Foreign aid from Summit County
December 5, 2003
SUMMIT COUNTY – Steve Swartz, general manager of Keystone’s Summit House needed to wire some money to his sister one day last winter.
He went to City Market’s customer service desk to complete a Western Union money transfer.
It happened to be a Keystone pay day.
“Everyone in front of me in the line worked for me,” Swartz said. “There were three of my dishwashers and four of my bussers.
“I bet, on average, they send 80 percent of their paycheck home to Mexico. Rent from Keystone housing used to be taken out of their paychecks ahead of time, so they’d end up with about a $600 paycheck. Out of that, they’re sending about $500 home.
“There’s a guy who works at the Mountain House, and he works at Copper too, since he’s not allowed overtime at either place. I was talking to one of his cousins at a bar, and he sent back enough money to his family that they bought three houses. They lived in one and rented the other two, because of the exchange rate with the peso and because he worked his ass off.
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“It’s the American dream, but it’s happening in Mexico with money they’re earning here,” Swartz said.
Walking through the Summit House is a little like riding It’s a Small World at Disneyland.
On an average day at the busy ski lodge, you’ll find Mexicans, Colombians, Jamaicans, West Africans, Eastern Europeans, Australians and Kiwis – a scene that’s not uncommon in Summit County’s workplaces.
“The Aussies and Kiwis are here to have a good time, but a lot of the others are working like crazy to support their families back home,” Swartz said.
Abel Ortega, who works as a busser at the Summit House, earns about $800 per month, of which he sends $500 to $600 to his elderly parents in Mexico.
“It is definitely a phenomenon locally,” said Family and Intercultural Resource Center (FIRC) director Christina Carlson.
“Some of the families we work with send 60 to 80 percent of their pay home. It’s not only the Hispanic population, but a lot of the West Africans, too. They come here to make their way and support their families.”
Many of Summit County’s foreign workers have come to the U.S. to escape the economic and political instability of their home countries.
“You never know what’s going to happen with the government or the economy in Mexico,” said Isidro Jimenez, a waiter at Hacienda Real in Frisco.
“Let’s say you buy a chair for $30. Next month, it costs $65. You never know when the peso will go down, and people’s wages don’t go up.”
Patricia Cruz, director of FIRC’s Familias Unidas program, said many Hispanic workers come to Summit County every year to earn an income that would be unfathomable in their home countries.
“In Mexico, it’s impossible to work at the minimum wage and save money,” Cruz said. “If you live here in the U.S. and you earn the minimum wage, you can save a lot of money. A lot of people send most of their paycheck to their home country so they can build a house or start a business.
“A lot of people come here and say that they want to be here for only a certain time, but some of them decide to stay here, not only because of the money, but because of the safety.
“In Mexico there is a lot of corruption; if you want to put up a business, or your car gets stolen, if you don’t pay money under the table, you don’t get service,” Cruz said.
“Things have been changing with the new government, but the change is really slow.”
Swartz said he hears similar stories from his Eastern European workers: “The economic conditions in some of the former Soviet republics sound like they’re even worse than in a lot of the Latin American countries.”
According to Jimenez, economics in rural Mexican towns are especially difficult for women.
“Over there, for a woman in a small town, it’s very hard to find work, even if she’s had school. In one town, there is a factory where they make pants and shirts that they send to the U.S.,” he said. “Some people work there, but it doesn’t pay much.”
Jimenez sends about $200 per month to his mother in Mexico. He has 11 siblings scattered across the U.S. who also send between $50 and $200 each month.
One of Jimenez’s co-workers at the restaurant sends about half of his earnings home to his mother, brother and sister in Mexico.
“He is buying a plot, and he’s going to build a house,” Jimenez said.
A growing business
If you walk up to any Western Union agent in Summit County, you’ll see as many brochures in Spanish as you will in English.
“We understand that there is a large migrant population in the Summit County area, and we strive to offer services that meet the needs of the Spanish speaking consumer: the forms, our advertising,” said Danielle Jimenez, a spokeswoman for Western Union.
According to Jimenez, there are 18,000 Western Union locations in Latin America, 6,000 of which are in Mexico.
“We’re definitely seeing growth in the industry in the money transfer market in Latin America and, specifically, Mexico.”
“From our company’s perspective, we saw 20 percent more transactions to Mexico in the third quarter over the second quarter.”
Frisco’s Safeway is one of Western Union’s Summit County locations.
Safeway front-end manager Fito Martinez sees thousands of dollars wired abroad every week, “especially to Africa and Argentina. We have some who send money to Guatemala. A lot of times, it’s around 50 percent of their paycheck.”