Crisis in U.S. Auto Industry Sends Chill Through Latino Autoworkers and Business Owners

By Martina Guzman, FI2W reporter

For decades Latino immigrants have achieved the American dream through the U.S. auto industry. Manufacturing plants provided a way for first-generation Latinos to acquire wealth, stability, and the means to send their children to college through good salaries, health benefits, and union protection. Now all of that is in jeopardy with General Motors, Chrysler and Ford near collapse.

Next Sunday, January 17, The North American International Auto Show opens to the public at Detroit’s Cobo Center. Close to seven thousand journalists from 60 countries will watch as automakers unveil 60 new production vehicles and concept cars, and discuss green machines that will help shape the future of hybrid and battery-operated vehicles.

Truck turned moving billboard urging support of Detroit Automakers by MichiganMoves.
Six degrees from Detroit. (Photo: MichiganMoves)

While some of Metro Detroit’s most established socialites will be pulling out tuxedos and designer evening gowns for the show’s gala charity events, Hispanic autoworkers, one of the groups directly affected by the downfall of the Big Three, are pondering their fate in this economic recession.

Assembly worker Cindy Garcia is a second-generation autoworker. Garcia attended Wayne State University but opted to work at Ford because, like her father, she saw it as a secure way to achieve a better standard of living.

Her father, Jose Ramos, immigrated to the United States from Tamaulipas, Mexico in the 1970s. Drawn by the auto industry’s solid wages and excellent health care benefits, Ramos worked in auto manufacturing for 30-years, made his way into the middle class, and was able to send his children to college.

“He came here, got the American dream like the rest of the immigrants who came back in the day when they were trying to form the union,” Garcia said. “They did as much as they could but now the whole dream has fallen apart.”

Garcia’s sense of economic insecurity is shared by many Latinos. According to a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center, “Latinos hold a more negative view of their own current personal financial situation than does the general U.S. population.” The report goes on to say:

More than three-in-four (76%) Latinos, and 84% of foreign-born Latinos, say their current personal finances are in either fair or poor shape, while 63% of the general U.S. population says the same.”

Garcia has nine years seniority at Ford Motor Company. A relatively short time compared to many Latino assembly workers who have built cars for more than 20 years. A wife and a mother of two, Garcia is already thinking the coming year will be worse than this one.

“Unless things shape up, the next few Christmases we’ll probably be in another house or living with family, and having smaller meals and sharing clothes and passing food cans around within the family… it’s going to be very rough,” Garcia said.

“When I wake up every morning I wonder if I’m going to have a job, if I’m going to be able to feed my kids, be able to put them through school, if I’m going to be able to keep this house that I have, am I going to be able to keep the car, am I going to be able to keep up with the bills?”

Latino auto workers like Garcia are not the only ones being affected. Troubles in the auto industry are also affecting Hispanic-owned manufacturing plants, car dealerships, logistics companies, design engineers, and consultants.

“A few years ago when I added up the dollars that the Big Three spent with Hispanic business it was almost a billion dollars,” said
Lizbeth Ardesana, CEO of ASG Renaissance, an automotive consulting company in Dearborn, Michigan. “If their not doing it, that’s almost a billion dollars into our community that will be gone and that’s just through the supply base — that doesn’t count the employment”

Ardesana started her company 21 years ago. Like many other Latino entrepreneurs, Ardesana used the auto industry to establish her business. Her company has approximately 200 employees, and for the past seven years ASG, or Automotive Supply Group, has been named one of Metropolitan Detroit’s 101 Best and Brightest companies to work for.

“If you look at the biggest Hispanic business in the United States they relate to the auto industry, they’re auto dealers or auto suppliers,” she said. Auto dealers and suppliers account for four out of the ten top companies on Hispanic Business Magazine’s list of leading Hispanic businesses in the U.S.

John Schmitt, a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. says unlike their white counterparts, black and Hispanic-owned businesses don’t have the wealth to weather an economic downturn.

“We know in general terms that minority owned businesses are under-capitalized relative to non-minority owned businesses, they have less cash on hand and less access to less credit line or loans,” Schmitt said.

Ardesana believes that the auto companies will turn themselves around. If not, she worries the economic impact of their failure could set Latinos back a generation.

“I think that we as a community, Hispanic community, will be more dramatically impacted,” Ardesana said. “We’re a younger community so we haven’t established the roots that will sort of let us ride out a drought like this.”

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