Sunday, January 03, 2010

Anybody Seen Pati?

Latin America—here, specifically Honduras—is reeling from the economic crisis in the U.S. 22 percent of the Honduran economy, an already troubled one, collapsed. This is a tragic story that is emblematic of so much that is going on right now in our hemisphere.


Op-Ed Columnist
Anybody Seen Pati?

Published: December 26, 2009


If anybody knows Pati Castillo in Houston, please tell her to phone home.
Pati is a 30-year-old Honduran whose children and other family members live in a gang-ridden slum here in the Honduran capital. Her mother, tearing up, says that nobody has heard from Pati in two months. Pati’s cellphone number never answers.
This family’s troubles offer a reminder that the most grievous victims of the global economic crisis — triggered in large part by American banking excesses — aren’t just Americans. They include residents of slums and villages in places like Haiti, Honduras and El Salvador — people who had nothing to do with derivatives or subprime mortgages.
The United Nations calculates that because of the economic crisis and continuing high food prices, the number of people going hungry around the world has risen to about one billion. Often, they include the 13 members of Pati’s family here.
The family members, including Pati’s four children, live in a one-room home on a steep hillside in the El Pastel slum. When I arrived a week ago, gang members were selling drugs on the street. And when I left, a boy was sniffing glue outside. Gang members have set up checkpoints and demand payment of a “war tax” to pass.
(A local priest, the Rev. Augustín Vásquez, escorted me in and glared his way through one gang checkpoint. “You ask money from a priest?” he asked indignantly. And he charged on through. Final score: God, 1; gangsters, 0.)
Pati’s mother, Iris, has a job at a music school that brings in about $100 a month, after commuting expenses. But that isn’t enough to keep everyone fed and clothed. So three years ago, Pati decided to sacrifice for her children’s future: She set out across Central America and Mexico for the United States.
After what her mother described as a brutal journey, Pati reached Houston. She found a job as a waitress in a restaurant there and shared a cheap apartment with several other Central American women. Every month, her mom said, she sent home $200 through Western Union.
With this regular windfall, the Castillo family began to live a better life — and overextended themselves. They bought a stove and refrigerator on an installment plan, assuming that Pati’s money transfers would continue indefinitely. “That was a big mistake,” Iris admits ruefully.
Then the economic crisis hit, and jobs began to disappear worldwide. Honduran, Salvadoran and Mexican garment factories that export to the American markets were crushed. Remittances, which amounted to about 22 percent of the Honduran economy, tumbled.
Pati lost her job in June. As an illegal immigrant, she found it impossible to find a new one, so she stopped wiring money home. “My daughter decided she will probably have to come back by herself,” Iris explained.
The last anybody heard from Pati was two months ago. Maybe she couldn’t afford her cellphone anymore; maybe she is en route back home; or maybe desperation pushed her to try something unsavory and to take risks — although her mom doesn’t believe that. “She’s well brought up,” Iris said. “I don’t think that she would do anything bad.”
In the meantime, the Castillos are adjusting to a two-thirds drop in family income. They are bracing themselves for their stove and refrigerator to be repossessed, and they have cut back sharply on food. The adults and older kids get just beans and rice; only Pati’s baby niece gets milk; and the younger children get a few eggs for protein.
“Sometimes the kids go hungry, but I work as hard as I can to prevent that,” Iris said grimly.
Father Vásquez confirmed the Castillos’ story and said it is common since the fall in remittances and the collapse in the economy (in Honduras’s case, greatly aggravated by political instability after a coup last summer). “The recession in the U.S. is felt at a grass-roots level here,” he said. “I see a lot of kids who don’t get breakfast now before going to school.” Many children cope, he said, by sniffing glue.
Similar dramas are playing out in slums and villages around the world. In Haiti, I’ve seen a school nearly emptied of children because remittances stopped coming from relatives in Miami.
“One-sixth of the people on earth are hungry,” said Josette Sheeran, director of the United Nations World Food Program. “We’re seeing epidemics of child malnutrition.”
Ms. Sheeran notes that evidence has mounted that babies who are malnourished in their first two years of life are likely to suffer lifelong intellectual impairments that later feeding can never overcome.
Yet just as global needs are surging, the crisis is causing a faltering in the commitment to help.
So, Pati, wherever you are, good luck finding a job — and call home. Your family, and so many others, need comfort and help.
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