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Economy Hits Latinos Hard in U.S. and Back Home

Guatemalan immigrant Marfin Rivera -- Maryland Newsline Photo by Karen Shih
Guatemalan immigrant Marfin Rivera is one of many Latino immigrants struggling to provide for his family in the United States and in Guatemala. (Newsline photo by Karen Shih)

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By Karen Shih
Maryland Newsline
Friday, Nov. 7, 2008

SILVER SPRING, Md. - Marfin Rivera, a former sugar cane plantation worker, came to the United States 17 years ago, looking “to have a better life.” For years it worked: he had steady jobs and was able to support his family both in the United States and in his native Guatemala.

But now, “the economic situation is very serious,” he said. “This year is very bad.”

Though the economic crisis has hit all aspects of society, many Latino immigrants have an added layer of worry during these difficult times. Many support two families: one in the United States, and one in their native land.

In August 2008, remittances, or money sent back to Latin America, decreased by 18 percent to El Salvador from the previous month, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. Mexico and Brazil, two of the top recipient countries, have seen remittances decrease since mid-2007.

“[Latino immigrants] do whatever they can to send money” -- often limiting major purchases and living with others to save money for extended family, said CASA de Maryland spokesman Mario Quiroz, who has seen a steady decline in available work in the year that he has worked for the organization, which helps Latino immigrants.

Rivera, who lives in Lanham, said he used to send $400 to $500 a month to his extended family. Now, he sends just $100, he said, straining his family's resources. 

“I’m very sorry because [my son] is in college” in Guatemala, he said. His son has had to pick up some side jobs to help make ends meet, he said.  

A self-employed painter and tiler, Rivera said he has only been able to find work for one or two weeks a month this year. He may have to find work with a big construction company again to have more consistent work, if he can find someone who is hiring, he said.

The U.S. unemployment rate was 6.5 percent in October, and even higher for Hispanics, at 8.8 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This is up from 4.7 percent overall in October 2007, and up from 5.6 percent for Hispanics. Though Maryland’s unemployment rate is lower than that of the national average, at 4.5 percent in September (the most recent information available), it's still up from 3.4 percent in September 2007, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Many immigrants that CASA helps are day laborers who are looking for construction, landscaping and delivery work, which has decreased during the economic downtown, as fewer homes are being built and fewer homeowners are willing to spend money to work on their homes, Quiroz said. In October, the Commerce Department reported a 31.1 percent drop in new home construction from September 2007 to September 2008.

Since the Latino laborers' regular work is slow, some have taken jobs as leaf collectors and movers.

“The key is flexibility,” Quiroz said.

El Salvadorean immigrant Hugo Castaneda - Newsline photo by Karen Shih
El Salvadorean immigrant Hugo Castaneda, who came to the United States after receiving threats from gangs in his homeland. (Newsline photo by Karen Shih)
That is a familiar concept to Hugo Castaneda, who has had to adapt from a life of financial security in El Salvador to a life of uncertainty in the United States.

Castaneda said he had a good job in El Salvador, and he was able to support his wife and son, as well as several members of his extended family. But as a forensic scientist for the Civilian National Police, his financial security came at a cost. He said he often testified in trials, and gangs, such as Malva Saltrucha, more commonly known as MS-13, started to make threats against his family.

“I [was] afraid for the life of my boy,” he said, of his 7-year-old now in first grade.

He said he recently heard from his family that a friend of his is dead.

Castaneda came to the United States two years ago, hoping that he could carve out a new, safer life for his immediate family while also continuing to support his relatives back home. He and his wife found steady work in landscaping and house cleaning for the first year or so, saving enough to buy a car.

But when the economy slid, so did his aid to his family. Castaneda, who lives in White Oak, said he used to send around $350 a month to support his mother, aunt and disabled cousin in El Salvador, none of whom work. In October, however, he only managed to send $200 from some money he and his wife earned selling tamales and pupusas on weekends at a roadside stand.

“[My mom] survives with that money,” he said. “My mom suffer[s] right now.”

Inflation in Central America, coupled with a devalued dollar, has made the problem even worse, as it becomes more difficult to buy even basic food items, like beans and rice, reported the Inter-American Development Bank.

But no matter how bad the economic situation is in the United States, neither Castaneda nor Rivera has seriously considered returning to Central America. Though the head of the National Federation of Farm Workers in Mexico estimated in early October that more than 350,000 Mexican immigrants would return home, the two men had only given returning fleeting consideration.

“Last week I thought that,” Castaneda said, but he knows he can’t go back. “Life for my son is more important to me” than having financial security, he said.

Rivera echoed his sentiments.

“Seeing the way Guatemala is right now, it’s better to wait and see,” he said. “It’s still better to be here.”

Interviewed just before the general election here, both had hopes that the next president would improve the economy.

“I am waiting for that, all the Hispanic people [are] waiting for that, for the change,” Castaneda said.

Copyright 2008 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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