Guadalupe Ramirez, a 42-year-old Mexican immigrant, stands alone at the counter of 116 Flowers in Spanish Harlem, waiting patiently for business.
“People are hardly buying anything,” she said in Spanish.
Before, Ramirez explained, customers would come in and spend $40 or $50 on flowers, but now they are buying $5 bouquets or $2 balloons instead.
When she began working here five years ago, the shop was very busy. Now, she said, only two or three customers come in each day.
A little more than one year after the U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed and sent the world spiraling into an economic crisis, many Mexican immigrants in the United States are finding it harder than ever to make ends meet.
Mexicans immigrants comprise the nation’s largest Latino population, at 64 percent of the overall Latino population. According to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, there were 29,189,000 Mexican immigrants in the United States in 2007.
In New York City, a 2007 American Community Survey reported 288,629 Mexican immigrants, making them the city’s third largest Latino group after Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. They constitute 12.4 percent of the city’s Latino population.
Fatima Aguirre, 31, from Puebla, Mexico, said that business at her father’s grocery store on Third Avenue near 116th Street has been much slower this year.
“There’s a lot of people not working, so they don’t come get their produce as much as they used to,” she said.
Aguirre’s family in Mexico has been asking her father to send more money than ever this year, indicating that economic prospects back home have worsened as well.
Hilda Martinez, 25, can attest to that. She came to the United States nine months ago after losing her job as a cashier at a Mexican airline that went out of business last year. Now she works at Mexico Travel in Spanish Harlem. She says many people come to the agency to send money home to Guerrero and Puebla.
But, Martinez said, “People are sending less money than before.”
Martinez claims many people are returning to Mexico because they don’t have work to sustain them here. And she doesn’t believe the situation is going to get any better.
While an analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center found that Mexican immigration to the U.S. has declined over the past several years, it found no evidence of an increase in Mexican immigrants returning home.
Lucia Tula, a 33-year-old mother of two who sells tacos on 116th Street, lost her job as a housekeeper one year ago. She expressed doubt at the prospect of returning to Mexico because of the economic situation in the U.S.
“If I could, I would,” Tula said. “But the economy is also bad there.”
Many vendors on 116th Street, in the heart of Spanish Harlem, receive assistance from the community-based organization Esperanza del Barrio. According to executive director Peter De Vries, the organization helps street vendors obtain licenses, file their taxes and get legal assistance. Street vending, he said, provides a viable source of income for undocumented immigrants who have limited employment options.
Although Esperanza began as a Mexican-American organization, the organization now serves people from many Latin American countries. It also hosts immigration workshops and classes on English as a Second Language, but its primary purpose is to assist street vendors in making a living. About five to 10 people come to the agency to get help setting up each week.
“I think that business has held pretty steadily,” De Vries said.
De Vries has seen a few people pack up and go back to their native countries, but for the most part, he believes street vendors are able to stay in business during these hard times because the food they sell is cheap.
The organization itself, however, is experiencing its hardships. Esperanza, which is funded through foundations and individuals, is struggling to find money right now.
“We may have to close doors and merge with another organization,” De Vries said.
By contrast, Net Plaza, an Internet café in the neighborhood, is booming. Baruch Cruz, a Mexican computer technician employed at the café, has seen an increase in business since the economy’s decline.
“There’s a lot of people looking for jobs, and they come here to make their resumes and cover letters,” said Cruz, 22.
The Internet café provides computer and Internet access; printing, fax and copying services; Web site design; video conferencing; and resume packages for job seekers.
But Cruz said he thinks the economic situation has already started to improve.
World leaders seem to be optimistic as well. Earlier this month, Mexican president Felipe Calderon predicted in his third State of the Nation report that since the economic crisis has “hit bottom … given the federal government’s commitment to maintaining orderly public finances, we will be returning to the course of growth.”
President Barack Obama also expressed confidence. After the September 25 G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, Obama said, “Our financial system will be far different and more secure than the one that failed so dramatically last year.”
In Spanish Harlem, Guadalupe Ramirez stands at the counter of the dimly lit flower shop and sounds less certain about the future of the economy.
“I don’t know. It depends if they sort this out. I have a little bit of hope,” she said.
Ramirez then reassured herself that things will get better between now and Christmas in hopes she can buy gifts for her family.
“One cannot live like this,” Ramirez said.