NAUGATUCK — Down the street from Santos Fine Portuguese Restaurant and around the corner from the Portuguese Club, pedestrians who walk into 215 Church St. are immediately faced with a hand-painted mural depicting Vasco da Gama, other explorers and royalty against a background of old Lisbon.
The office is an arm of Banco Santander Totta, an international bank based in Portugal, but this is not a bank. Inside, two employees work six days a week, depositing checks to clients’ accounts in Portugal for free.
The borough has one of just three Santander Totta offices in the United States, all of which are solely money remitters. The sizable Portuguese population in the borough and the surrounding area has kept the office in business for 22 years.
The remitter’s client base is growing or remaining steady as immigrants open savings accounts in Portugal for their grown children, said Antonio Matos, vice president and general manager of the borough office and secretary of Santander Totta bank in the United States. If those children marry people who are not Portuguese, their children — the third generation — are not as likely to open accounts, Matos said.
Yet those same children, as they get older, might inherit property in Portugal and use the remitter to pay for it, Matos said.
“There’s people always sending money for homes, utilities, cars,” Matos said.
The borough office serves the entire state, Westchester County, N.Y. and western Massachusetts. It works with about 1,900 clients, who collectively send between $6 million and $8 million annually back to the bank in Portugal, Matos said. When the exchange rate was more favorable, before the switch to the euro, the agency served as many as 2,500 clients and sent almost $20 million per year back to Portugal, Matos said.
“We had more remittances back in those days,” he said.
The U.S. Census estimates nearly 7 percent of the borough population has Portuguese ancestry. In the 1980s, about one-fifth of borough residents were Portuguese. Other metropolitan areas in the state, such as Waterbury and Bridgeport, have large Portuguese populations, and people from those areas flock to the borough to send money to their families or to their vacation and savings accounts in the old country.
“You have 84, Route 8, 91 and 95 are not too far, so it’s central for being in Connecticut,” Matos said.
The office plays a small role in stimulating the local economy, Matos said. Sometimes clients from Hartford or Windsor ask where to find a good Portuguese restaurant in the area, and they are given a few to choose from.
Santander Totta’s offices in the United States are funded from the Portuguese bank’s profits. The main U.S. office is in Newark, N.J., and a smaller one is located in New Bedford, Mass.
As they came en masse to the area, first-generation Portuguese immigrants began sending money back to their homeland to build houses and prepare for retirement there, Matos said. The borough office also sees an uptick in activity around vacation time, as people put money in their Portuguese accounts so they can withdraw it after arriving there, Matos said.
Some immigrants and their families spend three or four months out of the year in Portugal and cannot use travelers’ checks for all the money they would need to take, Matos said. Wiring money, or using a Portuguese ATM to take it from an American account, involves fees that clients can avoid by using the remitting agency, he said.
State Rep. Rosa Rebimbas (R-70), whose ancestry is Portuguese, said she opened an account with Santander Totta right before leaving for a 2006 honeymoon in Italy. Matos helped her locate an affiliated ATM in Italy that she could use to withdraw money without paying the fees, Rebimbas said.
“It was very convenient, using the ATM,” Rebimbas said. “The last thing you want to do is walk around in a foreign country with a lot of money in your pockets.”