Mexico's cash cow: families in New York

At 3:45 a.m., when even New Yorkers are curled up in bed, Eloy Gil and his common-law wife, María del Carmen Vásquez, are just starting their 18-hour day.

Within the hour they are on the subway heading downtown from their Bronx apartment. Mr. Gil gets off in midtown and heads for the Sheraton Hotel on 7th and 53rd, where he has waited tables for 11 years. He is never late. He makes $28,000 a year plus tips. Despite the full schedule, he also sings boleros at hotel parties for extra cash.

Ms. Vázquez continues on to Brooklyn to La Piaxteca, the restaurant she and Gil own, where she helps Gil's brother Felix open for breakfast. They serve up signature dishes from their hometown - homemade tamales, fresh sweet bread, and cow tongue.

At the end of his 10-hour shift, Eloy heads over to Brooklyn to help close up the restaurant before getting back on the subway for the 90-minute ride to the Bronx. It's past 10 o'clock when their heads finally hit the pillow.

All this to help keep their family in Piaxtla, Mexico - and the Mexican economy - afloat.

Each month the Gils wire between $100 and $200 back to Piaxtla. It's just some of the $13.3 billion sent home by Mexicans last year, up from $9.8 billion the year before, according to the Bank of Mexico. It reports that remittances are already up 22 percent this year.

The cash flow represents Mexico's biggest source of foreign investment and second-highest source of income, next to oil.

So important are remittances to the country's economic growth that President Vicente Fox, who calls Mexicans living in the United States "national heroes," is looking for ways to make it easier for immigrants to send cash back home.

"There's no work here. If you don't receive money, then you live without," says Albina Morales, Eloy's sister-in-law, from her cinderblock home in Piaxtla, nestled in the southern hills of Mexico.

Men are conspicuously absent in Piaxtla. Most are in the US, having emigrated, legally or illegally, to find work.

One of the few men here, the nimble 93-year-old Ricardo Gil, Eloy's father, walks monthly to the local wire-transfer outlet to collect the regular cash deposit sent by his three sons in New York. Most of the money is spent at the weekly farmers' market.

Throughout Mexico, but especially in rural areas in the poverty belts, remittances cover everything from food to new soccer fields. Hometown associations, which bring together immigrants in the US to raise funds, are behind the more-ambitious municipal projects.

In 2002, the Mexican government counted 600 hometown clubs registered in 30 cities in the US. That number has grown steadily, says Xóchitl Bada, a researcher on Mexican immigration at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. The groups' organizing savvy is helping them tap Mr. Fox's "Three-for-One Program" - for every dollar Mexicans overseas put down for local projects, the government will pony up three.

In Chicago last month, Fox called for further official recognition of immigrant identity cards issued by Mexican consulates in the US. Some banks let undocumented Mexicans open bank accounts with the IDs, making it easier to transfer money back home.

Most of the billions sent to Mexico are made up of tiny wire transfers from low-wage workers like the Gils. Over the past 30-plus years, more than half of the Gils have left Piaxtla. They would have trouble making ends meet without the remittances. "My old rifle still works and I know these hills. I'd hunt rabbit, goat, whatever," if the money stopped coming, says patriarch Ricardo.

"It'd be tight," says his daughter María Eugenia, who earns less than $400 a month teaching preschool. "I'd probably sell barbecue in the plaza."

Back in Brooklyn, Vásquez misses her town, her relatives, and the holidays. Because she is still waiting for her visa, she cannot return home in mid-August to attend Piaxtla's much-anticipated fiesta honoring the town's patron saint. Several Gil relatives in New York are counting the days until departure.

"My husband reminds me that what we're doing here we couldn't do in Piaxtla," Vásquez says. "That eventually we'll make more money and that everyone back home will benefit from it."

Next year, Eloy will retire from the Sheraton, collect a pension, and dedicate himself to the restaurant. It is a risky venture. He took out a $44,000 startup loan and now must make sure the eatery can survive tough competition.

"Once it gets going, I'll hand it over to my partner," he says. "Then maybe my wife and I could split our time between New York and Piaxtla." One idea is to invest his savings in an ice-cream parlor back home and run it with New York-style business savvy. "Let's see," he says, "if we can make it work."

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