Area Immigrants Go Home for Christmas Only in Their Dreams

"I just cannot be Santa this year," says Ramon Alvarado, owner of a small painting company in Springfield. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 22, 2008

A year ago, Yunis Sandivar's travel agency in Arlington County was doing a brisk business in round-trip holiday tickets to Bolivia, Peru, Guatemala and El Salvador. This season, she says, those ticket sales have fallen by 40 percent compared with last December, and a surprising number of customers are buying one-way tickets home -- temporarily giving up on the U.S. economy after years of legal residency.

"Normally at this time, we are full of people, but just look around. The office is empty. We would not survive except for the one-way tickets," Sandivar said. "Our community is facing a very crude reality right now. People have lost their houses, their jobs, their businesses. They are not going home to see their families -- they are going home until the situation here improves. It is going to be a very sad Christmas."

Among the estimated half-million Latin American immigrants in the Washington region, Christmas has long been a season of sentimental and physical reconnection. Extended families are separated by relatively short distances, united by Christian traditions and accustomed to exchanging gifts -- shipped by Hispanic-owned courier services -- including electric appliances and children's party clothes.

This year, however, the area's Latino communities have been hit hard by the national economic slump, with the construction trade devastated by the financial crisis, service industries laying off workers and immigrant small-businesses owners hurt because their customers are without work.

As a result, Latino families across the economic spectrum are scaling back their plans for traveling or sending elaborate gift packages to their home countries.

At travel agencies that specialize in Latin American destinations, several agents said they had sold about one-third fewer tickets than last year. Adriana Loiza, who manages AB City Travel in Arlington, said about 60 customers had purchased one-way tickets home in the past month, figuring they would save money while waiting out the U.S. economic crisis. Several others who had bought round-trip tickets on layaway had to cancel their plans at the last moment.

"One family of four wanted to go to Bolivia for Christmas," Loiza said. "The total cost was $7,000, and they were paying about $400 at a time. But this week the man called me and said he had lost his job, or his last paycheck had bounced, and he could not make the final payment. I told him I was very sorry, but if you don't pay the entire amount before your flight, you can't go."

In past years, Ramon Alvarado, the owner of a small painting company in Springfield, was doing well enough financially to visit his parents back home in El Salvador for Christmas and New Year's. Eager to share his success, he always arrived carrying a generous supply of gifts and toys for families in his native town.

This Christmas, with virtually no new customers, Alvarado, 32, has decided to forgo his annual trip and customary largess. Although he is still making enough to support his family, he said, "I just cannot be Santa this year. It's not only the cost of the plane tickets, it's that one feels ashamed to go home empty-handed."

In interviews in Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland last week, Hispanic business owners, shoppers and laborers said they were facing similar financial struggles, sharp drops in sales or contracts, and a gnawing worry for the future that had clouded their holiday spirits.

Stores and services that depend on Latino customers have made valiant efforts to create a festive atmosphere with floating reindeer balloons, twinkling lights and CDs playing "Jingle Bells." One Hispanic grocery chain in Northern Virginia featured a live Santa Claus last weekend and took out Spanish-language newspaper and radio ads inviting customers to bring their children for photos.

But the hoopla seemed unable to dispel the glum mood. In one newspaper, which featured ads for the Santa appearances last week, there were also ads for Spanish-speaking lawyers and Realtors that showed worried-looking families fretting over unpaid bills. "Is the current crisis knocking on your door?" one ad said. "Don't let the bank take away your house . . . get out of debt without creating tax problems," read another.

In several Hispanic-oriented shopping centers, discount gift shops and package mailing businesses were almost empty during daytime visits last week, although some managers said they were hoping for a burst of sales over the final weekend before Christmas. Most customers seemed to browse without buying.

"Last year, I was able to send my parents and brothers a big box of shoes, clothes and toys. This year, I'm not sure I'll be able to send them twenty dollars," said Osmin Perez, 30, a construction company employee from El Salvador who was rifling through a rack of tiny soccer shirts at a shop in Langley Park. "There is no work at all. I keep waiting for the company to call, but nothing comes in. I'm lucky my own kids are just babies, so any little gift will make them happy."

Even worse off are thousands of Latino day laborers -- many of whom are in the country illegally but an increasing number of whom are legal residents down on their luck -- who depend on brief, casual cash jobs moving furniture, painting apartments or raking leaves. At a nonprofit labor center in Silver Spring last week, the walls were bare of Christmas decorations, and the faces of a dozen waiting men were lined with worry.

"I'm an optimist and I like to celebrate, but we'll be lucky if we have enough for the turkey," said Pedro Guadron, 46, an immigrant from El Salvador who once ran a small contracting business but now spends most mornings at the labor center. "I was proud to buy a house, but this year we had to take in relatives to help pay the mortgage. The way I feel right now, Christmas doesn't exist for me."

In a chair nearby, another middle-aged man slumped silently, his wool cap pulled low. After a while, he began to pour out a tale of loss and failure, of walking long distances because he had no bus fare, of going for weeks without bringing home a day's pay, of swallowing his pride and seeking charity from a church.

"Back in my country, I have kids and a wife and a little piece of land," said the man, who gave his name as Jesus. "I had no idea how hard everything would be here. I can't even pay my room rent, let alone send them something for Christmas. I think about going home, but where would I ever find enough money to make the trip?"

© 2008 The Washington Post Company