MONTERREY, MEXICO – When Pete Navarro showed up three years ago in this industrial city a few hours’ drive from the border, he spoke barely a word of Spanish and hardly knew a soul.
The San Antonio resident, who went to Jay High School, lost his legal residency in December 2009 and was deported to his native Mexico. He hadn’t been there since he was a child, and the only people he knew were his aunt and her family. He left his parents and two children in San Antonio.
“So when I got here, my two cousins were my best friends, because they could speak English,” Navarro said.
Navarro, 33, has taken part in a historic migration. For the first time in decades, more people are moving from the U.S. to Mexico than are coming to the U.S. from Mexico, the Pew Hispanic Center reported in April. Some, like Navarro, are deported, but the vast majority came to Mexico voluntarily, according to the report.
It can be difficult for those who come voluntarily and involuntarily. Many struggle with the language, have trouble in Mexican schools and find it difficult to integrate into Mexican society.
But they also find opportunity, often thanks to the English they learned growing up north of the Rio Grande.
It took Navarro only a few days to find an industry waiting with open arms to accept workers from the wave of more than a million people who have moved from the U.S. to Mexico in recent years: call centers.
The Monterrey call center industry employs thousands, many of them English speakers who grew up in the U.S. The city, with a population of 1.14 million and with millions more in the metro area, primarily is a manufacturing center. But in the past decade, a burgeoning call center industry has cropped up, said Roberto Fuerte, executive director of the northeast Mexico chapter of the United States-Mexico Chamber of Commerce.
The phone operations provide a range of services and don’t all require top-flight English, so many are staffed by students from the area’s several universities, Fuerte said.
But the centers provide a landing place for English-speakers marching south.
“When that Pew study came out, it was interesting to see it in an academic format,” said Bill Colton, a Washington businessman and the president of a small Monterrey call center. “But it was in no way surprising to people here.”
Colton’s Global Telesourcing, where Navarro is one of about 300 employees, mostly hires people who spent their formative years in the U.S.
That means they speak excellent English, understand U.S. slang and are familiar with the products they’re selling, such as Internet, cable and cellphone services. Many have worked at Monterrey’s larger call centers, Colton said.
“Because the level of (sales) agent we’re able to attract in Mexico is much better than the same dollars we would be able to buy in the U.S., we’re a much better call center,” Colton said. “These guys you couldn’t attract to work at a call center in the U.S.”
No welcome mat
That’s certainly true of Navarro, who said he was making a better living as an auto mechanic, a skill he’d learned at St. Phillip’s College, before he was deported.
He’d recently divorced his wife and won custody of his children in 2009 when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested him at his South Side home and deported him over a pair of years-old marijuana possession charges. Now, he lives alone in Monterrey while his children remain in San Antonio with his parents.
“The fact that these guys came to my door one day, it changed my life,” Navarro said. “It flipped everything around.”
He likes working on cars, but in Mexico, it doesn’t pay nearly as well as the call center. Navarro said he made about $1,200 a week in San Antonio. Today, he makes about $500, a pretty sum in most parts of Mexico, but not in Monterrey, one of the most expensive cities in the country.