David De Leon is usually running against the clock. Pacing outside of Mission Soccer at 2345 Mission St. near 20th Street, he nervously looks at his phone before stepping back into the lobby. The driver he’s waiting on, one of two employees of his shipping company, has yet to arrive with a spare truck to load up more shipments.
Beside him a couple of 24- by 24-inch boxes await their pick up, all labeled with their intended destination: La Cuchilla, a small community on the coast of El Salvador where their recipient will take possession of it weeks from now.
“I would load them up on my own if the van wasn’t full,” said De Leon in Spanish as he glares at his white-and-red cargo van stuffed full of boxes.
For eight years, De Leon has run Transportes David, a small shipping company in the Mission that sends parcels to Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico. During the 1990s and 2000s, the Mission was full of companies like De Leon’s that provided immigrants with a shipping service directly to their home countries in Latin America. Nowadays, only three of the older companies remain, a sign of the changing neighborhood.
But in an indication that the niche market still has opportunities, a new one has opened up in the last year.Daysi Jaenz, the owner of Transportes Pacific International at 2276 Mission St., said she moved her 15-year-old shipping business to San Francisco from Los Angeles because there was more demand in the Bay Area.
“There’s a lot of competition in Los Angeles. Here, there are more people from Nicaragua, where I’m from, that need to ship,” Jaenz said.
It’s a market that allows Central American and Mexican residents to send bulky items home for a fraction of the cost of more traditional shippers like UPS or the U.S. Post Office. Occasionally, a few even send large machinery.
If a Central American sent a 100-pound, 30- by-30 box home through UPS, it would cost upwards of $2,813, or about $28.13 a pound. At one of the Mission spots, it costs $250 or $450 depending on its destination. Moreover, the box has no weight limit and no village is too remote.
If you can fit it in the box, they’ll ship it. That, says Justa Sopon, is why she prefers De Leon to ship items home to Guatemala.
Sopon said she sends shipments to Mazatenango, a small city 102 miles west of Guatemala City. But the U.S. Postal Service would only take her package as far as the capital and she had to get someone in Guatemala City to pick up the package and take it to Mazatenango.
“They’ll charge a lot more,” said Sopon, “and it’s a challenge to make sure things get to where I ship them.”
De Leon’s shipping service guarantees the box’s delivery with a door-to-door service.
Arnoldo Bercian operates 502 Express, and shares his office at 2974 Mission St. with a women’s clothing store. President Donald Trump, he said, has slowed his business.
“People are coming out less, not spending much money in the area,” he said. “People would rather stay home and avoid any risks outside.”
Bercian said he ships packages once every two weeks by container. A container runs between $2,000 to $3,000 and the trick is to fill it up with enough boxes to make it profitable for the shipper.
Some of the local shipments leave from the Port of Oakland, but in some cases, a local shipper will combine their load with another company’s cargo and send it with more boxes to a bigger container in the Port of Los Angeles, the shippers said.
Most companies in the Mission ship to Mexico and Central America and have trusted employees abroad who coordinate deliveries.
Maria Tamariz, of Tamariz and Associates, for example, pays an extended family member $700 a month to help deliver packages in Nicaragua — a job that requires a lot of logistical coordination, but provides the employee with a wage better than most professionals there.
The Tamariz family has run its shipping business at 2998 Mission St. for 28 years. It was once run by Maria and her husband Carlos, but he died two years ago at the age of 72.
The Nicaraguan immigrants arrived in San Francisco 30 years ago and nowadays it is 74-year-old Maria and her 40-year-old daughter who run the cavernous storefront. Their business ships almost exclusively to Nicaragua.
“There are a lot of people who appreciate us. They say we’re one of the best, or that there’ll never be another one like us,” Tamariz said in Spanish.
When a client is too far to drop off a box, Tamariz sends freelance delivery men to pick up the parcels.
Tamariz said that kind of service has built their reputation. And, while there has been a slowdown, they still have about 500 clients a month.
Orbelina Torres, a Salvadoran immigrant, explains that kind of trust is the biggest factor when shipping items back home. If someone is spending several hundred dollars to send valuables, they want to feel at peace about their package’s arrival.
Torres said she once used a smaller Mission business to ship a box to El Salvador, but it took seven months for the package to get there. When it arrived, she said, items such as a microwave, oven and jewelry were missing.
“To me it’s an advantage if things get there in good shape. It’s the best bang for your buck option,” Torres said.
Back at Transportes David, De Leon looks at his clock once more before turning his eye toward a wall-mounted flatscreen. When he first moved his company from the Excelsior to the Mission five years ago, he enjoyed a lot of traffic. Now, fewer people return, he said.
When he’s not wrapping up boxes, De Leon waits inside his other business, Mission Soccer, located in the same building. It’s a small break: He usually works from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. six days a week managing and picking up parcels. Maintaining his customers’ trust is the biggest priority.
“This is the kind of business for those who can manage their stress,” De Leon said. “If you can’t, you won’t last more than a couple of years.”
Tamariz, on the other hand, works fewer hours, usually from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week.
Though Tamariz gets a lot of love from her clients, she’s considering retirement. Her four children are all adults now, and she has three grandkids she likes spending time with.
“My husband worked on a Saturday, then on the following Monday ended up at the hospital and died. You can’t work forever,” Tamariz said.