STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Next, we have a reminder that changes in the American economy can affect the rest of the world. Mexicans working abroad sent home less money last year than the year before - about 16 percent less. That is the largest annual decline in remittances ever recorded by Mexicos Central Bank, which is important because Mexico depends heavily on those cash transfers. Theyre the countrys second largest source of income after oil exports and they come mostly from Mexicans working in the United States. NPRs Jason Beaubien recently visited the central Mexican state of Hidalgo, where in some villages almost half the residents live and work north of the border.
JASON BEAUBIEN: The village of El Alberto is tucked into the rugged, cactus-covered hills in Hidalgo, miles from the nearest city. El Alberto jumps out of the dry landscape like a strange experiment. Big American-looking homes that could have been erected in subdivisions outside St. Louis or Atlanta sit next to cinder-block shacks.
But when you look closer, many of the big houses aren't finished - some are just shells, some are abandoned construction sites. These houses represent the dreams of Mexican migrants, many of which currently are on hold. Federico Ramon looks after two unfinished properties that were started by his brothers.
Mr. FEDERICO RAMON: (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Theyre in this state because there isnt the money to finish them, he says. And there are other half-finished projects all around him.
Mr. RAMON: (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: People leave their houses to try to make money and sustain their families, Ramon says. Here, theres nothing but some beans, squash and cornfields. Theres no way to make a living. Ramons two brothers and his 18-year-old son are all in Las Vegas. But he says they havent been getting much work lately. Across the ravine from Ramon is a concrete shell of a split-level ranch house. Just up the dirt road is a massive project with a drive-in garage, tinted windows and colonnades on either side of the entryway, but rusting fingers of rebar poke up from the structure, waiting for a second floor that still hasnt been built.
Residents say, as the U.S. economy slipped into recession, construction here in El Alberto ground to a halt. Last year, Mexican migrants sent home $21 billion, according to Mexicos central bank, a sharp drop from the peak of 26 billion sent back in 2007.
Ms. CARMEN MAQUEDA SAN JUAN: (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Carmen Maqueda San Juan runs a small grocery store in El Alberto. She says all six of her children are on the other side. Of the six, only her daughter still has steady work as a maid. Maqueda says her kids used to send home money, but now shes lucky if she gets a phone call.
Ms. JUAN: (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: They say theres no work, she says. Sometimes once a week or for part of a day, they work. But thats it. Local officials estimate that more than 90 percent of the migrants from this part of Hidalgo are in the United States illegally. Theres no shame here in crossing the border illicitly to look for work.
(Soundbite of ringing bell)
BEAUBIEN: Israel Pioquinto Rafael, the head of migrant services for the nearby city of Ixmiquilpan, estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the local population works in the U.S.
Mr. ISRAEL PIOQUINTO RAFAEL (Migrant Services): (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Remittances are very important here, Pioquinto says. Its the base of the economy in this area, and its not just here in Hidalgo. Cash sent home from migrants has been propping up remote villages throughout the region. In Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti, theyre the leading source of income and the backbone of the national economies. The drop in this source of cash, Pioquinto says, affects the entire community. People have less money to spend in the markets. Even a local mariachi band says their bookings fell sharply last year as residents had fewer pesos in their pockets.
Mr. RAFAEL: (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: We were expecting that a lot of people were going to come back from the United States to Mexico, Pioquinto says. But it hasnt really happened. Yes, some came back because at times they didnt have anything to eat. But many have decided to stay and hope that the U.S. economy recovers. He says 10 years ago, people would have returned to Hidalgo and waited out the economic downturn with their families in Mexico, but with the tighter controls along the border, migrant workers dont want to risk returning home and then being stuck on the outside when the U.S. economy does rebound.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.