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It's The Economy: The Hispanic Community

By Marina Giovannelli


Wilmington, NC – Analysts can put a number on rising inflation and dips in the housing market.

But it's harder to measure the effects of a sputtering economy on minority communities that sometimes work and live on the fringes of the mainstream economy.

In her small Mexican store on Carolina Beach Road in Wilmington, Esmeralda Mondrago sits behind her silent cash register. She's been in business about a year and a half, and she's getting ready to put a for sale sign up in the window.

"The economy is very low, I don't have sales, and to be honest, I'm not making enough to pay the rent, and the bills are higher every day," says Mondrago.

She says business has slowed to a trickle in the last three months. Esmeralda's husband David Mondrago says their customers are mostly Hispanic, and they're now buying cheaper food Wal-Mart and Food Lion.

"People prefer to buy stuff at big stores like Wal-Mart and Foodlion, and with stores like this, people just stop in to buy some little thing," says Mondrago.

Both Hispanic and non-Hispanic businesses are hurting. But because most Hispanics work in industries hit hardest by the economy, they're shopping less at businesses that cater to them.

Construction break down

David Mondrago is a roofer. He says he used to work construction six days a week. Now he's lucky if he works four days a week.

Rakesh Kochhar, a research analyst with the Pew Hispanic Center, says the unemployment rate for Hispanics stands two percentage points higher than for non-Hispanics.

"The Hispanic unemployment rate has increased steadily, caused by the construction slowdown," says Kochhar.

Kochhar says the unemployment gap between Hispanics and non-Hispanics grew 75 percent in the last two years as developers reigned in construction.

"As the industry hit a slump, the workers that were let go were newly arrived, foreign born Hispanics," says Kochhar.

And the Hispanic construction workers who are still employed face obstacles that non-Hispanic workers may not.

Vulnerable workers

Danny moved to Wilmington from Honduras and found work building fences. When the time came to collect his second pay check, Danny says his employer refused to pay up. Danny asked we not use his last name for fear of retribution from his former employer.

"He said he was going to call immigration on me," says Danny.

Danny says his former employer insisted he had not worked those hours, and threatened to call immigration. "I went to get help from Amigos Internationals," says Danny.

Amigos Internationals is a Hispanic outreach organization in the Cape Fear region. After a year of legal battles, his employer was forced to pay Danny for his work.

Jeremy McKinney is an immigration lawyer in Greensboro, and he's dealt with labor disputes similar to Danny's.

"The cases usually unfold with the employer getting away with it because fundamentally the worker is undocumented and the employer knows it and is taking full advantage of it," says McKinney.

Immigration politics at play

Stepped up immigration enforcement across the state may make it harder for Hispanics to bounce back from economic hits.

While Cape Fear Community College enrollment spikes with people looking to improve their job prospects, undocumented Hispanics are not allowed to take classes for credit.

And a state law passed two years ago says undocumented immigrants can't get drivers licenses.

Carlos Siercke is the director of the North Carolina Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

"The employers are desperate because the hard working people are staying home, because in part some of them could not renew their drivers license," says Siercke.

Silver lining

But Siercke also says the economic downturn and loss of construction jobs may have a silver lining for the Hispanic community.

Siercke says entrepreneurs are seizing the economic climate as a business opportunity.

"So these people that are transitioning from construction into other types of jobs to start their own business," says Siercke.

And existing business owners are branching out and looking for new clients, possibly reversing the economic chain reaction with in the Hispanic business community.

"I've seen people venture into the non-Hispanic market, taking to people selling ink cartridges, tapping into other markets, venturing out to rest of general population, in long run, its good," says Siercke.

So like people across the country, Hispanics are feeling the pinch of a tight economy.

And while it didn't turn out well for Wilmington grocery store owner Esmeralda Mondrago, the current economic downturn may be an opportunity for Hispanics across the state to achieve the American dream on their own terms.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@whqr.org.