In this contribution to ISRF Bulletin 23, Ernesto Castañeda explores the way remittances services advertise their services and the role racial identity plays in this discourse.
Main image: Envios El Paraiso. E116th St. New York City, May 11, 2013. ©Ernesto Castañeda
Remittances are the money that international migrants send to their families in their home countries. Most remittance senders are immigrants who left with the explicit plan to earn foreign currency to support their children and spouses in their hometowns. They tend to work low-earning jobs, and they often remit over 30% of their income. While remittances are expatriated wages, immigrant-receiving local economies need not worry because most of the expenses are made in the place of settlement, and most of the profits are made by the employers there. Remittances are essential income that makes ends meet at home, allows families to buy medicine for elderly parents, or supports someone’s schooling expenses, for example.
Therefore, making sure that the money consistently makes it home is of utmost importance for these transnational families divided by borders. Multiple business models have appeared to help broker these transactions. Businesses through which people can send remittances often pop up in immigrant neighbourhoods, themselves becoming markers of immigration and ethno-racial diversity in some urban spaces. Why is this? International migration accelerates and compounds in certain areas because of the nature of social networks. People with neighbours and family members working in a particular place abroad are likely to share partial information, resources, and opportunities that attract others. Additionally, through chain migration, we see some families reunifying in the global north. All the while, neighbourhoods that host immigrant populations adopt a particular ethnic character, which often includes blocks peppered with places where one can send money abroad. Transnational activities such as communications, people, and money traveling across borders connect the places immigrants are from and the neighbourhoods they move to after arrival. Seeing a need in the community, members who have the necessary capital often open businesses—corner stores, small supermarkets, and remittance kiosks, often blurred into one.
While large multinational banks or Western Union often come to mind when one thinks about remittances, community-based businesses make up a large portion of the market share. Initially, these businesses tend to be self-financed and owned by a family. The smaller businesses have the upper hand in being engrained in their communities and often have offices in the immigrant-sending towns and thus, local knowledge. The entrepreneurs who are first movers in this sector have lucrative businesses that help compatriots send and receive money, and sometimes packages, at both ends of specific transnational sites. They also often work as foreign exchange businesses. However, large banks and communication businesses have also entered this market in the last twenty years and compete aggressively to attract customers. Western Union and Ria also offer their system to small businesses. Businesses’ naming, branding, and marketing started as very local and location-specific because of their embeddedness in specific transnational networks. As multinational banks, mobile services, and cryptocurrencies encroach on the remittances market, however, identity-related marketing from small businesses that offer remittance services has become even more important for keeping their customers.
This visual essay presents pictures of posters advertising remittance services to different parts of the world. I took the pictures as part of a photovoice workshop organised by the Race in the Marketplace (RIM) Forum in Paris in 2019, which was partly financed by the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF), as well as from other fieldwork conducted from 2008 onwards for my book A Place to Call Home.
Money Is not All the Same
Money is money. In theory, it is fungible and exchangeable and thus can cross borders much more easily than people can. It does not need passports or visas. Most borders are open and welcoming to capital but not always to people. Nevertheless, migrants have traditionally been constrained from sending money from accounts in country A to country B. This is for several reasons. One is the lack of banks in rural areas in the developing world. Another is because governments and banks in cities in the global north may have high account fees or many requirements to open bank accounts. As I discovered when I lived in Paris as a student in 2007, banks in Paris require many documents, including immigration papers, work permits, and letters documenting minimum guaranteed salaries. Thus, for decades there was a demand for personal courriers to constantly travel back and forth, bringing cash, photos, and gifts with them to deliver to an immigrant’s relatives abroad.
The hawala is used in the Muslim world to make transfers based on traditional accounting and bookkeeping methods across long distances without charging interests to comply with Islamic practice. However, after September 11, 2001, the United States and international bodies cracked down on the use of the hawala for international transfers, overclaiming that it could be used to finance terrorism. Instead, since the early 2000s, the World Bank, the IMF, the Inter-American Development Bank, and other regional banking bodies have preferred to bankarise immigrants. This means encouraging migrants to open bank accounts and remit through large transnational banks with headquarters in the global north. Similar to hawala, banks and remittance businesses do not physically send money. Instead, they transmit information about the money received in point A to match a withdrawal at point B. Remittance businesses can profit from high fees, exchange rate brokerage, arbitrage, and investing the money in financial markets in the time between when they receive and disburse the money.
Since analysts realised that combined, these transactions add up to billions of dollars, the remittances market has become highly competitive. Nevertheless, each remittance company must capture one remitter at a time. Most immigrants who remit send approximately 300 dollars per month. They do so from the neighbourhood where they live or work. Far from being a global system, the actual delivery of remittances to particular towns in the global south is unique. The most important consideration of which service to use is which one delivers to his or her hometown. Many small immigrant-sending hometowns in the developing world do not have bank branches where a remittance service or bank could send money. Therefore, there has to be an agreement between the business sending the money and the one receiving it. Western Union probably has the widest net, but it is not universal. Fees also vary between services. Therefore, while neoclassical economics would assume that customers would use the best and cheaper service, in reality, remittance services are highly tailored and tied to local networks, identity, nationality, race and ethnicity. Thus, marketing campaigns for remittance services are heavily “racialised.” This photo essay shows how storefronts present themselves to appeal to the profile of the likely local customer.
Storefronts and Targeted Marketing
East Harlem in New York City has a concentration of Puerto Rican and Mexican businesses. A business that works simultaneously as remittances, package, and travel agency advertises its services by calling itself “Paradise” (Image 1). Maybe going there connects those in “paradise” to those outside of it. Whether paradise is in New York City or a small hometown in Mexico depends on the eye of the beholder, some of whom may overlook the struggles afar and think that the grass is greener on the other side. Migration becomes self-propelled because of imperfect information about the challenging work and living conditions abroad.
A similar business (Image 2), a couple blocks away also on E116th St in New York City, at one point used the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a sacred symbol for many Mexicans, to advertise its services and attract customers.
It is crucial to remember that immigrants can only send remittances because they left their homes and family members. Thus, they become what Robert Smith calls ausentes siempre presentes, ever-present missing people. They become solely breadwinners; padres de cheque, parents in check only. These metaphors are graphically represented by the picture below (Image 3), contrasting the silhouette of a rural resident painted on the window of a remittance storefront with an actual immigrant living in Barcelona passing by.
In the Goutte d’Or, a diverse neighbourhood in Paris, an immigrant-owned business storefront caters to African immigrants sending money to sub-Saharan Africa. The signs and marketing posters used Black people to market themselves and attract clients (Image 4).
Very close by to the storefront above, the French bank Société Générale has a poster (Image 5) featuring what appears to be a mixed-race young woman, suggesting that the world and the future (avenir) are hers. It advertises an account service that for a monthly fee of two euros waives bank fees when making payments and withdrawals abroad. The two ads close by may make the case that immigrants, especially the undocumented or those working in the informal economy (and who are therefore not able to open a bank account easily), must pay dearly to send money home, while more middle-class French citizens can cheaply access their accounts while traveling, studying, and living abroad. Indeed, most Americans or British people visiting Paris or traveling abroad need not worry about receiving remittances. They can use their ATM or credit cards with the best terms for foreign transactions.
A few storefronts down the street from Société Générale, one side of a remittance business shows an internationalist or at least pan-African approach. The other side and the inside display more country-specific marketing in an effort to expand the customer pool while customising the appeal (Image 6). An advertising poster, affiche, posted outside shows how the Ria remittances company has partnered with many African banks and post offices to deliver money economically in Senegal. Inside the same store, a poster focuses on sending money to Congo Brazzaville.
Further along Rue de la Goutte d’Or, a store that sells food products from Thailand and Cambodia offers remittance services and cellphone plans for cheaper international calls (Image 7).
Some storefronts use the faces of people of colour to attract clients, as in the example below (Image 8), on a street close to the train station in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Most remittance offices use national flags for advertising the countries where people can receive remittances. While some use faces of colour, other marketing relies more on languages to communicate to their foreign-born customers, as the two images from Switzerland show below (Images 9 and 10).
While $1,000 is technically the exact same as a different $1,000, we do not attribute the same value to the thousand dollars we use to buy food or pay rent, as the same thousand dollars obtained in a scholarship or a stimulus check, as the thousand dollars we owe the bank, earned in the lottery, or gained in an inheritance. As the literature in economic sociology has shown, money is not just money. Money has social value. Remittances are a form of showing love and commitment to a family physically left behind but still cared for financially and emotionally.
So, while sending money today seems like a simple technical task done through information technology services online, with mobile apps, or even potentially with cryptocurrencies, immigrants have historically relied on trusted community members to manage their cross-border lives and transactions. Today, in a context of intense competition, remittances businesses put to use ethno-racial symbols to communicate local knowledge and create trust among customers. Money is not just a cold means of exchange. It also conveys social meaning and moral connotations such as ethnic solidarity and commitment to family. Some money is given national, racial, local, and moral characteristics, particularly when the money in question—as in the case of remittances—comes from sacrifice, leaving children and spouses behind, and often living in a clandestine status. Remittances are not just about savings, investment, or profit, but they are vital to feed family members and build a house. Remittance businesses do not only sell their services but to succeed, they must also sell identity and familial and national duty.
 Douglas S. Massey, “Social Structure, Household Strategies, and the Cumulative Causation of Migration,” Population Index 56, no. 1 (1990): 3–26; Ernesto Castañeda, “Understanding Inequality, Migration, Race, and Ethnicity from a Relational Perspective,” in E. Castañeda (ed.), Immigration and Categorical Inequality: Migration to the City and the Birth of Race and Ethnicity (New York 2018: Routledge).
 Ernesto Castañeda, “Comparative Notes on the Contexts of Reception and Immigrant Entrepreneurship in New York, Washington, D.C., El Paso, Barcelona, and Paris,” in C. Y. Liu (ed.), Immigrant Entrepreneurship in Cities (Cham 2021: Springer): 97–122.
 Francesca Sobande, Alice Schoonejans, Guillaume D. Johnson, Kevin D. Thomas & Anthony Kwame Harrison, “Enacting anti-racist visualities through photo-dialogues on race in Paris,” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal 40, no. 2 (2021): 165–179, 165–166. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1108/EDI-01-2020-0019.
 Ernesto Castañeda, A Place to Call Home: Immigrant Exclusion and Urban Belonging in New York, Paris, and Barcelona (Stanford, CA 2018: Stanford University Press).
 Ernesto Castañeda, “Living in Limbo: Transnational Households, Remittances and Development,” International Migration, 51 (2013): e13-e35.
 Ernesto Castañeda, Kevin Beck & Josué Lachica, “Place, Poverty, Ethnicity, and Culture: Walking through Hispanic Neighborhoods in New York, San Diego, and El Paso,” in: E. Brown & T. Shortell (eds.), Walking in Cities: Quotidian Mobility as Urban Theory, Method, and Practice (Philadelphia, PA 2015: Temple University Press): 60–82.
 Abdelmalek Sayad, The Suffering of the Immigrant (New York 2018: John Wiley & Sons).
 Robert Smith, Mexican New York: Transnational Lives of New Immigrants (Berkeley, CA 2005: University of California Press).
 Ernesto Castañeda & Lesley Buck, “Remittances, Transnational Parenting, and the Children Left Behind: Economic and Psychological Implications,” The Latin Americanist, 55 (2011): 85–110.
 Viviana Zelizer, “How Do We Know Whether a Monetary Transaction Is a Gift, an Entitlement, or Compensation?,” in. Ben-Ner and L. Putterman (eds.), Economics, Values, and Organization (Cambridge 1998: Cambridge University Press): 329–334.
 Viviana Zelizer & Charles Tilly, “Relations and Categories,” in: A. Markman and B. Ross (eds.), The Psychology of Learning and Motivation (San Diego, CA 2006: Elsevier): 1–31; Jason DeParle, A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century (New York 2019: Viking).
 Charles Tilly, “Trust Networks in Transnational Migration,” Sociological Forum 22, no. 1 (2007):1–25; Charles Tilly, Trust and Rule(Cambridge 2005: Cambridge University Press); Nadia Y. Flores-Yeffal, “Migration-Trust Networks: Unveiling the Social Networks of International Migration,” in E. Castañeda (ed.), Immigration and Categorical Inequality: Migration to the City and the Birth of Race and Ethnicity (New York 2018: Routledge).
 Castañeda, “Living in Limbo.”
Ernesto Castañeda conducts research on migration, urban issues, health disparities, vulnerable populations, and social movements. He compares immigrant integration and ethnic political mobilization in the U.S. and Western Europe. He is the Founding Director of the Immigration Lab. He is the author of “A Place to Call Home: Immigrant Exclusion and Urban Belonging in New York, Paris, and Barcelona” (Stanford 2018), and “Building Walls: Excluding Latin People in the United States” (Lexington 2019), editor of “Immigration and Categorical Inequality: Migration to the City and the Birth of Race and Ethnicity” (Routledge, 2018); co-editor with Cathy Lisa Schneider of “Collective Violence, Contentious Politics, and Social Change: A Charles Tilly Reader.” (Routledge 2017), and co-author with Charles Tilly and Lesley Wood of “Social Movements 1768–2018” (Routledge 2020). He is affiliated with the Center on Health, Risk, and Society and the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, The Metropolitan Policy Center, and the Transatlantic Policy Center at American University.