Central Americans Turn to Couriers to Send Money Home

Times Staff Writer

Being separated from her children is painful, but Maria del Carmen Chang draws some solace by sending a little money home each month so her son and three daughters can buy themselves a small toy, school supplies or a dress.

The 41-year-old housekeeper earns a modest $100 a week but still manages to make regular visits to the offices of an express courier service in the Westlake area that sends money orders and small packages to Guatemala City almost overnight.

Chang said she felt guilty because she could scrape together “only $75” to send to her children, the youngest of whom is 3 years old. “I’ve been here for more than a year, and I haven’t seen them,” she said in Spanish in a tone of deep resignation. “You come here to work, and that’s the way life is.”


500 Central Americans a Day

Others filtered into the office during a recent Sunday morning, including a few more housekeepers, a Salvadoran construction worker and a welder who said he was sending half of his most recent paycheck to Guatemala as a Mother’s Day gift.

In all, about 500 Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants come each day to the 10 offices of Garza Express, one of half a dozen courier express chains that have become a fixture in Los Angeles’ Central American community.

According to university researchers, the courier agencies are among the fastest growing businesses in the city. But they are themselves only the most visible sign of the ever-growing flow of money and consumer goods sent home by Latino immigrant workers, many of them here illegally.

Added together, the immigrants’ money orders of $75, $100 or $200 are not exactly small change. Economists estimate that “remittances” by immigrants in the United States to El Salvador alone total from $500 million to $1 billion each year, a greater source of foreign exchange than coffee, the country’s leading cash crop.

Remedy for Suffering

With El Salvador suffering from a harsh civil war for almost a decade, and Guatemala going through one of its worst economic crises of the century, the payments and packages have taken on an added importance. A money order for a few hundred dollars can help a family make a rent payment and a package of clothes can keep children warm in the winter.

“In most cases they send the money back home and the money is used for immediate needs,” said Norma Chinchilla, a professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach. “It’s phenomenal the amount they squeeze out of their meager earnings to support their relatives.”


Getting that money home, however, has always presented something of a problem, because the postal services in Central America are notoriously inefficient.

Immigrant entrepreneurs have stepped into this void in the last few years by creating courier services. Nora Hamilton, a political science professor at USC who recently completed a study of local Central American businesses with Chinchilla, said the courier chains have at least 30 offices in and around Los Angeles.

Business was brisk at Garza Express in Westlake, where customers dressed in their Sunday best stood at the counter and quickly wrote letters to send along with their money orders. Typically, the charge is about $10.

Money to Mother

“This week, I’m sending money to my mother,” said Victor Morales, a welder whose letter home to Guatemala included a money order for $130--to help his family “cover costs”--and some snapshots of a reunion with his brother in Monterey Park. “Next week, it’s my wife’s turn.”

Blanca Lucho, a 24-year-old housekeeper, sent home a package that included a money order for $150 and a few gifts for her mother, whom she has not seen since coming here in 1984. Inside the small “CARE package” was a pair of dress shoes, a change purse, a pincushion in the shape of a heart, and two small jars of cold cream and B-12 vitamins.

Because the housekeeper’s package was headed for Guatemala City, chances were it would reach its destination quickly, said Garza Express office manager Franklyn Marquez. But the same cannot be said for packages and letters sent to the remote jungle and mountain areas of Guatemala, or to the countryside in El Salvador.


“We deliver anywhere in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. That’s what makes us unique.” Marquez said. “Unfortunately, there are places where our couriers can’t get through.”

To prove his point, Marquez produced a small stack of returned envelopes, covered with the scrawled messages of frustrated couriers: “Couldn’t deliver--war zone,” and “the guerrillas wouldn’t let me pass.”

Another chain, Pipil Express, has solved the problem of delivery to El Salvador’s war zones by announcing the arrival of the money orders and packages on local radio stations so that the recipients can pick them up in the relative safety of a regional post office, said manager Mauricio Saravia.

Friends the Best Couriers

Although more and more Central American immigrants seem to be using the courier services, many say the preferred way to send money and packages home is with a friend returning to the home country.

Invariably, flights from Los Angeles International Airport to Central America are filled with passengers carrying television sets, blenders, skateboards and every other type of small appliance or toy that can fit into a box or suitcase.

Among those waiting for TACA Airlines Flight 511 to depart on one recent evening for San Salvador and Guatemala City was Antonio Hernandez, a 38-year-old Salvadoran construction worker.


Hernandez was not a passenger on the flight, but his friend Jose Pablo Villatoro was. Hernandez explained that Villatoro was doing him the favor of taking a stereo to his relatives.

“When someone travels, you take advantage of the opportunity,” Hernandez said. “It’s the cheapest way to send things home.”

Villatoro was traveling alone to San Salvador with six large boxes and two suitcases. They were packed, he said, with clothes and more stereo equipment for his own family. “When you have a chance to buy things, you have to share with people there who don’t have that chance,” he said.

Some passengers packed their suitcases and boxes over the weight limit and were told by airline officials they would have to rearrange their luggage into smaller, lighter boxes that wouldn’t strain the backs of the luggage handlers.

“We have to take out 20 pounds, we have to take out more,” said Edwin Torres as he helped his friend, Teresa Henriquez, unload clothes from an overstuffed box.

“Let’s take out the microwave,” he said finally, lifting the brand-new appliance from underneath several layers of dresses, pants and blouses.


The Last Obstacle

Once they arrived in Central America with their booty, the passengers of Flight 511 would face one last obstacle--local customs officials. Stiff customs duties are designed to protect the local economy from foreign competition. But most of the passengers on Flight 511 said they could easily avoid any duties by bribing an official.

Nor are the Central American governments likely to try and stop the flow of dollars into their countries.

“It’s good for the families but the money helps the economy, too,” said Hamilton of USC. “The money has to be changed to the domestic currency and the government eventually gets the dollars.”

Helping the economy, however, seemed to be far from the minds of most of the immigrants who came to Pipil Express on Vermont Avenue last week.

“The situation is very difficult over there,” said Jose Fernando Castaneda, 33, a native of Usulutan in eastern El Salvador. His money order would help his parents buy food and plant crops on their farm, he said. “At least with what I send home, life is better for them.”