The struggle to support faraway families

A week after her high school prom in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Karin moved to the United States. She lives in Hialeah, a sprawling city outside Miami filled with Spanish-speaking immigrants, pawnshops, and little diners serving café con leche.

She has been here six months, sharing a two-bedroom apartment with her mom, uncle, aunt, and two baby cousins, ducking when she sees the landlady - who does not know she lives there - and biting her lip when waves of homesickness come crashing. She has not been to the movies, or made friends, or even heard of nearby South Beach, with its Art Deco buildings and stylish crowds.

What Karin (whose last name is not included because she is in the US illegally) has done is find work and start sending money home to her father and two brothers back in Honduras. Of the approximately $460 a month she makes working as a waitress and moonlighting as a baby sitter, she sends $300 home through a local envois, or money-wiring service. Most of the rest goes toward her share of the rent, toiletries, and bus fare for rainy days.

She often wears the same outfit for days in a row, always pulls her hair back in a simple ponytail, and never applies makeup. Last month she bought herself a pair of sensible work shoes. This month she plans to go out to a nice meal with her aunt. She has not saved a penny.

Before Karin came to the US, she burned all her childhood trinkets, gave away most of her clothes to her cousins, and presented her portable CD player and Air Supply collection to her dad. "The idea was to come and work - not bring stuff here," she explains. "My life ended there and now begins again."

The remittance life

Across the US, about 42 percent of the approximately 6 million immigrants - legal and illegal - from Latin America and the Caribbean dispatch remittances home on a regular basis. Their individual generosities, according to new statistics released by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank, added up to about $30 billion in 2002.

As a source of capital, these remittances eclipse all investment by foreigners and foreign firms for most of the recipient countries; they count for more than 10 percent of the gross domestic product in six of the countries (11.5 percent, for example, in Honduras and 30 percent in Nicaragua). And they are growing dramatically, as immigration to the US from that part of the world continues to boom.

Those sending remittances are bound emotionally and culturally to those left behind, says the study, but otherwise they are a very diverse bunch: They are old and young, men and women, legal and illegal, and new and old immigrants - although the most recently arrived can be counted on to send money most regularly.

For some - those with more means - sending off hard-earned money every week or month is no big sacrifice. For others, like Karin, it is a struggle. Close to half of the men and women sending remittances make less than $30,000 a year, according to the study - and many make much less. This means that these immigrants work day in and out and live modestly so that faraway parents, siblings, or children they may not have seen for years can live a little better.

There is often an unspoken agreement, says Deborah Waller Meyers, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., and one of the first academics to do research on remittances in this country: A family will save money and send one or two members to the US. In return, that person will be expected to support the larger family until a different relative arrives to join in the efforts or take over.

"It's not good, in the long run, for the sending country to become so economically dependent," she argues, "And it's probably not good for that individual either."

But, illogical or tough as this may seem, the majority of young immigrants arriving in the US from Latin America and the Caribbean today - who grew up with homes, school fees, and food all paid for by relatives working in the US - seem to have no expectation of doing any differently.

Increasingly, remittances are "taking on a life of their own," and even driving demographic change," says Margarita Studemeister, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. "Those who benefited from the remittance channel are far more likely to consider coming to the US and sending back remittances themselves. It's a cycle that does not seem to be abating."

Family comes first

Arlene (who asked that her full name and that of her fiancé not be published) is getting married. She has a little engagement ring with the date he asked her - August 2001 - engraved on the inside and a tentative wedding date set for next March, depending on how much money she and her fiancé, Julio, can save. He is the only man in the world for her, she says solemnly.

Yet she knows she needs to keep a check on her excitement and focus on her priorities. "My parents and brothers come first," she explains.

Arlene lives with her father and young brother in Key West, works at a laundromatand at a cafe, and sends most of her $300-a-month earnings home to her mother and other brother in Managua. Most of her fiancé's salary - he works as a salesman at Sears in Miami, where he lives with his mother - also goes to Managua, to his father and sister there. The young couple have precious little money - or time - for each other.

But neither complains.

"Times were terrible when I was very young [in Nicaragua]," she recounts. "We never had meat or white sugar ... and our bars of soap were scratchy and enormous. Then when I was 7 my father said 'Enough!' and traveled to America."

Her father went first to Mexico, then sneaked across the border and into Key West, living in a trailer and working two jobs - as a cook in a hospital by day and a restaurant dishwasher at night. He soon began sending money and packages home: a bag of toys one time, socks and T-shirts another. Every month he sent more than $500, on which the family subsisted. At Christmas he would send each child $50. Once every two years he would buy plane tickets and the whole family would travel to Florida. He never returned to Nicaragua, even for a visit.

"Now I realize that if we started to live the good life it was because of my father," says Arlene. "I studied in a private high school and learned accounting ... all thanks to him."

Today, with her father ailing, and her mother, brother, and many aunts and cousins struggling to get by in Nicaragua, it is her turn to help out. So she came to stay, filling out green-card papers (her dad gained citizenship a few years back) and dedicating herself to the "family-sustaining" work at hand.

Arlene, Julio, and Karin are all part of a new immigrant dynamic that has been developing. It's called "transnational extended families," according to Terry McCoy, professor of Latin American studies at the University of Florida.

"Family ties in Latin America are very strong, only now you increasingly see such family ties stretched out between different countries," he says. "Usually you think of corporations as being built this way - but it is increasingly the case for families as well."

Certainly these families can stay in touch with cheap phone cards and e-mail, even travel back and forth. "But let no one underestimate the bottom line," he says, "which is that transnational family life can require a great deal of sacrifice."

"When I was a child I would swear I would never do what my family did, separating Mom from Dad, me from my brothers. Even for the money..." recalls Arlene. "And still, I don't want the sort of marriage my parents had."

But, she admits, Julio is thinking of going to Nicaragua to take care of family while she might remain in Florida to care for family here, and send money back home.

"Situations arise," she says. "I always felt sorry for my mom and dad. But I will be just like them."

Dreams put on hold

Just 17, Karin lied about her age to get her job at the diner, just as she lied to immigration officials about her intentions when she came into the country on a tourist visa, and as she lies to the landlady about where she lives.

"I had wanted to come because I wanted to help my dad," she says, slowly preparing a cup of coffee for a customer in the diner.

Her father traveled to southern Florida when she was a child, working at a brewery and sending home $200 a month - just enough for her to go to school, where she studied computers. Now, Karin's father is back in Honduras with her two younger siblings, and she and her mother are expected to send the money for their school fees.

She had thought, perhaps, she would save money, buy an old laptop, go to night school, learn English, and do something with her training - maybe become a computer engineer, she suggests meekly. Her dad warned her that her dreams were too big, but she had thought she still had a chance.

Now, she is not as sure.

She feels sad and yet, still, somehow, also satisfied with how it's all going. "America is nice ... I suppose" she says. "And anyway, for me, it's just a job."

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