Rosa Martinez used to stroll to the local money transfer office in Corona every week to send $200 to her family in Cuenca.
She still goes to the Delgado Travel office, but not to send money. Instead, it is she who collects a little cash from those family members in Cuenca.
"My husband used to earn $140 a day working three, four days a week as a construction worker," said Martinez, 48. "Now he gets $80 a day and works two, maximum three days a week."
The economic downturn has battered the U.S. in recent months, but it also has deeply affected countries like Ecuador, where a recently improved standard of living has devolved with less money flowing from immigrants working in the U.S.
For the record, Ecuador has the highest per capita rate of citizens living and working overseas of any country in Latin America, and Cuenca has the highest rate of any city in Ecuador. The best estimates available, say there are about 1.4 million Ecuadorians living in New York and New Jersey with about 300,000 coming from Azuay Province, which includes Cuenca.
"I hope that God fixes this mess," Martinez said. "If not, we'll have to go back to Cuenca."
Hector Delgado, president of Delgado Travel, which has 70 offices in Ecuador and 29 in New York, began seeing a decrease in money transfers last fall.
"At the beginning, it was a slight reduction of 5% in October," he said. "But then we went up to 9%, 15%, up to 22% in February."
Data released recently by the Central Bank of Ecuador confirms the trend: Remittances decreased by 8.6% in 2008. They amounted to $3.1 million in 2007, dwindled to about $2.8 million last year and are continuing to fall.
In Queens, the struggle of Ecuadoran immigrants can be seen at "la parada," or "the stop," a stretch on 69th St. and 37th Ave. between a small grassy park dotted with yellow tulips and a basketball court.
Day laborers like Enrique Cunas arrive at 6 a.m. and wait for pickup trucks to pull over. Men swarm the truck when the driver yells, "I got jobs!"
The workers rely on a patchwork of jobs to feed families 3,000 miles away and fuel their dreams of building Swiss chalet-style houses to enjoy when they go back to Ecuador. But these days, most hardly make enough money to keep their beds in cramped apartments.
"I have six kids in Ecuador," said Cunas, a builder from Naranjito, a village of 13,000 in Guayas. "When I speak to my wife and my kids, I ask them to understand that the situation is kind of difficult here. It really is."
By 4 p.m., workers who haven't found a job for the day start kicking a soccer ball around in the basketball court.
"At least we can have some fun playing ball," said José Morales, 22, a construction worker.
Meanwhile, the workers' dream homes in Ecuador sit only half-built, a sign of tough times on two continents.
"Farmers who have family in the [U.S.] were quickly building big houses in the outskirts of the town," Nadia Balden, owner of Mayo restaurant in Cuenca, said in a phone interview. "Now, you see their lambs and cows lazily walking around the building sites."
Credit: Nick Loomis and Damiano Beltrami, New York Daily News internet service, www.nydailynews.com; photo caption: two Ecuadorian day labors wait for work on a Queens street corner; photo credit: New York Daily News