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Call centers: Returning to Mexico but sounding 'American'

Mexico's call centers are recruiting English speakers, some of whom are deportees hoping to stay in touch with the US

Deported from the U.S. last year, Angel Perez retains his Texas accent. He found a job at TeleTech shortly after landing in Mexico City.
Seth Freed Wessler

MEXICO CITY — To a Mexican ear, Angel Perez speaks Spanish like a foreigner. To an American, his English is pure Texas. His mother took him from Mexico to the United States when he was two years old and they settled in Graford, Texas, population 600. He graduated from high school there, got a job cutting cedar trees, met a young woman from a town nearby and had two kids. But last year, Perez, who didn’t have legal immigration papers, was deported. He found himself in Mexico City with close to nothing: His girlfriend and kids, his friends and his now-former job were all back in Texas.

Perez has a rugged, muscular build and is never without his red, Texas Rangers baseball cap. He cuts his hair in a Mohawk and wears a fake bullet as an earring through his left earlobe. Mexico City could not be more different from his rural home back in the States. And he spoke Spanish like a school kid. Perez searched for work, but there weren’t many options. He found a couple days of work moving furniture with a cousin for $15 a day. But after that ended, Perez didn’t know what he could do.

Then, a little more than a month after his arrival, Perez got a break. One afternoon, as he waited in a Mexican government office to apply for an official ID, a woman in line told him about a place called TeleTech. The company was hiring, she said — all he had to do was prove he could speak English.

The next day at the downtown TeleTech office, in a three-story building across the street from the Monument of the Revolution, Perez didn’t know what exactly he was applying for. “I’d never heard of TeleTech, and I didn’t know what it would be,” he recalls. “I just interviewed and they asked about my English.” It was not until he started work a few days later, that Perez learned what he’d been hired to do: talk by phone to people in the U.S. about their satellite TV service.

TeleTech, it turned out, is one of the leading global outsourcing firms. The three-decade-old Denver company is often described as a pioneer in outsourcing. By last year, it pulled in $1.2 billion in revenue from call centers in at least 24 countries. Mexico is a growth opportunity for TeleTech: It runs three call centers there and is planning to open a third in the city of Puebla.

Like the half dozen other major call centers in Mexico City, TeleTech works exclusively with U.S. corporations; it handles customer service and technical-assistance calls for clients such as Time Warner, Dish TV and Best Buy.

TeleTech's office. The Colorado-based company operates call centers in Mexico and elsewhere.
Nin Solis

The Mexico City facility employs 2,000 people. Between a third and two-thirds of the workers used to live in the U.S.

The Mexican call centers are like any global outsourced facility — they exist to cut costs while providing services of a high enough quality that customers barely notice they’re talking to someone thousands of miles away. Historically, outsourcers have come up short on the second part of the formula: the experience of calling in to pay a bill and hearing an accented, foreign sounding, often South Asian voice on the other side of the line has become cliche.

Now Mexico is among the countries that U.S. companies look to for help in solving the accent problem. In recent years, record numbers of people have been deported from the U.S.; about 250,000 were removed to Mexico last year. And at least 100,000 more left on their own, often to escape the threat of deportation or the bad economy. For the outsourcing companies and their U.S. corporate clients, the returnees are in many ways the perfect worker. Typically, they’ve lived in the United States for years or decades and often speak flawless American English. Many have attended American schools and understand cultural cues — they can casually discuss In-N-Out Burger or the New York Giants — with the people on the other end of the line.

“Increasingly, companies are looking for as much cultural affinity as possible between the staffing place and the place you’re supporting,” says Katrina Menzigian, a vice president at Everest Group, a consulting firm based in Dallas. She adds that countries such as Mexico where “neutral” English speakers are more prevalent are increasingly being used for direct customer contact, while India — historically a leader in outsourced labor — is handling more tasks that don’t require conversing with Americans.

Ivana Jovic, TeleTech’s executive director for operations and regional lead for Latin America, says the call centers look to returnees as a valuable labor pool. “We do need people who have good English and (they are) a good option; why not use it?”

And with help from those immigrants returning from the United States, the call centers are expanding in Mexico. They’re part of a $6 billion industry in the country that handles customer service calls, billing and IT for people who live elsewhere. From 2005 to 2010, the sector more than doubled in size. It is on track to grow at a similar rate over the next five years.

Mexican call-center workers make, on average, a third of what workers in the U.S. earn for the same job, according to Mexican Institute of Teleservices. Julio Dominguez, who is 36 and lived in California for 11 years, until he was deported in 2006, worked for a TeleTech facility in Sherman Oaks. He answered calls for Verizon. After his deportation, he found a nearly identical job in Mexico City, taking calls for AT&T at another TeleTech outlet. In the Mexican call center, he says, he was paid a quarter of the wage he earned in the U.S.

But Dominguez and other agents say they don’t feel exploited. The call-center jobs are relatively good ones in Mexico. Workers at TeleTech and Telvista, a Mexican-owned outsourcing company with facilities in Mexico City, report making about $4 or $5 an hour. In a month, they earn about $750, which in Mexico is above average, perhaps even middle class. In fact, many Mexican college graduates who’ve never lived in the U.S. seek out call-center jobs after graduation.

Maria Ponce, an effusive 30-year-old, worked at call centers for five years. She grew up in Queens, N.Y., after leaving Mexico with her parents when she was 8. Ponce was a nerdy kid, with glasses and plenty of extracurricular activities. She went to a small Catholic college outside of New York and studied business administration because her father told her it would lead to well-paying jobs. She graduated and applied for work. But while her friends got hired, she did not. Without citizenship papers, no one would hire her. Ponce started helping her mother, cleaning houses for rich people in Manhattan. But her parents had taken her to the U.S. so she wouldn’t have to do that kind of work. So in 2006, at the age of 23, 15 years after she arrived in the U.S., Ponce bought a plane ticket to Mexico.

“I just decided it was time for me to leave,” she says. “I was pretty frustrated and very angry and upset at the fact that, you know, I had this degree, but what am I doing with it?”

Maria Ponce grew up in Queens. But without papers, she couldn't find a job. In 2006, she bought a plane ticket to Mexico.
Nin Solis

Not long after she arrived in Mexico City, Ponce saw a sign on a municipal bus for TeleTech: “Need Work Speak English, Call. …”  A few days later, she was interviewing with a U.S. citizen named Michael White, who’d moved to Mexico with his Mexican wife. He asked Ponce why she spoke English so well, why she’d come back. After more than a decade of hiding her immigration status it was a relief to tell her story. Soon, Ponce began working as a call agent, helping AT&T customers.

The TeleTech floor looks like a hybrid of an eager American startup and a suburban U.S. high school. The walls are painted neon colors and plastered with posters that encourage agents to work harder, to achieve their goals. The football-field-size room buzzes with young voices offering cheery greetings. There’s a ping-pong table outside the cafeteria, and the hallways are lined with multicolored lockers in which the workers store their things.

The call agents spend so much time speaking in English that they sometimes forget they’re in Mexico. The calls, sometimes 50 a day, tether agents to the homes they left behind. Ponce, who recently left what she says will be her last call-center job, rarely stopped thinking about her parents and about Queens when she spoke on the phone with Americans. Workers say the smallest things send their minds back — speaking to customers who are shopping at American stores, driving on American freeways or watching an American ballgame.

The most emotional calls for Ponce were those from kids seeking help with their family’s Internet service because their parents couldn’t speak English. Back in Queens, she used to do that for her parents.

“They’d be like, ‘My dad doesn't know how to use a computer. What do I do?’ And you’d hear in the background, ‘Hey, apúrate!’ — Hey, hurry up! — which is basically what I did with my parents,” Ponce recalls. “I would call in and translate because they didn't speak English, relay the information on to them. It was like I could see myself doing that for my parents.”

Sometimes, she would feel so homesick that she’d put her head down on her desk in the gray cubicle beside rows of dozens of other gray cubicles, slip her cell phone under the earpiece and call her mother in the U.S.

A call center

The calls are not the sort of thing one would expect to inspire nostalgia. The customers on the other end of the line are rarely happy. They’re calling to pay a bill or fix something that’s broken. And their voices are often filled with derision. When they realize they’re talking to someone in Mexico, they sometimes get angry and accuse the agent of stealing American jobs.

Ponce remembers a call from an older man from the South. “He started yelling, ‘You guys are taking our jobs!’ How is it possible that I’m calling to Mexico! I’m not paying AT&T to call Mexico!’” Other workers say they’ve been called racial slurs and told to transfer the call to an agent in the U.S. “There was like a whole script that we had for situations like that,” Ponce says. “But in my head I felt like, ‘Well, the reason you’re not paying as much as you should be paying is because I’m taking your calls down here.’”

To avoid these kinds of exchanges, workers say they generally try to avoid conversations about where they’re located. But call agents at TeleTech are instructed to answer honestly if they’re asked about that directly. That is not the case at some call centers. Ten minutes away from TeleTech, at the Mexico City Telvista facility, several workers on a smoke recently break said they are instructed by managers to lie and say they’re in the U.S.

Customer-service agents are supposed to keep calls short, about 5 to 10 minutes. But Angel Perez, the Texan, who’s only been in Mexico for eight months now, says he found a way to make sitting behind a desk more bearable. For most of the day, he rushes through calls, keeping them to just a couple of minutes, so his average call times stay low. And that allows him to spend as much time as he wants on the phone with callers who remind him of home — mostly ones from rural areas, whose lives are like the one he left behind. One such call came from a man in Alabama named Jim.

“He kept calling me Bubba, and that’s one of my words that I use because I was raised with them redneck boys,” Perez says. “We talked at least 25 to 30 minutes, just talking about hunting, fishing, out in the river swimming. I used to just lay on a roof of a car, and we’d just see shooting stars ’cause it’s so black and everything’s so clear. And here you don’t see nothing.”

But the people and places the deportees miss are far away, and few have any chance of going back. It can be a lonely life, especially for those who come without family. Many workers look to their fellow call-center agents as quasi-replacements for families they left behind.

Alejandra Pinzon has been working at TeleTech for three years, first as a call agent and now as recruiter, interviewing new applicants. She lived in a small town in Kansas from the age of 10 to the age of 18 and admits she was a sheltered kid. When Pinzon graduated from high school, however, she left the U.S. and came to Mexico because she needed to take care of a family member. Now she can’t return.

Several years ago, Pinzon interviewed a young man named Christian Chirinos, who’d recently been deported from California after multiple arrests for gang involvement and drugs and, finally, assaulting a man who, Chirinos said, had insulted his mother. Pinzon hired Chirinos.

Alejandra Pinzon, who grew up in Kansas, found love through her job at a call center.
Seth Freed Wessler

His life in the U.S. could scarcely have been more different from Pinzon’s. Yet at the interview, something clicked and Chirinos and Pinzon are now dating. He left TeleTech and got a job at Compucom, a different call center. He and Pinzon have moved in together.

At work, their histories seemed to fade away. Fresh starts seemed possible. “Mexico is like a no-man’s land,” Pinzon says. “Everything they did [in the U.S.], it goes back into neutral.”

Angel Perez also surrounds himself with people from the call center. All his friends there are from Texas and, like him, most were deported following a criminal conviction. When he was 20, Perez slept with a 16-year-old. He says it was consensual. Perez spent two years in jail for sexual assault of a minor. When his time was up, federal immigration authorities deported him.

Most nights, after work, Perez and his friends, all tattooed, with shaved heads and thick Texas accents, meet at a place called Cafe Paris. It’s more like an American diner than a bar — padded booths and metal napkin dispensers. Most of the clientele are students and young professionals just off work and sipping a beer. But Perez and his friends get drunk on 40s and talk about Texas. They talk about their kids back home. Perez’s son children are 2 and 3 years old. A few days earlier, his ex-girlfriend told him that he won’t see them again until they’re old enough to travel to Mexico themselves. It’s the worst part of being here.

Perez says he feels a little crazy sometimes, like his body is in Mexico and his mind in the U.S. 

Some workers who’ve been in Mexico for longer than Perez say it gets easier. Ponce worked at TeleTech for four years and later at a call center at a French-owned facility called Teleperformance, in Puebla. The jobs have helped her adjust to life in Mexico, to find a place for herself in a country that wasn’t yet hers. But Ponce has moved on. She started working with a new organization called Dream in Mexico. It assists young people who’ve just arrived from the U.S to resettle to get their Mexican papers in order so they can go to college, and find work. A few days each week, she takes the bus to Teleperformance’s offices and hands out flyers about the group to workers on break.

One recent afternoon, Ponce approached a group of call agents on the Teleperformance steps and asked who among them had lived in the U.S. A teenager with braces and a sparkly belt who introduced herself as Stephanie, told Ponce that she’d just returned to Mexico because college is cheaper here than in the U.S.

“I was in Queens, N.Y.,” she said. “Right there in Astoria.”

“Oh, I grew up in Astoria too!” Ponce said. “I lived there for a while, for like 14 years.”

They talked about their home, and then about how Ponce could help Stephanie enroll in school. After eight years in Mexico, Ponce finally feels like this is where she should be. She wants to help others get to that point too. But she doesn’t pretend part of her isn’t still in Queens. She knows she may always live somewhere in between.

An audio version of Seth's story aired 3/14/2014 on This American Life.