The importance of money transfer businesses in East Oakland

When you walk through East Oakland’s Fruitvale district, you’ll see a bustling commercial corridor lined with shops. Almost every block has a street vendor selling Central American or Mexican cuisine, a corner store selling a mix of produce and alcohol, and commercial spaces packed with multiple vendors selling everything from dried chiles to indigenous clothing to jewelry.

And on every block, you’ll see this sign outside most commercial spaces and corner stores: “envios de dinero.” 

Spanish for “money transfer,” the service, which involves wiring money from the United States to people in other countries, has long been a popular service in the neighborhood. Store owners typically register as an agent for one of the large money transfer companies like Ria Money Transfer or Western Union to offer the service. 

Josefina Blanco is one of the vendors who offer money transfer services as well as international FedEx shipping, printing services, and mailbox rentals at her shop, Fruitvale Shipping Center, on Fruitvale Avenue.

“Every corner there’s a money transfer shop,” Blanco told The Oaklandside. The interview was conducted in both English and Spanish.  

Inside of the Fruitvale Shipping Center where customers have packages shipped. Credit: Amir Aziz

Blanco’s shop is a no-frills environment that shares a room with a kiosk selling an assortment of affordable trinkets like Valentine’s Day stuffed bears, floral jewelry, and dolls. There are two counters at the back of the shop where Blanco handles transactions, one for money transfers and one for shipping items. A large sign with Ria’s vibrant orange logo hangs right above the left counter. 

Ria Money Transfer, which Blanco uses, is a subsidiary of the global financial giant Euronet Worldwide. 

Blanco, 56, is originally from Mexico City. She left her hometown at the age of 26 for better opportunities here in California and worked a variety of retail jobs in Fresno and Oakland before eventually joining Fruitvale Shipping Center as a clerk. “I initially arrived in Fresno but I had a family here in Oakland and they told me it would be better so I moved,” Blanco said. 

She has worked at the store since 2018 and eventually took over from the previous owners in 2021. To her knowledge, the shop has been in business for about 18 years. With her family’s help, Blanco was able to save enough money to take over the lease and operations. 

“They were selling the shop and I was going to be left without a job so I saw it as an opportunity to have my own business,” she said. “I know and love the people in the community here, I like the job, and that’s why I decided to stay.” 

Blanco’s favorite part of the day is greeting customers with a smile. She gets about 20 clients coming in each day to send items and funds to their home countries. Prices vary depending on the size of the package or the amount of money. “The kinds of items people are mainly sending are clothes and shoes. Other things that people send are everyday household items: kitchen equipment, toys,” Blanco said. 

Fruitvale has changed considerably over the past 60 years shifting from being a German, Portuguese, and Irish neighborhood to a primarily Latino community with a large Black population and immigrants from other parts of the world, especially Asia. Blanco’s clientele reflects that change as most of them are Latin American immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

According to Blanco, her customers are often blue-collar workers, many with jobs in construction. “The people that are here are nice and I think we have a good community of Latinos,” she said. 

Oakland’s money transfer and international shipping businesses are largely propped up by members of the Latin American diaspora sending items to relatives living in their home countries. The Oaklandside contacted Ria Money Transfer for more information on who is utilizing their services. A company representative told us that most money transfers made in the U.S. are sent to Mexico, followed by Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Colombia. 

Remittances amount to billions of dollars annually flowing from the U.S. to other nations and is projected to rise to roughly $850 billion dollars by 2028. Third-party money transfer companies are often used to electronically send funds to other countries because the commission fees are often lower than traditional banking systems. Ria told The Oaklandside that business is continuing to grow thanks to a recent corporate partnership with Walmart and an increased usage of their online services and app.

While the companies providing the service are expanding their customer base, that hasn’t translated into more business for Fruitvale Shipping Center. Blanco said that before the pandemic, she’d see about 30-40 customers daily. She was able to keep her doors open throughout the shelter in place order because they were deemed an essential business, but she still lost about half of her customer base. Fruitvale’s Latino community was hit especially hard by the pandemic.

One reason business has declined in recent years for shops like Blanco’s is that money transfer companies have rolled out apps that allow people to transfer funds on their cellphones or computers at home, without needing to go to a brick-and-mortar store. Corporate partnerships with large grocery chains like Walmart have also allowed shoppers to send and receive money at locations throughout Mexico and Central America. 

Blanco works alone these days because she can’t afford to hire employees. “I think that people are sending less money because they don’t have jobs,” Blanco said. “Some of my clients have said that their rent keeps increasing and so I think that’s another reason why people aren’t coming as much as they used to.” 

Josefina Blanco outside her shop Fruitvale Shipping Center on Fruitvale Ave. Credit: Amir Aziz

Despite the decline in customers, Blanco is insistent on providing reliable services to her customers so they aren’t worried about being scammed. “Here I make sure that if people send money or items then their families will get it,” Blanco said. “I want to please my customer.”

Money transfer fraud is perhaps the biggest issue this industry has to contend with. In 2017, the California Attorney General’s Office joined a multistate settlement resolving a case against Western Union, which had made it too easy for scammers to use their service to defraud customers in California and other states. These scams can occur at locations posing as money transfer agents for a big company like Ria or Western Union. In other cases, scammers use money transfer services to contact people and trick them into wiring money overseas.

Blanco said she’s been fortunate to receive support from The Unity Council, which offers various kinds of small business assistance. Staff like Jordan Garcia, a business engagement specialist, have worked with Blanco to apply for state grants to help offset operational costs. 

According to Garcia, Blanco’s struggles are commonplace throughout the Fruitvale District. “Issues with obtaining more clients and the struggles to stay afloat during a national economic hardship such as a recession are things that business owners such as Josefina are currently experiencing,” Garcia said.  

Unfortunately, there isn’t much Blanco can do at the moment besides continue to apply for grant relief and show up to work every day to make sure her customers’ money and goods get to where they need to go. It’s a service that Blanco is still more than happy to provide despite the struggles, and she hopes she can keep her Oakland shop afloat. 

“I would like to be able to stay here and have a secure future but the way the situation is going, I’m not sure,” Blanco said. “I just know that this is where I want to be.”