Social Media Is A Critical Lifeline For Some Immigrant Families

By Mónica Ortiz Uribe
June 30, 2015

Social media has made connecting with faraway friends and relatives so easy, many of us take it for granted. But imagine if it was the only way to interact with the ones you love. For millions of immigrant families separated by a border and a lack of legal documents, social media has become a critical lifeline.

The sound of a live band cut through the humid night air of Oxkutzcab, a town in the heart of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. Neighbors celebrate a surprise birthday party paid for by American dollars.The birthday girl is a woman whose husband left to find work in the United States 19 years ago.

Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Asunción Diaz looks through her smartphone in Oxkutzcab, Mexico. She uses social media to stay in touch with her father and two brothers who immigrated to the United States.

As she blew out her candles, the flash of cell phone cameras twinkled in her face. The moment would soon be shared with distant guests who only had access to it online. For families split by immigration, it's now common for special occasions like this to be witnessed from the glow of a hand-held screen.  

Next door, 30-year-old Asunción Diaz sits in her mother's living room tapping at her smartphone. Her fingernails are adorned with rhinestones.

"I'm checking my messages," she said.

Diaz, who works at a retail store, invested in a smartphone three years ago after saving for months. She calls it a necessary luxury.

"With social media, we feel more united," she said.

Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Asunción Diaz looks through her Facebook page for messages. Nearly half of all Mexicans go online and most of them use social media.

Her father and two brothers left for the U.S. more than a decade ago. All three are undocumented. Her father has only come back to visit twice. Her brothers have never returned. Instead they send money to pay for the Wi-Fi bill.

"We share photos, videos and call each other on Skype," Diaz said.

They used their phones to communicate recently when her father was in the hospital. A few months before that her mother met her first American-born grandchild via Facebook.

Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Neighbors in Oxkutzcab, Mexico celebrate a surprise birthday party for a women who's husband left for the United States 19 years ago.

The other end of the digital thread is 3,000 miles away in San Francisco, Calif. This is a prime destination for Mayan immigrants from Mexico's Yucatan peninsula.

Alberto Perez Rendon directs Asociacion Mayab, a nonprofit that serves the Mayan community there. He’s witnessed dramatic changes in the way his members communicate.

"People would have to wait for hours at a phone booth in a small town in Mexico to get a phone call from their relatives," he said.

Today, social media has even transformed the way Perez does outreach in San Francisco. He used to spend hundreds printing flyers that would take volunteers countless hours to distribute. Now information goes directly on the organization’s Facebook page.

Mónica Ortiz Uribe
A live band plays at a women's surprise birthday party in Oxkutzcab, Mexico.

“I feel like we've been more successful than what we were before," he said. "We bring in more people to our activities...and our budget for marketing and outreach is down to zero.”

The Facebook page for Asociacion Mayab works like a binational bulletin board. There’s hometown news from Mexico and photos from Mayan parades in San Francisco. There’s even a post asking for information about a migrant who went missing while crossing the border.

“It's like the distance and the separation does not exist because we can hear the news so fast and we can see the faces we can see the photos,” he said.

Nearly half the population in Mexico uses the Internet and most of them are on social media.

But the marvel of technology doesn’t erase the pain of separation. Asunción Diaz was 13 when her father left.

"My dad has never been with us long," she said. "He's spent most of his life away."

With her father's earnings, the family has built a two-story home, bought two cars and is paying for her sister's law school. Last year he also sent money for a surprise birthday party for her mother, who recalls the day with a sad smile.

"It was a good time," she said. "But it’s also a reminder that we aren’t together."

For her, social media is no substitute for physical presence.

This story was produced in collaboration with reporter Mely Arellano and Round Earth Media's Mexico's reporting project.