The colorful balloons and gift table in front of MexExpress, a money-wiring store on 24th Street, are deceiving. What seems like a cheerful Saturday afternoon block party–local radio DJs, free Salvadoran pastries and an iPod raffle giveaway–is actually a savvy business move in tough times.
José Hernandez, the Salvadoran owner of MexExpress, says that business has dropped dramatically this year–as much as 30 percent, by his estimates–because immigrant clients have been sending less money home. “A lot of my clients work in restaurants, or in construction,” says Hernandez. “They’ve lost they’re jobs and send less money, or their hours have been cut.”
Indeed, Latino immigrant workers in the sectors mentioned by Hernandez have been the hardest hit by the recent economic downturn, according to the Pew Hispanic Center’s 2008 Latino Labor report. Pew’s data shows that in the first quarter of 2008, unemployment among Latinos rose to 6.5 percent, compared to a 4.7 percent rate for all non-Hispanics nationwide, primarily due to the drop in construction jobs.
Hernandez says most of his regular clients are coming in less often, and others have stopped coming in at all. Despite their own economic troubles, however, many immigrants say their relatives back home are seeing even tougher times, as economic crises unfold simultaneously in their homelands. And even though it’s difficult to continue sending money, they feel the pressure to do so.
Antonio Montana, a 35-year-old from Usulután, El Salvador, says that the six days a week he was working as a construction truck driver last year have dropped to three. Whereas last year he sent an average of $400 a month to his mother and brothers, he now only manages to scrape together $200 a month, and sometimes sends only every other month. Aside from a drop in work hours, he’s also been hit by increases in living costs.
Nevertheless, he says, things are even more difficult for his family in El Salvador.
“Everything is getting more expensive there too, and they feel it more because they pay in dollars, but they earn less,” he says, referring to the country’s 2000 conversion to a dollar economy. “The price of diesel over there now is $5 a gallon, so everything increases–bus fares, food, everything.”
Montana is talking about what has come to be known not only in El Salvador, but in most of the developing world, as a full-blown food and fuel crisis. The Office of Census and Statistics of El Salvador reports that between April 2007 and March 2008, the canasta básica, or basic food basket containing items such rice, beans and milk, has increased 21.4 percent to $122.78 in urban areas, and 13.7 percent to $159.77 in rural areas. Meanwhile, the monthly minimum wage is $85 for agricultural work, $162 for factory work and $183 for the services sector.
Simply put, this means that a rural worker is about $75 short of meeting basic needs, and an urban service worker only has $60 left over after buying the basics. This leaves out the costs of rising urban utilities.
“It’s just not like before,” says Montana, the Usulután native, thinking of his mother and brothers with a shake of the head. “They only have enough to half eat.”
Trinidad Elizabeth Portillo, a native of San Miguel, El Salvador, was happy to enjoy the MexExpress giveaways. She recently lost one of her nanny jobs and her hours are down significantly at the two jobs she still has. Meanwhile, her rent increased by $125 this year, and whereas $50 used to cover weekly groceries, the same groceries now cost nearly $100.
This means less money for her elderly mother, siblings, in-laws and three children scattered throughout El Salvador and Guatemala. She too laments the timing because her family needs more money, not less.
“Before, they used to just say, ‘Whatever you can send is good, don’t worry’. Now, they call asking me to send them shoes because everything is so expensive there,” she says. “The money just isn’t enough for them anymore.”
This time, she sent $100 of the $180 she got from the employer who laid her off to her daughter, a hairdresser in San Salvador. It used to be that her family there might have saved the money or bought clothes or shoes. Now, she says, they’ll most likely spend it on basic needs like food.
“I promised my father I would never abandon my mother and siblings, and I’m struggling to keep that promise”, says the vivid 50-year-old Salvadoreña, who arrived to the Mission 16 years ago as a refugee from her country’s civil war. “But, the war there [El Salvador] didn’t defeat me. I lived through it. And I have faith that we will persevere through the crisis.”
nice report diana..
same thing’s happening here in the planet’s most heavily dependent on migrant remittances – the Philippines.
Filipino migrants all over are in danger of losing their jobs because of the crisis, Pres Arroyo pegged the number of those who stand to lose their jobs in the US to be 50,000 but I think it could be more.
Up until now, our govt can’t even present their contingency measures for the thousands to be affected.
btw, the 2nd Global Forum on Migration and Development will be conducted here in Manila this end of the month. Of course this forum is a sham, meant only to legitimize the bankrupt notion that labor exportation can lead to development.
I hope you could do a piece on the GFMD..