Ticket out of town

It's a warm Friday night, and Angel Lopez slumps in his parked Mitsubishi and calls his mom in Puebla, Mexico. He has bad news:

No voy a poder mandar dinero esta semana.

“I won't be sending money this week.”

Lopez, 29, arrived in Charlotte six years ago when homebuilding jobs were easy to find. Now, the work has all but dried up. He and two roommates are barely scraping together enough to pay the rent on their South Boulevard apartment.

When times were good, Lopez sent his mom and younger brothers as much as $600 every 15 days.

But lately it's been about $100 every two weeks, he says. A few weeks ago, he worked one day. Another week, two. “I've been here six years, and this is the worst I've seen,” he says.

For many Latino immigrants like Lopez, the worsening economy has left them at an agonizing crossroads. Should they tough it out in the shadows with the hope that situation improves?

Or should they return home to the stability of family and country, but likely face a worse economic reality?

Staying or leaving?

That choice has significant implications.

U.S. Hispanic buying power is expected to reach almost $1.2 trillion by 2011 – about six times what it was in 1990 – according to a study by the University of Georgia.

For more than a decade, North Carolina has been home to one of the country's fastest-growing Latino communities. Hispanic workers helped fuel much of the growth in the region's construction, agriculture and hospitality industries.

Latino economic health here mirrors that of the general population. Mecklenburg County had more than 2,100 Latino-owned businesses, based on a Census count released in 2006.

The economic slowdown, which was slow to reach Charlotte, has hit Latino families particularly hard.

Mecklenburg building permits for new homes fell almost 40 percent in the past year. The Pew Hispanic Center reported that 29.9 percent of all recently arrived foreign-born Hispanics held construction jobs in 2006.

Now construction sites across the city feature bilingual signs of the times. No hay empleado. Not hiring.

Sam McGee of McGee Huntley Construction says the steep drop in homebuilding has pared his work force by more than 20 percent, about 300 jobs in all.

Tougher immigration controls also make it harder for illegal immigrant workers to get and keep jobs, and many are having trouble getting to work because they can no longer obtain or renew a driver's license.

Though numbers are impossible to track, many Latinos are leaving. One-way bus and plane tickets from Charlotte to Latin America have more than doubled, some brokers say.

Those choosing to stay are spending less.

Latino groceries and other shops that have been enjoying profits for years are now seeing seismic drops in sales. Advocacy groups say they're seeing more Latino families in crisis.

A booming headline from a recent edition of the Charlotte Spanish-language newspaper El Progreso Hispano declared: “Economic crisis attacks the community's pockets.”

At Mi Casa Su Casa Centro de Recursos, a nonprofit group that runs out of a church on Albemarle Road, director Carlos Beteta says he's seeing a sharp rise in families asking for food because the work and income has dried up, or young mothers suddenly single because their husbands have been jailed on immigration charges.

“We're seeing more stress, more mental illness” because of the pressures people are facing, Beteta said.

Still, the situation in the Carolinas is better than many. According to news reports, out-of-work Latino construction workers are abandoning the stricken California and Florida markets for Texas or the Carolinas. Thousands more are recrossing the border – this time headed south.

How long they'll stay is unclear. In Mexico, the situation is far worse than in the States. There, the U.S. slowdown has cut production at the American-owned manufacturing plants known as maquiladoras. If those plants close, workers say they'll come back north in search of money – with fewer jobs available.

A closed cash register

A year ago, opening a Western wear shop in a strip mall on North Tryon Street seemed like a good idea to Mariela Garcia.

Business was never great at El Tarazco, but within a couple of months, it “just fell through the floor.”

Now, an average day means only seven or eight customers. Some days, Garcia and her husband have no reason to open the cash register.

The local Latino market had been a perfect business opportunity, Garcia believes.

“They buy, buy, buy, not thinking about saving for tomorrow,” says Garcia, who is from Mexico. When times are good, men don't hesitate to plunk down a few hundred dollars for matching leather cowboy boots, shirts and belts.

“They'd buy them in every color,” Garcia says, motioning to her walls lined with clothed mannequin torsos. “Now, they buy just one pair, if that.”

The pulse is gone

Nowhere is the change felt more than in the city's other ethnic corridors of South Boulevard and Central Avenue.

“You feel the difference. The streets are empty,” says Gabriela Centeno, looking out the window of La Carniceria La Mexicana, a grocery on Central she helps manage.

This winter, the store saw profits drop about 60 percent, she says.

“People are only buying what's necessary now.” Instead of a dozen eggs, they might buy one or two. When times were good, customers would spend extra cash at a little gold jewelry stand in the shop. Those sales have almost stopped.

One part of the business is booming: Centeno is selling far more one-way bus tickets to Mexico than ever before.

The daily El Expresso bus leaves the carniceria at 2 p.m. In past years, she'd sell about a dozen tickets every two weeks. Recently, she sold 46.

She understands why. People are thinking, “Now, I can't relax here. It's better to go home to my country where at least I can be in peace.”

Jose Antonio is staying put. The 38-year-old asphalt worker's only goal is to send money every Friday to his wife and two daughters. He's been bouncing back and forth between Charlotte and Honduras since 1993.

“In this country, you have to have more than one skill,” he says, taking a bite of a vanilla popsicle while waiting for his clothes to dry in a South Boulevard laundry.

But even with a stable job, his pay is way down. Sometimes he's told not to come to work because business is slow.

He says he sends the bulk of his paycheck to his wife. Sometimes, he says, he doesn't eat for a day or two.

For Lopez, the construction worker, returning to Mexico isn't an option just yet.

“I've got a sister in New York (City) who says there are jobs there,” he says. “But she works in a restaurant. I don't know what kind of work I'd do.”

Charlotte is the only U.S. city Lopez knows. But he says he won't hesitate to leave – if it means he won't have to make more disheartening calls to his mother.

“She tells me it's OK, not to worry,” he says. He shakes his head, glancing down at the cell phone in his hand.