Migrant Testimonies

borrowed from creative commons

image by Ernestina : borrowed from creative commons

This afternoon I had a chance to interview a subject for my research on Dominican hometown associations. It was a great conversation that covered numerous topics associated with the migrant associations and provided insights on how some Dominicans are  dealing with the economic downturn in the US. I wasn’t surprised to hear that the amount being remitted home has declined. It also came as no surprise that some transnationals have not been able to send money lately. The downturn has not affected everyone equally. My subject was not feeling the same pains as some of the compatriots whose stories he shared with me, for reasons that were not disclosed (nor requested). Nevertheless, I learnt that each family adopts a distinct financial strategy: there are no cookie-cutter ways of dealing with the downturn or for sending money back home. Some save for a rainy day, others log in more hours in whatever job comes their way. Adjustments are made and setbacks are resolved. Uncovering and analyzing the reasons behind each household decision could lead to an interesting study (which is not the one I am pursuing).  I am slowly getting a handle on interviewing research subjects. The testimonies offered are complex statements about life in an interesting social space that defies the categories of “home” and “abroad”. I now leave you with another interesting statement on surviving as a migrant in these downturn days made by a Brazilian worker in NYC. It was published in the NYT

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February 8, 2009
THE VOICE

Hard Days for a Buff and Shine Man

MARCOS SILVA DE PAULA, a 37-year-old Brazilian who moved a decade ago to a Brazilian enclave in Astoria, Queens, can offer a ground-floor view of the city’s economic turmoil.

For many years, Mr. Silva De Paula made a decent living in what is something of a throwback profession — he shines shoes for a living — but he is now planning to return to Brazil with his wife, Miria, and their 3-year-old daughter, Kimberly. Both Mr. Silva De Paula and his wife, who works part time cleaning houses, have seen their incomes plummet in the past year, and in leaving, they will be following in the footsteps of many Brazilian friends who have already made the one-way trip.

Many immigrants are suffering economically these days, but as the recession deepens, Brazilians are among the few who have the option and incentive to return to their homelands. The reason is that Brazil’s economy, while clearly affected by worldwide troubles, has been relatively strong in recent years, so much so that even before the recession, its strength had drawn immigrants home.

On a recent evening, between bites of a Brazilian farmer’s cheese and his wife’s homemade cake, Mr. Silva De Paula sat in the kitchen of his two-bedroom apartment and talked about his decision to move back home.

JOSEPH HUFF-HANNON

When I came here in 1999, Brazil’s economy was in the pits, and it wasn’t too hard to get a visa to travel to the U.S. When I got to New York, I felt at home already. I got work as a house painter, then as a mechanic, then as a driver delivering business documents.

I started working as a shoeshine man in 2004 when a Brazilian friend left for Florida. He sold me his kit, and I took over his business and some of his regular clients. For three years I made good money. I’d take the kit, with the wooden box and my little brushes, and pull it around in a little cart with me, and go to offices in Manhattan, Queens and Long Island.

To tell you the truth, at first I hated this job. Then, after a while, I started to like it a little bit, or at least to hate it a little less. The good part about it is I don’t have a boss telling me, “Do this, do that.” Shoes never yell at you. And Americans don’t want to do this kind of work. When was the last time you met an American shoeshine man?

The mortgage companies were my best clients. I used to visit a lot of mortgage and brokerage offices — at 46th Street and Park Avenue, in Jamaica, Queens. Most of the people who worked there were young, and they gave nice tips.

The problems began in 2007, when the mortgage crisis hit. I asked my friends who also do this work, because I wondered if it was just me, but they said it was hitting them, too.

At first, people just started cutting back. People who usually got a shine every week, now they’d ask for a shine every two weeks. You think it won’t affect you because a shoeshine is only $5, and maybe a $1 tip. But all of a sudden everybody started holding onto their money.

Then, in the beginning of 2008, the mortgage offices started closing down. I used to make regular rounds at 10 different mortgage offices. In the last year, 9 of those 10 closed down. The only one left is just the boss and a few assistants. During the good times I was making $4,000 a month. Now I’m barely making $2,400 or $2,500 a month.

My wife and I started to talk about going back to Brazil last year. The economy there is a lot more stable than when I arrived. If I go back to Brazil, I’d look for work as a mechanic; that’s what I’m trained for. My parents want us to come back, partly because they’ve never met our daughter and they’re dying to know her. And everybody is there — all my brothers and sisters. We’ve been away a long time. You lose something when you’re away from family that long.

The main thing is that now we can’t save anymore. We’re making barely enough to get by. To live outside of your country and not save anything, it doesn’t make sense. Our plan was to wait until the end of the year, but things keep getting worse. Now we’re planning to leave sooner.

It’s a difficult decision. We’ve always been in Astoria. We have a lot of little Brazilian markets here, and our friends are here, and our church, Light to the World. We do a lot with the church — we go every Tuesday and Sunday, and sometimes on Saturdays. The pastor is always thinking about us. One of our friends from church went back home, and she said the thing she missed the most about New York was the church.

And we’re used to this work-all-the-time culture. When you’re here, there’s no way to be lazy. In Brazil, you live with less, but you’re not running all the time. Here you see more people working into their 70s, their 80s.

My wife thinks it’s better to raise Kimberly in Brazil. Even though Kimberly was born here, Brazil is her country, too. She doesn’t want to go, but I think she’ll love it.

We took Kimberly camping upstate last year, and she loved it, especially sleeping in a tent. But my city, Belo Horizonte, is right by the mountains. It’s very beautiful. We can take her camping there, too.

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