Mirna Velazquez has wired at least $100 a month from the South Bronx to her parents in Mexico for years, but it has been several weeks since her last transfer and she does not know when she will save enough to send again.
With the economy going south, a pipeline of financial help from the Bronx and the rest of the city back to Mexico is drying up.
"Prices for everything are rising," Valazquez, 32, said in Spanish. "My daughters ask for an ice cream, I tell them we can’t afford it. Their uniforms for school are expensive."
Her husband washes dishes at a Manhattan restaurant, but as fewer people eat out, his hours have been cut, making it difficult to provide for Valazquez and their two daughters, let alone for their family abroad. It’s a scenario affecting many Mexican New Yorkers in the service industry.
In August, money transfers to Mexico dropped at their fastest pace since the country’s central bank, Banco de Mexico, began tracking them in 1995. Transfers fell 12.2%, from $2.2 billion in August 2007 to $1.9 billion this August. And that was before the stock market tumbled.
The Mexican government expects remittances – a cash lifeline for millions of poor families in Mexico – to fall 7% to 8% this year, a huge increase from their prediction of a 2% to 3% drop just two months ago.
Remittances are second only to oil as Mexico’s source of foreign income.
Nationwide, Mexico is the No. 1 source of foreign-born residents, accounting for nearly three out of 10 of the 31 million foreign-born people in the U.S.
New York City officials estimate 250,000 Mexicans live in the five boroughs, and Mexican advocacy groups estimate about 1 million live in the tristate area.
The effects of the financial crisis on the Mexican community can be seen around the South Bronx. The line of mostly Mexican parents and children at St. Jerome’s Church soup kitchen in Mott Haven has been wrapping around the block.
Ricardo de Valle, manager of a travel agency, international phone call center and money transfer business on E. 138th St., says he has seen business plummet over the past six months.
"There are fewer phone calls home. We are about 50% down on our money there," de Valle said.
"It’s not like folks have lots of cushion between subsistence and their earnings," said Andrew Friedman, spokesman for Make the Road New York, an advocacy group supporting the city’s immigrant community.
"We’ve heard complaints about falling wages and increasing noncompliance with wage and hour laws," he said. "We hear a lot about rising prices at a time of declining income and talk of the declining strength of the dollar."
The construction industry has collapsed completely for the Mexican workforce as well as the restaurant industry, according to Manuel Guerrero of the advocacy group Instituto de los Mexicanos en El Exterior (the Institute of Mexicans Abroad). "There are no jobs. Whatever job is available we take it." he said
Sandra Perez, executive director of CECOMEX, the city’s Mexican Community Center, said she thinks many Mexicans in the city are saving money to go back home, given the economic crisis and crackdown on illegal immigration.
"Normally many people send more than half of their salary to Mexico," she said. "They live in a crowded apartment where they pay little rent. They work many hours, and they really don’t spend money, but now they want to return because of the crisis. They are losing their jobs."
Valazquez said she is choosing between survival for her family here or supplementing her parents’ minuscule pensions at home.
"This is the worst it has been," she said. "But my life is still better here."