Trapped in Poverty: Emigrants Sending Money Home


La familia. Family. We love them and we struggle with them, too. One thing many Latino emigrants face as so-called ambassadors to America is the pressure to send money home once we've secured work. I want to point out that this doesn't fall on the shoulders of Latino emigrants alone. Many cultures put the same pressure on the family member or members that get sent to the United States, but I can share with you with more authority about the Latino experience. For the sake of ease, I will explain using what happens in a typical situation where one family member is able to move to the United States from, let's say, South America. Due to chain migration, that person, usually a son, gets sent to join a cousin or other relative somewhere like California, New York, or New Jersey. Again for ease, I will say New York City. In this scenario, Carlos is in his 20's when his Green Card paperwork finally comes in courtesy of el hermano de su mamá living in NYC. So he packs his bags and joins his Tio Alfredo, Tia Maria, and primos Luis and Carmen, who are living in Queens, NY. When Carlos gets his first job as a cleaner at his Tio Alfredo's auto repair shop, he receives a phone call from his dad back home that weekend, where he learns the electric bill is overdue. Can Carlos send money once he gets paid so the family isn't sitting in the dark in three weeks? Eventually, the weekly phone calls from home turn to "now that you're making the big bucks in America, your mom needs… your sister needs…" Slowly, Carlos begins paying for the family cell phone bill, new clothes for his younger brother, new shoes for his older sister, and a new sofa set for his mom. The rationale is that his money goes further back home, and what little his parents can earn working the same hours, they can't make ends meet. A grateful son always wants to help, no? This expectation of receiving income from American migrants is so common it can effect a country's economy. As per the Holyoke Enterprise, Colorado: "According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, in 2016, migrants in the U.S. sent home more than $74 billion to Latin America and the Caribbean. These payments, which are known as remittances, form a significant part of the economy in some developing countries." Carlos is doing well at Tio Alfredo's auto repair shop. It turns out he has a natural talent with the customers, so Tio promotes him to the front of the store greeting customers and managing the register. Additionally, he gets a nice raise. Yet, Carlos is apprehensive about the weekly phone call approaching. Should he tell his papí about his raise? With the extra money, he could actually go out and get some new clothes because now it's getting colder and he only has summer clothes. He needs a jacket for sure, sweater, and jeans. He's been in New York for five months, and has yet to go to Manhattan. That would be nice, too. But, more importantly, his Tio told him that if he really continued working hard as he has been and went to school like his primos, he could one day take over the business if he wanted to. His Tio wanted him to know how proud he is of his nephew and his obvious potential. Carlos wants to go to school, but how can he pay for it if he's sending half his earnings home every month? It is this type of situation that so many emigrants face. Carlos can't get ahead because of what he feels is his familial obligations back home. This means that Carlos can't raise up his other family members either, so both sides are caught in the trap of poverty. This is extremely painful to go through. Emigrants who decide to stop the pay-stream back home face familial censuring, are called selfish, and are often ostracized. Even though Carlos has family he's living with in Queens, they're not his immediate family, the ones that raised him. You may think simply explaining would work, but it usually doesn't. What ends up happening is that you don't hear from members of your family, sometimes for just a few weeks or months, sometimes for years or never again. I wish I wasn't exaggerating. The expectation of migrants sending money home is normalized. Take this quintessential comment made in an April Tampa Bay Times article by Juan Carlos Chavez, were it was with a great sense of pride that "every Friday, [Beatríz Rodriguez] was able to send $200 to her parents in Guatemala. Every Sunday, in the quiet of her small apartment with a cup of tea, Rodriguez felt the work was worth it. 'My greatest satisfaction was knowing that I was helping my family in Guatemala,' said Rodríguez, 49."

It makes sense to a point, until it doesn't. TheDialogue.org put out a report from the Migration, Remittances & Development Program (2019 through 2021) documenting remittances from Latino migrants during this pandemic period. The amount of money sent home is in the millions. Carlos is stuck, so he decides to ask his Tio what to do, who immediately understands what he's talking about. He looks around his Tio's shop admiring how tidy and professional it is, and how busy it always seems. He has two auto repair mechanics that work under him full time, who wear jumpsuits with the shop logo on them and their names embroidered. His wife does the booking and book-keeping, and Luis and Carmen are in school full-time somewhere that requires them to also wear uniforms. How can he get that life, too? His Tio Alfredo tells him that he got this far by saying "no" to sending half his paycheck home. It turns out that the reason why he doesn't talk to his dad anymore is because his mom told him to stop, and use the money for school. Their secret agreement was that if he did well in school, she would never tell she gave him permission to get ahead. But he had to prove he could, and give back once he got there. Carlos couldn't believe it! So, now that his uncle is successful, does he send money home? The first thing he did, he told Carlos, was buy the family the home they all live in. He pays the mortgage on the house for a few more years before that is finished. Carlos was stunned. The sacrifice was Tio Alfredo never spoke to his father ever again before he died. On his death bed, his mother told his father she had given their son permission to get ahead, and his father had wept. This is just one story out of millions how us Latinos keep ourselves in poverty to the extent that it's part of another country's expected GDP. When I was growing up I remember my dad saying "whatever you do, don't give anyone money," whenever my mom suddenly reached out or when a cousin showed up to come visit. I thought he was nuts. "What do you mean? They're family. Isn't that ok?" My dad did not react well to my query. "Especially don't give family money, because all they'll do is keep asking and you won't be able to get out from under." I didn't get it when I was really young, but I sure did later on. The interesting thing is that my dad gave my brother and me an allowance. One day, my dad and stepmom fell on hard times, and asked to borrow from me. I was a kid, so I was like, duh, dad, of course. "But I will pay you back, and with interest. This is just a loan," he emphasized. He paid me back, with interest. © Isabel Alvear, June 2021 For more information on this topic and more, please "click" on the highlighted links. Drop a comment below, like, and share. Photo credits: Both images by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

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