck pains they get working their sewing machines."
A Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California, Canizales is studying a subset of child migrants that has been largely overlooked in academia and the media: those who emigrated without a parent and did not reunite with a parent upon reaching the United States. After speaking with more than 200 unaccompanied child migrants in Los Angeles, Canizales has discovered that many face "extreme forms of exploitation." Those who work in the garment industry are subject to "wage theft, denial of breaks, and being locked in during work hours without proper lighting and ventilation," she says.
Of all the unparented child migrants Canizales has spoken with, the most memorable is the first one she ever met: her mother, who arrived in Los Angeles from El Salvador in the 1970s at the age of nine. For the subsequent nine years, she moved often, living with an aunt, a friend of the family, and others. "My mom spent most of her childhood feeling like a burden on others, feeling unsafe and uncomfortable. She couldn't ask anyone for anything, couldn't express her needs or desires. She was a stranger everywhere she went," Canizales says. One day, when Canizales' mother was 17, her aunt was the first to offer her new undergarments, and this made her feel loved.
Canizales' mother didn’t really talk about her experiences as a child migrant until two years ago, once Canizales had already begun her doctoral research. Hearing her mother's story re-affirmed to Canizales that she was doing what she was meant to do. "I am helping to expose a history that so many Central American immigrant parents of U.S.-born children were too fearful, traumatized, and heartbroken to pass on to their children," she says.
Canizales is proud of her many career accomplishments to date: She is the first graduate student in her sociology department to receive a National Science Foundation grant, and she has published her first article in a top peer-reviewed journal, Ethnic and Racial Studies.
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But what Canizales says she is most proud of is her connection to the community that she studies. Canizales doesn't merely conduct research in the Pico-Union and MacArthur Park neighborhoods of Los Angeles; she volunteers and lives there too. Though Canizales spent most of her childhood in suburban Orange County, she is now re-acquainted with the same busy streets that her mother walked as a girl. She is familiar with the pupuserias that stay open late, the corn-on-the-cob vendors who ring bells, the preachers who sermonize on street corners, and the newlyweds who whisper to each other in Spanish or K'iche or Kanjobal. When Canizales enters this community as a sociologist, she says she never treats an interview as mere data collection but rather as "an opportunity to connect with someone."
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