As a waitress at Familia Lopez restaurant on 16th Street set a platter of shrimp cakes and tortillas on the table before Juan Gonzalez, the 30-year-old restaurant worker from Guadalajara, Mexico, contemplated the U.S. recession.
“In Mexico, when the economy is bad, it’s really bad,” said Gonzalez, who left Mexico 10 years ago. “Here, you at least have money to eat.”
The Mission resident was part of a surge in Mexican immigration triggered by a series of economic crises throughout the 1980s, known as the “años negros,” or “black years,” and followed by the 1994 peso devaluation.
The latter was the worst in the country’s history and resulted in the loss of millions of jobs and life savings of millions of Mexicans. In reaction, Mexicans picked up and left—230,000 a year through the 1980s and then more than half a million yearly in the 1990s, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
For those who found financial stability in El Norte and made a home in places like the Mission District, living through those crises puts the current U.S. economic downturn in perspective.
“Gracias a Dios,” said Ilario Lopez, an employee of La Loma Produce Market across from the 16th Street BART station, and expressing the glass-half-full sentiment of those who have seen worse times. “I still have a job.”
A 34-year-old native of Michoacan who immigrated in 1985 for greater opportunities, Lopez is loath to even compare the current recession to the financial troubles he left south of the border. “At that time I didn’t work,” said Lopez, in his uniform of a green apron. “At least now I have food to eat.”
Denise Dresser, a leading Mexican political analyst visiting the Bay Area last week, said she had not seen any convincing numbers that indicate a return migration due to the recession. “As bad as it is here,” she said. “It’s more difficult there. Mexicans are used to coping.”
While that appeared to be the case in the Mission District, it’s still difficult, Mexican residents said.
Martina Hernandez pondered the economy from her food stand under the shade of a tree at the intersection of Alabama and 21st streets. “It’s almost the same,” said the 47-year-old mother of two. Hernandez, who left Mexico 12 years ago, talked while waiting for customers to buy her $1.75 tamales and bags of cut mango. “The thing is, it’s more difficult here because rent is higher and work went down.”
Back in Jalisco where she worked at an egg farm, she owned her home. Now, keeping up with monthly rent on her Mission District apartment is a challenge, especially in the last few months that business has declined.
“Am I going to dine out at a restaurant now?” Hernandez asked. “No. I’m going to eat at home.”
That’s just one of the sacrifices she’s had to make this year that echo her strategies coping with the peso devaluation 15 years ago.
Whether Hernandez’s experience surviving Mexico’s troubled economy will help her endure the current slump is a question that interests the Mission Asset Fund. The organization targets financial services for immigrant and working-class families of San Francisco, and has incorporated traditional knowledge into mainstream banking, like cestas populares, or lending circles.
According to program director Rhea Serna, the organization is in the midst of a study looking at the immigrant response to the recession, including “what sort of special skills or experiences people have had that may make them more able to survive.”
Serna expects the survey of about 200 families to be completed in late summer. Until then, she only has anecdotal data. “I think it just parallels with the general population.”
And for the general population, a recession is not much of a change if financial struggle has been the narrative of life. “We’ve always lived in poverty,” said Victor Hernandez as he stood on the 24th Street BART plaza behind a cart of frozen popsicles one recent afternoon. When he lived in Oaxaca, the peso crisis came and went. Hernandez remained destitute.
Since moving his family to the United States in the late 1990s, he’s been able to improve his lot, but lately he, like many Americans, has seen his good fortune slip away. “I was a construction worker earning $16, $18 an hour. Look at me now, selling paletas.”
Still, his outlook is shaped by his past. “For poor people, it’s not like living in poverty, it’s just normal,” he said, and then jerked his wrist to make the bells on his wheeled freezer ring.