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A Sight for Sore Hearts

A company offers Latino immigrants videoconferences with the families they left back home and may not have seen for years.

May 21, 2006|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Mariano Gonzalez's eldest daughter appears on the television screen from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, wearing a long woven skirt and a blouse embroidered with flowers.

In Los Angeles, Gonzalez looks confused. At first, he doesn't recognize her.

Claudia was just 10 when he left home for el norte five years ago, searching for a way to support his growing family. She wipes tears from her face and tells her father she wants him to come home. She asks if he will be back to celebrate her quinceanera in June.

"Mamita, I'm not going to be able to be there," Gonzalez says in Spanish as he puts his head in his hands. "But very soon I'll be there with you all."

"It's OK, Papi," Claudia responds quietly.

For the first time in five years, Gonzalez, 36, saw his family on a recent Sunday morning -- via videoconference at the offices of AmigoLatino near downtown Los Angeles. The private company links immigrants with relatives throughout Latin America.

As illegally crossing into the United States becomes more risky -- and more expensive -- families are spending more time apart. So when they hear about AmigoLatino, many are eager to pay the agency's $40 fee to spend half an hour visiting with their wives, husbands, children and parents, even if only through a TV screen.

"This is the closest thing to being there with them," said Gabriel Biguria, who founded and runs the company. "They can smile with them. They can cry with them."

Gonzalez's wife had just given birth to their sixth child when he paid a coyote $5,000 to guide him on a monthlong journey to the United States. Friends already living in Los Angeles had told him that he could make 10 times more money than in Guatemala.

Here, Gonzalez lives with nine others in a four-bedroom house. Every day but Sunday, he waits for construction jobs at a day laborer center. On a good day, he earns $80. Every month, he sends his wife $400 to pay for food, clothes and school for their children.

Earlier this month, Gonzalez skipped work to participate in the boycott and immigrant rights march in downtown Los Angeles. The rally left him inspired and hopeful about the chances of getting a green card and eventually bringing his family to the country -- legally.

"Imagine if we all had the opportunity to get our papers," he said. "We could apply for them. They wouldn't suffer like we suffered."

But the week after the march, he said, the reality of his life as an illegal immigrant became all the more apparent. He still worries about being deported. He still cannot get a driver's license.

Worst of all, Gonzalez said, he still has no idea when he will see his family again.

"The hardest thing is that you feel very alone, because you aren't with them," he said.

AmigoLatino, based in Los Angeles, has seven offices in the United States and six throughout Latin America. Since starting in San Francisco in 2002, the company has helped more than 5,000 families, primarily from Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico.

With the help of investors, the company plans to open an additional six offices in Central America in the next few months. "Word of mouth has been the most powerful thing," Biguria said.

Families come to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, to say goodbye to ill relatives, to congratulate brides and grooms, to see their newborn babies. And they can get DVDs of their reunions.

Recently, Biguria said, there has been a spurt in customers, and many of the conversations have focused on the immigrant rights marches and whether Congress might approve an amnesty.

Some immigrants come weekly.

One is 36-year-old Yanira Ramirez, who crossed the border illegally more than two years ago after leaving Guatemala City. She came to Los Angeles with the hope of medical care for her 6-year-old son, Oscar, who suffers from a rare genetic disease.

But she left behind her deaf mother, who doesn't have the technology in Guatemala to talk on the phone.

"The sacrifice is hard," Ramirez said of living apart. Video conferences are "the only way for me to talk to my mom."

Biguria witnesses the range of emotions in his customers, from the initial disbelief of seeing their relatives, to the euphoria of being able to catch up in real time, to the sadness of realizing how far apart they are.

In preparation for his reunion, Gonzalez buys a shiny new red-and-black shirt and jeans, which still have a sticker showing their size when he arrives at the office.

His appointment was scheduled for 9 a.m. But there is a delay: The staff at the Guatemala office locked the keys inside the office.

More than an hour later, Gonzalez sits down in front of the television to see his family and their 30-minute conversation, all in Spanish, begins.

His wife, Paula Viviana Lopez, introduces him to his children. The youngest, wearing pigtails, steps toward the camera. She fiddles with her pockets. Lopez prompts her, and she says in a high voice, "I love you very much."

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