CHICAGO (AP) - Marilu Vargas digs through bargain meats at a Mexican grocery store, trying to slash the budget for her family of seven while considering how much she can spare for relatives back home in Mexico.
Nine months ago, the 36-year-old lost her job at a mortgage company that folded in the dismal housing market. Drastic cutbacks have followed as her family struggles to live on her husband's $30,000 salary.
Vargas' parents and other relatives await whatever stipend she can afford to send from the United States. But lately they have been waiting longer for less.
As the U.S. recession deepens, Vargas is among a wave of immigrants who have cut back on what they send home - resulting in what's expected to be the first annual decline in so-called "remittances" to Mexico since the country's central bank began keeping track of payments 13 years ago.
Money sent from immigrants working in the U.S. to their home countries is Mexico's second-largest source of foreign income after oil.
But that funding source dropped 2.2 percent in the first half of 2008, according to a report from the central bank. One of Mexico's largest banks said this month that it expects an overall 2 percent decline to $23.5 billion when the final 2008 numbers are reported Jan. 28.
Associated Press reporters in Chicago and Mexico spent time with Vargas and her relatives back home to uncover the everyday struggles behind those statistics.
The thousands of dollars Vargas has sent to Iguala, Mexico, during the last 17 years have allowed her parents to finish building their three-bedroom house and her mother to see a private doctor instead of going to one of Mexico's overcrowded and often inept public clinics.
Vargas remembers a time when she could send up to $500 a month. Lately, it's just $50 to $80 here and there.
Her mother never complains. "She accepts it," Vargas said. "She watches television and sees how difficult the situation is."
But it weighs on Vargas, who knows times are tough in Mexico as well.
"The U.S. economy is affecting them there," she said. "Life is more difficult."
Mango, orange and other fruit trees grow in abundance in the lush mountain city of Iguala, but people struggle to make ends meet.
Vargas' father, Alberto Rodriguez, 56, has not been able to find a job in more than two months.
The construction worker used to have steady work in the city, where rebar protrudes from the tops of cinderblock homes that are built in stages as money arrives from family members in the U.S.
But clinking hammers and cement-mixing machines have gone silent. Half-built structures loom as victims of a faltering economy, rather than works in progress.
Long lines of families waiting to pick up remittances at Western Union have all but disappeared.
"The migrants used to send back money to their families, who would hire someone to build a second floor or paint their houses," Rodriguez said. "But now everyone over there is losing their jobs and down here the jobs are disappearing as a result."
Rodriguez and his wife, Magdalena Jimenez, 56, live off money earned from selling candy, cigarettes, sliced cucumbers with chile powder and other snacks to workers on shift changes outside a local factory.
On a recent day, Jimenez rocked her 2-month-old granddaughter in a dusty parking lot while the couple's youngest daughter, 21-year-old Dora Jimenez, ran the stand. Alberto Rodriguez carted a cooler of refreshments and other supplies on a bicycle outfitted to carry the heavy load.
Sales were brisk, and brought in $23 in about two hours. But the family spent $15 buying snacks from the city market and hours making homemade coconut and mango ice cream to sell.
"From the little we make here, we're able to eat at least," said Magdalena Jimenez, who suffers from dizziness brought on by high blood pressure, which left her hospitalized for four days last month and cost the family nearly $300. "We're just trying to survive and overcome the crisis."
The couple live with their son and his wife, along with Dora Jimenez, her husband and their three small children. Every adult works odd jobs, from selling produce and bottled water to construction.
"My husband wants to go to the United States," Dora Jimenez said as she chased after her 5-year-old twin boys playing in the street. "But I don't want to leave my family."
Marilu Vargas was 19 when she left her self-described middle-class family to go illegally to the United States, following in the footsteps of her 17-year-old, more adventurous sister, Margarita.
The oldest of eight, Vargas assumed the role of provider.
She juggled up to three jobs, working 3 a.m. to 9 p.m. at factories and cleaning downtown Chicago buildings. She shared an apartment with five women to split the $800 rent.
"I slept very little," she said.
Being away from her large family was isolating, but Vargas took pride in sending home hundreds of dollars.
She soon met her future husband, Jesus, at a popcorn factory. They wed in 1992.
A car lover since childhood, Jesus Vargas became a mechanic in suburban Chicago. His work sponsored him to get legal residence, and he has been able to petition for his wife.
Their children, ages 10, 11, 14, are American citizens and attend a public charter school, a point of pride for the couple.
"We wanted to live a better life," Marilu Vargas said.
But that's become increasingly difficult.
Vargas is out of a job. The family's two oldest children, her husband's from a previous marriage, have deferred college and now work at a currency exchange near the family's modest West Side home.
Jesus Vargas works six days a week at a mechanics shop specializing in police cars to pay the $1,055 mortgage.
"I'm just surviving now. It takes a lot," the 41-year-old said. "I don't like it."
Marilu Vargas has cut $150 grocery shopping trips in half. The family no longer eats out. Their second car sits unused because of costly insurance. And there were no Christmas presents.
"It's terrible," she said.
While seeking another mortgage industry job, Vargas spends most of her time at Our Lady of Guadalupe Anglican Catholic Mission, a tiny storefront church in the heart of Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, one of the country's largest Mexican communities.
"In this church, there are many people who are suffering," Vargas said. "The situation for others is so bad that we forget our own situation."
Vargas helps others with mortgage documents and connects families with food banks.
Her family joins her in the evenings. Nine-year-old Marychu colors a math assignment with colored pencils. Jesus Vargas, who also is preparing to be ordained as a deacon, sits with a group of men watching Honduras beat Mexico in a soccer match.
Marilu Vargas appears in her element, logging data into a computer, answering phone calls and helping a group of women sew a stole with intricate designs.
She tries to focus on the positive.
"My husband works. We have food," she explained. "We have our health. The kids are in school. And we are together."
For her part, Magdalena Jimenez says she only wants what is best for her children.
"It was hard when Marilu left for the United States. But it's better that she is over there," said Jimenez, whose living room walls are covered with framed photos of her children and grandchildren. "Here she would only suffer."
Associated Press Writer Julie Watson contributed from Iguala, Mexico.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)