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For Latino immigrants, money transfers to homelands are a regular living expense
Local workers support family members with money earned in Gainesville industries
Salvador Reyes, owner of the Los Alacranes bodega in Gainesville, said some 50 to 60 Latino immigrants come in weekly to send money to family in their native countries. Guatemala is the destination for most remittances sent from his grocery, Reyes said, with Mexico the second most common country.

When nightfall comes, the door chime at the bodega rings and rings as Latino immigrants from the local barrio enter.

Many are men in their 20s, 30s and 40s, stopping by the neighborhood grocery on the way home from a hard day’s work at construction sites or poultry plants.

The shelves at Tienda Los Alacranes are lined with equal part snacks and staples, the refrigerators with cerveza and the cashier’s counter with lotto tickets, headache medicine and other last-second buys.

This corner store, tucked among weather-beaten homes in a working-class district of Gainesville, is just one of many similar bodegas in the industrial part of the city and along Atlanta Highway that cater to Latino immigrants.

Stores like this prominently display Western Union and MoneyGram logos, and that’s exactly what has drawn Lionel Castro, 40, to the store on a recent winter night.

Castro is not here for food or drink. Instead, he’s wiring money to his wife in Mexico.

“It’s a really difficult situation right now,” Castro said, speaking through a Spanish-language interpreter.

Castro sends a portion of his earnings to his wife every two weeks or so, he said. On this night, he is transferring about $200, his wife’s only source of income.

For 18 years, Castro has earned a living laying carpet. He relocated from Athens to Gainesville in the past two years.

His wife had made her home here, too. But when she returned to Mexico recently to care for her ailing father, who later died, she got caught in a limbo familiar to Latino immigrants.

Castro said his wife is unlikely to return to the United States in the near future because she lacks the proper documents, and it’s next to impossible for him to visit given his tenuous income.

“There’s little hope,” he said.

Castro is just one of millions of immigrants who routinely send money from the United States to family in Latin American countries and around the world, an act known as remittances.

The money earned here supports basic living expenses for millions of people in places where the dollar goes a long way.

About $22 billion in remittances were sent to Mexico from immigrants living abroad in 2013, according to the World Bank. It accounts for about 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

The United States is the origin of about 98 percent of all remittances to Mexico, and supplies three-quarters of all such transfers to Latin American nations.

Remittances to Mexico in 2013, however, were down nearly 4 percent from 2012, and about 30 percent from 2006.

The economic recession took its toll in many ways. Lost wages and jobs contributed to a decrease in the frequency and amount of remittances, as did an increase in deportations in recent years.

But the numbers are picking up again.

Remittances to Mexico surpassed $17.5 billion in the first nine months of 2014, a better than 7 percent increase compared to the same time period in 2013, according to the Mexican central bank.

The average remittance was about $293. The number of individual wire transfers jumped to nearly 60 million in the first three quarters of last year.

Beatriz Trejo, who works at the El Maguey grocery in Gainesville, said most people who come into the store to wire money are supporting their wives, children and parents in Mexico. They typically make transfers on paydays and weekends, she added.

Salvador Reyes, owner of Los Alacranes, said between 50 and 60 immigrants come in each week to send money to family in their native countries.

Most immigrants in this neighborhood are from Guatemala, Reyes said, and that’s where most of the remittances are flowing from his bodega. Mexico is the second most common destination from his shop.

Miguel, who declined to give his last name, arrived at Los Alacranes to send money to his wife and mother in Guatemala. He has only lived in the United States for one year, coming specifically to work in the poultry industry.

Miguel said he sends about $100 to $200 every three to four weeks, whatever he can afford between his limited wages and bills that must be paid.

More than $5 billion in remittances were sent to Guatemala in 2013, accounting for about 10 percent of that country’s GDP. Remittances are the second-largest source of foreign exchange in Guatemala.

Those who criticize the practice say money made in the U.S. is spent outside the country.

Corps Officer Lt. Arnaldo Peña, who heads up the local Salvation Army chapter with his wife, Niurka, said remittances are sometimes misunderstood.

First, he said, Latino immigrants come to a place like Gainesville from poverty-stricken countries because of the good job prospects and wages. They work in industries some say Americans never would, such as hospitality, farming and construction.

“That will be one of the main points for them to come to the United States,” Peña said.

And those who work but lack legal status contribute to payroll taxes, such as Social Security and Medicare, while spending their money at local businesses, Peña said.

“You cannot send the money there if you can’t pay the bills here first,” he added.

Reyes said the average amount of a single remittance wired monthly at his bodega is between $300 and $400. It’s regularly the same people, mostly supporting spouses and parents, he added.

Reyes said many local Latino immigrants are likely sending money in the hopes family members can save up and one day join them in the United States.

It can be a solitary life for many immigrants who support their family from afar. And in a place like Gainesville, where an estimated 42 percent of the population is Latino or Hispanic, there are many first- and second-generation immigrants.

Freddie, who also declined to give his last name, arrived at the bodega shortly after Castro and Miguel departed. He said he was sending money to Guatemala to support his father.

Freddie has lived in the United States for 12 years, working in chicken plants and scraping by. But work can be sporadic, he said, so the amount he sends to his father each month varies.

Freddie said he has no family here to support. Most of his days are spent working and at home. He fears for his safety walking the streets alone at night.

Still, life isn’t all that different for Freddie here. His earnings may be lucrative by Guatemala’s standards, but he’s still living in poverty by American norms.

“For me, it’s much the same,” Freddie said in a resolute tone as he grabbed his plastic bags full of food and trudged off quietly into the Gainesville night, thoughts of his father his only company.