Turning Greenbacks into Greenhouses

A matching grant program puts migrants' remittances to work

Luisa Castellanos has lived with her husband for only 11 of the 28 years they've been married. He works on a flower farm in Encinitas, Calif., and she lives with 5 of their 10 children in El Trapiche, a rural hamlet in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. He can't even call her: The town has no phone. But twice a month, he wires home $150 to $200--the family's only sustenance. "He has to work there so that we can all more or less survive," says the 43-year-old housewife. "If there were any jobs here, maybe things would be different."

Some of Castellanos' neighbors are trying to change that. Using money sent home by 900 El Trapiche migrants laboring largely in North San Diego county, residents have built a greenhouse to grow flowers for local markets. The venture, run by some of the relatives who've been left behind, has been slow to bloom. The first flower crop turned a profit of just $120, and the second was wiped out by a fungus.

But business may be about to improve, thanks to a new Mexican government program that provides matching funds for job-generating enterprises financed with remittances. That's the formal term for the $9.2 billion a year Mexicans working abroad will send home this year. Remittances are a primary source of income for 1 out of every 10 Mexican households. They're also the country's third-largest source of foreign exchange after oil and exports of manufactured goods.

SALES PITCH. Until now, these remittances have gone to buy essentials. But President Vicente Fox wants the money to have a more lasting impact. Last year, he inaugurated an Office for Mexicans Living Abroad and appointed Juan Hernández, an academic with dual Mexican-U.S. citizenship, to head it. Hernández has been jetting all over, from Los Angeles to Anchorage, urging the estimated 14 million Mexican-born migrants in the U.S. to invest in job-creating ventures in their hometowns. The government has pledged up to $3 in public money for every $1 in migrant donations.

Fox wants to show he is serious about creating jobs for Mexicans at home, even as he presses Washington to legalize the status of some 4 million undocumented Mexicans toiling in the U.S. "The drive that pushes many Mexicans to pursue the American dream will continue, but we don't want them to leave just because they don't have opportunities here," Hernández says.

That's where El Trapiche fits in. The town's cooperative is slated to receive $60,000 over the next two years courtesy of the federal government, the Coalition of Indigenous Oaxacan Communities, a migrant group in San Diego, and a California nonprofit group called the International Community Foundation. The money will pay for another greenhouse and assistance from agronomists. The enterprise should eventually yield annual earnings of about $6,000. Starting in January it will pay workers $6 a day--above the minimum wage. Its finances will be monitored by a Oaxaca development foundation to ensure that funds are not misappropriated. "It's important to harness the energy of the migrants and their families back home," says Raúl Hinojosa, an academic at the University of California at Los Angeles, who helped bring together the different parties.

Dozens of similar projects are being tested, including rug cooperatives, chile plantations, and small garment factories. Some have been running for several years, but this is the first time the federal government has stepped in. Previous Mexican Presidents took a dismissive attitude toward migrants.

Flower power alone won't create enough jobs to put a halt to immigration. But it's a start. "If there were a way of making a living here, people wouldn't have to go to the U.S. and suffer so much," says Castellanos. "The greenhouse is a good idea, but let's see if it really works." If it does, she might even get her husband back for good.

By Geri Smith in El Trapiche

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