2012-07-30 08:20:00

Most Aging Latinos Struggle, Some Get Active, Inspiring Others


Photo: Bolivian-born Lucy Baker teaches sewing for Latinos, like the women in the background, skills some use to start businesses. (Alianza News/Geraldo Fernandez)

SANTA CLARA, Calif.—According to a recent AARP report, middle-aged and older Hispanics are having the hardest time coping with the Great Recession. About one in five of them have delayed retirement, and one in 10 have taken on a second job.

As the huge baby boom generation—78 million people in the United States born from 1946 through 196, about 10 percent of them Latino—reaches age 65, many aging Hispanics are continuing to work because they need the income. But others keep active willingly and like to inspire people in their communities.

One is Julia Lucila Portugal de Baker, or Lucy Baker as her students know her at the Center for Employment Training (CET) sewing shop in San José, Calif.

Most of Baker’s students—ages 10 to 60--are Mexican women. Baker, who came to California from Bolivia over 45 years ago, worked in the garment industry. Today, she is not only transmitting her sewing expertise to her students, but also her entrepreneurial spirit.

“I want each one of my students to start their business. Two of them have already started,” she said. “They can open an alteration business; that could be a highly profitable business.”

La Jubilación Comes With Challenges

Baker epitomizes the traditional Latino sense of one’s older years as la jubilación, or jubilation, the celebration of one’s longevity. But many older Hispanics are also reaching their 60s with numerous cultural, social and economic challenges in the United States.

Like other boomers, aging Hispanics are struggling to manage caregiving for their elderly parents, becoming increasingly concerned about their own health care, and trying to adapt to today's ever-changing technology. Latinos, though, also have low levels of retirement income, and a large proportion of them face immigration concerns or language barriers.

“For Latino cultures and other cultures around the world, there's no such thing as retirement,” said Fernando Torres-Gil, director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging at the University of California, Los Angeles. The center runs the Latinos and Economic Security (LES) project .

Torres-Gil observed that for those from Mexico and other Latin American countries, even though pension programs might exist, often “you keep working until you can't physically work anymore.” A survivor of childhood polio, Torres-Gil is currently vice chair of the National Council on Disability, appointed by President Obama.

According to Torres-Gil, who headed the U.S. Administration on Aging under President Bill Clinton, the older Latino population will triple in the U.S., growing from six percent of the country’s 65-plus population in 2003, to a whopping 18 percent by 2050.

Little Pension, Health Security

Although the Latino boomer population has produced such leaders as Los Ángeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and U.S. Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, only 59 percent hold a high school diploma. That compares to 90 percent of non-Latino white graduates, according a report from UCLA’s LES project.

Lack of education and other issues pose important problems that aging Hispanics face going into retirement. According to studies by the LES project, too many aging Latinos have minimal or no pensions or health care coverage.

“For everyone, Latino boomers, baby boomers in general, Latino young people, young people in general, the first and absolutely most important priority is to preserve Social Security,” stressed Torres-Gil. Despite some alarming media coverage, he emphasized that the program will not disappear and should not be privatized into a system of retirement accounts tied to the stock market—an approach proposed by many conservatives.

“Social Security is the only safety net for people getting older who have not saved money and do not have other resources for themselves in their longevity,” he explained.

Last year’s study Plan for a New Future: The Impact of Social Security Reform on People of Color, reported that more than half of older Latinos rely on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income, compared to one-in-three whites. Latinos also have the lowest percentage of seniors on Social Security of any ethnic group, partly because many arrived in the U.S. too late to qualify for benefits or because they are undocumented.

Issues for Non-Citizens

Reports by UCLA’s LES project show that more than one in three Latino boomers—those now ages 48-66--are non-citizens, and 61 percent of them are Mexican.

Torres-Gil, the son of Mexican immigrants who settled in Salinas, Calif., thinks that an “undocumented boomer might have a little bit better luck with public benefits in Mexico, for example, because they are certainly going to get no public benefits here” in the United States.

Some undocumented Latinos, he said, are likely reaching retirement without pensions because they contributed illegally through a fake Social Security number, making them ineligible for benefits.

He advised undocumented older adults in the U.S., “So either get back to Mexico and do the best you can with their medical aid, or their system of Seguro Social, [Mexico's Social Security counterpart], or depend on children and grandchildren.”

In Mexico and many other Latin American countries, though, pensioners face an old system of corruption, high rates of investment commissions, fees and bureaucratic barriers.

Furthermore, scandals in Latin America in recent years exposed how companies transferred or “invested” employee pension funds for other purposes. Or the pension money simply disappeared.

In a 2011 case, for instance, the equivalent of over $21.5 million U.S. dollars from a private-pension fund was “deposited” in foreign bank accounts to finance non-pension company activities, according to the Mexican National Commission for the Retirement Saving System. Also, the Mexican newspaper La Jornada exposed a 2008 case in which companies charged with managing pension accounts wrongly “invested” nearly $10 billion (U.S.), and also lost another $1 billion to commissions and fees.

In the United States, some Latino elders came during the 20th century as braceros, the common term for laborers literally meaning “strong arms.”

Torres-Gil noted, “My father was a bracero himself. [My parents] came across the border in 1923. So now these braceros are old men. They have no pension or retirement, whether here or in Mexico. They are essentially dependent on the goodwill of their children, grandchildren, spouses, if they're still alive--that's a real problem.”

Some were promised savings when they were allowed into the U.S. from Mexico between 1942 and 1964, as part of the Braceros Program. The U.S. created the program to provide labor in the U.S., while most young American men fought World War II. The U.S. withheld 10 percent of the braceros’ wages for several years, which they workers were supposed to receive on reclaim to Mexico. But bracero farmworkers never received a penny.

Moving Forward

More positively, some are receiving benefits they earned. The website of the United Farm Workers union in California says over 10,000 people benefit from a pension plan created by Cesar Chavez back in the 1970s. Some beneficiaries receive their monthly checks, even after moving back to their native country, such as the Philippines or Mexico.

Back in San Jose, though, Lucy Baker continues to be among the aging Latino boomers who are providing entrepreneurial inspiration to others. Not only did she find meaningful work sharing her sewing skills with students at San Jose’s Center for Employment Training, but she believes she is providing them skills to enhance their confidence to be as active and self-reliant as possible.

Baker declared, “I want them to have their own initiative and move forward.”

Gerardo Fernandez wrote this article as part of a Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Journalism Fellowship, a collaboration of New America Media and Mary Furlong & Associates.


Tools for Aging Immigrants

The Latinos and Economic Security project [https://www.latinoeconomicsecurity.org/] at UCLA’s Center for Policy Research on Aging shows that more than a third of Latino baby boomers, ages 48-66, are non-citizens, and 61 percent are Mexican. Although many have lived in the U.S. as documented residents for years without becoming citizens, doing so would make them eligible for many health care and other benefits.

One program developed for them is CitizenshipWorks [www.citizenshipworks.org/], an online program helping people learn about their eligibility for naturalization as U.S. citizens, and show them the application procedures. CitizenshipWorks, which won a 2012 Webby Award as Best Law Site of the Year, is sponsored by the Immigration Advocates Network and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, among other organizations.

Some community centers and public libraries are helping people around the United States get assistance in learning how to use CitizenshipWorks and other tools. For instance, at the Center for Employment Training [www.cetweb.org/ ] (CET) in San José, Calif., people 60 or older can use computers during regular citizenship workshops, according to Adel Olvera, director of the center’s Immigration and Citizenship program. Seniors receive assistance from volunteers, who help them overcome technology and language barriers.

“We help a variety of immigrants,” said Olvera. “Sometimes we have over 14 languages in our workshops.”

In the San Francisco Bay Area, CET helped form the Santa Clara County Citizenship Collaborative [https://bit.ly/MT0385]. The group also works with the national New Americans Collaborative [https://bit.ly/O17wqb], a “new initiative to help naturalize individuals at a national level,” said Olvera.

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