Until November 2004, Elisa and Luis lived in the muggy town of Coatepeque in Guatemala. Elisa had a job teaching adults to read and write. Luis sold blenders, irons, lamps, and other household electronics door to door.
“We could live,” Elisa says in Spanish. But it was living without dreams. They barely could provide for their year-old daughter, Yamileth. “Lo que queremos por nosotros fue una mejor vida,” she says: What we wanted for ourselves was a better life.
Borrowing from her mother and a friend in Washington, they paid $5,000—a fortune in Guatemala—to a “coyote,” someone who helps immigrants cross illegally into the United States. Leaving Yamileth in Guatemala with Elisa’s parents and traveling with her 23-year-old brother, they hiked north through the desert. “I asked so much of God,” Elisa says. There were times, she says, she thought they would die.
Once in the United States, the three were taken by van to Washington, where Luis’s uncle lives. Now settled in DC’s Adams Morgan, Elisa, 26, and Luis, 24, work hard and live cheaply. They send about half the money they earn to Elisa’s parents. They haven’t seen their daughter since the day they left Guatemala. But they believe they are doing what’s best for her.
Elisa and Luis are among the thousands of Latino immigrants in Washington—US citizens, legal residents, and undocumented workers among them—who send money home. Last year more than $1 billion flowed to Latin America from Virginia, $921 million from Maryland. That’s almost double the total from 2004, according to the DC-based Inter-American Development Bank. Latinos in the District are returning $154 million to their native countries—a 64-percent increase since 2004.
Immigrants send money to Africa and Asia, too, but more dollars flow south of the border than anywhere else. Development experts call such payments “remittances.”
Nationally, the development bank estimates that nearly 13 million migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean sent more than $62 billion home last year. The average monthly support is $300, and that can go a long way. Manuel Orozco, a senior associate at the Inter-American Dialogue, a DC think tank, estimates the monthly cost of living for a family in a small city in El Salvador at about $350.
Remittances make up 37 percent of Guyana’s gross domestic product, according to Orozco. Money sent home from immigrants around the world represents 18 percent of GDP in El Salvador.
Donald F. Terry of the development bank says that Latino immigrants send home about 10 percent of what they earn in the States. But without that money, half the estimated 20 million families who get remittances would live in poverty.
“It’s the most effective poverty-reduction process available because the money gets directly to poor families,” Terry says.
Paul Dwyer, who in 2000 cofounded Viamericas, a Bethesda-based money-transfer company, says: “I’m in the thick of something that’s just a radical innovation in international markets. And it’s people-driven. It’s people helping their families in their country of origin. This is the human side of globalization.”
Elisa is a soft-spoken woman with long, dark hair who wears fitted jeans and pink lipstick. Her story is a familiar one in Washington.
After arriving in DC, Elisa got a job in a clothing store but now does administrative work for a small nonprofit that helps Latinos. Luis worked in construction before landing a job at the meat counter in a supermarket with a large Latino clientele.
Elisa says the couple is filing tax returns for the first time this year. Luis takes home $600 every two weeks, and she earns $400 every two weeks. They share a two-bedroom apartment with Elisa’s sister, brother, and sister-in-law. Elisa calls it “roomy.” They split the $1,150 monthly rent four ways.
Together Elisa and Luis transfer about $1,000 a month to her parents’ bank account in Guatemala. Elisa says that she and her two brothers and sister grew up poor. With the money she sends home, she says the family is doing “so-so.”
Her father is a retired police officer. Her mother has never worked outside the home. They live with Yamileth and Elisa’s 19-year-old brother in the three-bedroom concrete house that she grew up in. The family has a television but not a computer.
Elisa says her parents made a “big sacrifice” to put her and her two oldest siblings through high school, which is not free in Guatemala. Elisa’s money from America has helped pay for her youngest brother’s education. He graduated from high school in October and is working as an auto mechanic.
“I feel like he’s my child,” Elisa says.
The money from Luis covers the expenses of caring for their daughter. Her parents also used remittance money to help pay for a car. They put whatever’s left at the end of each month into savings. With this, Elisa has bought two parcels of land in Guatemala. One day, she hopes to return home, build a house, and maybe start a business.
José, a 40-year-old Guatemalan, arrived in Washington with his eldest son three years ago. He knew no one. He makes about $350 a week as an assistant for a graphics company, where his son, 23, also works.
Three or four times a month, he pays $8 to a money-transfer operation to send small amounts of cash—$50 or $100—to family back home in a Guatemalan village. His wife, his other three children, and his mother live in a two-bedroom house with adobe walls and dirt floors. José says they live on the money that he sends.
“They are sad,” he says of his children growing up without their father. “We need to be together as God commands.”
José has opened a bank account to save for a business he hopes to start back home. “It’s very important to save,” he says, “centavo a centavo, poco a poco.”
More than two-thirds of Washington Latinos have bank accounts, versus roughly half of Latinos nationwide, according to Orozco of the Inter-American Dialogue. “Washington is a place where there is a concentration not only of financial institutions but a direct-payment process of your payroll into an account,” he says.
Philanthropic groups and new businesses are urging more Latinos to save. Mi Tierra (“My Land”), a nonprofit that serves as a friendly storefront for financial services, opened in Adams Morgan last June. There are no lines and no teller windows, just desks in a modern office.
CEO Nitza Segui-Albino says that banks have to overcome the language barrier and other cultural hurdles. In Latin America, banks aren’t always secure. Financial institutions in this country have done too little to reach out to newcomers, Segui says.
Mi Tierra offers some of the lowest remittance rates in the neighborhood—just $6 to send $200 to El Salvador. It also boasts a partnership with the Lafayette Federal Credit Union, through which clients can open checking accounts and take out loans.
Big banks and corporations are creating some services for immigrants. Bank of America offers its account holders free remittances to Mexico. Western Union charges an average of 5 or 6 percent on money transfers, down from 15 percent or more five years ago, according to the development bank’s Donald Terry.
Home Depot recently teamed up with the DC-based MiCash company to offer debit accounts to its customers. Immigrants load money onto the MiCash card, and families back home make withdrawals with a duplicate card at ATMs.
Not all the money sent to Latin America comes from individuals scratching out a living here. Some ethnic groups are combining their remittances to change their home communities. The nonprofit United Salvadoran Communities, a coalition of 16 Salvadoran hometown associations based in the District, holds three or four major events a year—complete with pupusas and Salvadoran salsa bands—to raise money for school and housing projects in the home country.
A small percentage of Latino immigrants supporting families in their home countries are doing quite well. According to the development bank, about 7 percent make more than $50,000 a year.
Roberto, 55, came to the United States in 1978 from El Salvador on an academic scholarship to study for his master’s at American University. Even on a student’s budget, he sent a little money home each month to his mother and two sisters.
Now an economist living in Maryland and making six figures, he’s married with kids and grandkids. His sisters are doctors, and he continues to send home $500 to $1,000 a month—more in times of emergency, such as when his mother broke her hip last year. Roberto uses Bancomercio—owned by El Salvador’s Scotiabank, one of several of the country’s banking institutions operating in the Washington area. The cost: typically $10 to send as much as $1,500.
Since El Salvador’s civil war in the early 1980s, “life has become very expensive,” Roberto says.
His mother and one sister live in an affluent neighborhood in a three-bedroom home surrounded by walls topped with barbed wire to ward off crime. The other sister lives elsewhere with her family.
Roberto (a pseudonym) requested anonymity for this story out of a concern that his family could be targeted by extortionists whom he says threaten those with money in El Salvador. His family is middle class, but without the money he sends, they would save little. “I would really like for them to be better off,” he says. “To have some cushion.”
Roberto wrote his dissertation on remittances. If the United States were to close off the border, he says, his home country would suffer as money flowing home slowed. “With the immense dependency that the country has, in five years, ten years, you’ll see a different El Salvador.”
In the late 1990s, Jhuliza Flowers got a tourist visa from Peru to visit an aunt in Woodbridge. She never left. “It’s a hard decision,” she says, “because when you’re illegal, you think you won’t see your parents again.”
Flowers, 31, worked two and three jobs at McDonald’s, IHOP, and a Best Western hotel. Every three or four weeks, she sent money home to her parents and two younger sisters—$100 at first but later as much as $300. About $200 could pay for her family’s utilities, phone bills, and groceries for the month, Flowers says.
Flowers planned to return home someday. Instead she fell in love. Jhuliza and Robert Flowers, an Army sergeant first class, were married in 2002 in a Catholic ceremony in Robert’s hometown of Campbell, Ohio. She and Robert have had two sons. They lived in Woodbridge for a couple of years, then moved to Stafford to a tidy house with gray siding, maroon shutters, and a redwood deck overlooking the backyard.
Robert’s paychecks cover most of their expenses. Jhuliza quit her full-time jobs after they married, but she sends to Peru most of the money she makes from babysitting—from $150 to $300 every month or so.
“It’s a big thing being separated and making sure her parents are taken care of because the jobs over there are slim to none,” says Robert, who is stationed at Fort Belvoir.
Jhuliza Flowers’s father lost his job with an electrical-supply company five years ago. Her two sisters, ages 20 and 28, and her parents live in a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment that they own in the coastal city of Trujillo. The family has used Jhuliza’s money to pay for such things as a microwave and to add to their savings. She talks to them every night via computers with cameras. Once Jhuliza sent along $3,000 to help pay for a car.
“It’s very important for my parents,” says Fiorella Andrade Vasquez, Jhuliza’s youngest sister. Vasquez runs a women’s clothing store in Trujillo with her mother’s help and sometimes works as a graphic designer. The middle daughter sells health insurance.
Robert, 36, has visited Peru twice. “Aw, I love it,” he says. “It’s beautiful.” He and Jhuliza bought a house in a beach town near her parents. Robert is thinking about retiring there, but Jhuliza is not sure. It will depend on what her kids want to do, she says.
Elisa thinks often of her daughter Yamileth, who’s now 3½. But her plan to return home after working a few years in Washington has become complicated. Last year, she gave birth to another girl, Luisa.
Elisa says her child might have a bright future if she stayed in Washington. “I don’t want to think about it, because it’s very painful. It’s like your heart is in two: one half here, the other half there.”
Only God, she says, knows what will happen with her daughters. “I would like the two of them to have the same opportunities, for the two to be together.”
For now, she’ll keep sending money home.
Money That Travels
The numbers surprise even those who compile them. In 2006, the World Bank estimates, about $400 billion passed from one country to another via individuals—with the United States the single largest source. That’s more than worldwide totals for foreign aid.
Development experts only recently began to get a handle on the volume of cash crossing borders because much of it is transferred outside banking systems, moving by wire or even carried by hand.
“In sub-Saharan Africa this is huge,” says Donald Terry of the Inter-American Development Bank. People wonder how some undeveloped areas of the world can still exist: “Well, it’s remittances.”
Immigrants in the United States sent about $80 billion abroad last year, with a little more than half of that going to Latin America, says Manuel Orozco at the Inter-American Dialogue. Remittances are nothing new in this country. At the turn of the century, Portuguese and Italian banks operated in the United States, moving immigrants’ money to family abroad.
Development groups want to increase the impact of remittances in the home countries. They envision families using contributions from relatives to build credit histories. Families could open savings accounts with microfinance institutions that would provide loans and mortgages.
“It is unclear whether we can turn these flows into an economic development program,” Terry says. “That’s the focus now.”
Lori Robertson (email@example.com) is a Washington journalist.