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Report: More Colo. Hispanics hurt by weak economy

Ivan Moreno
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado
Will Powers/APJose Gallegos, 43, a shop owner that sells Latino CDs, talks about the impact of the economic downturn on his business in Aurora.
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DENVER, Colorado ” Fewer people these days are buying the colorful heart-shaped ornaments Luciano Martinez sells to celebrate baptisms and the quinceaneras that are a staple for Hispanic girls turning 15.

“There aren’t as many parties as before. People are holding back,” the 47-year-old Aurora business owner said in Spanish, referring to his shop where he and his wife sell supplies and decorations for celebrations.

The nation’s economic slump has increased unemployment ” especially in construction ” for Hispanics across the nation. And Colorado business owners like Martinez say they’re feeling the hit.

“The stores are empty. Two years ago, there was money,” said Jose Gallegos, 43, who owns a CD store near Martinez’s business in the La Plaza Mexicana flea market in suburban Aurora.

The area is heavily populated with clothing stores, bakeries, and insurance agencies all targeted to Mexican immigrants, the group with the highest unemployment rate among Hispanics, according to a report released Wednesday by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Nationally, 8.4 percent of Mexican immigrants were unemployed at the end of the first quarter, up from 5.5 percent last year. The report analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau.

Hispanic immigrants were affected more than native Hispanics, the Pew Center said, with unemployment rates of 7.5 percent and 6.9 percent, respectively.

It’s the first time since 2003 that Hispanic immigrants had a higher unemployment rate than native Hispanic workers, according to the report.

In all, about 302,000 more Hispanics were unemployed in the first quarter of 2008 than in the first quarter of 2007. Of those, about 255,000 are immigrants, including 233,000 from Mexico.

Rakesh Kochhar, associate director for research with the Pew Hispanic Center, said foreign-born Hispanics are more dependent on the hard-hit construction industry than native Hispanics. Many of them are undocumented and don’t speak English, making them more vulnerable during harsh economic times.

“Having said that, they continue to be here and they continue to actively look for work,” Kochhar said.

The report doesn’t break down which regions of the country have the highest unemployment rates among Hispanics, and it doesn’t factor whether the workers are in the country legally.

“To put it bluntly, Hispanics had a rough time,” Kochhar said.

At La Plaza Mexicana, fewer people than ever are cashing their checks at Ray Kim’s check cashing store. Kim, 45, estimates his clientele is 99 percent Hispanic.

Down the street, the aroma of freshly baked Mexican pastries fills Esmeralda Gonzales’ store. Gonzales, 21, says business has declined recently. A block away, the store owned by Patty Nam advertises in Spanish the sale of shoes, Mexican candies and clothes. But customers are spending less.

“If they spent $20 last year, they spend $5 now,” Nam said.

Alexandra Hall, chief economist for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, said the number of construction jobs in the state has been flat the last few years, unlike the decline reported nationwide. She also said the unemployment rate for Hispanics has not changed much the last three years ” 6.4 percent, 6.8 percent, and 6.9 percent for 2006, 2007, and 2008 respectively.

However, Hall said it’s possible those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

“There’s probably a decline in employment that we cannot measure because (some of the) workers were not documented,” she said.

For Harold Lasso, who helps run a day laborer center in Denver, the slowing economy is obvious. Every day he sees workers at the Centro Humanitario Para Los Trabajadores (The Humanitarian Center for Workers) waiting longer to find permanent jobs.

Lasso said it used to be that some employers would hire workers by March, and they’d have a job until winter. That hasn’t happened this year. The majority of the jobs are in construction and landscaping, he said.

Lasso speculates that increasing anti-immigrant sentiment and stricter immigration laws are affecting workers and “sending the country into an economic void.”

Most of the workers are Mexican immigrants, but white and black workers also go to the center looking for jobs. Freddie Medina, employment director at the center, said about half of the jobseekers are homeless.

Each morning, some of the jobs available are raffled off by drawing the letters of the alphabet from a wheel. Some workers have families in Mexico whom they’re trying to support, Lasso said.

They have come to depend on the luck of the draw.


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