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Associated Press

Christmas Spells Big Business In Puerto Rico, Where Salaries Are Lower But Large Debts Common


December 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Christmas lights glow atop a mountainous landfill, children frolic in imported Canadian snow and shoppers crowd into one of the world's highest-grossing shopping malls.

Christmas is increasingly driven by consumerism in Puerto Rico, where islanders earn much less on average than their counterparts in the U.S. mainland but are more than twice as much in debt.

Some say it's U.S. consumerism gone awry, while others say it's a healthy dose of seasonal spending.

"The Christmas season here does not have snow, but kids sing 'Dashing through the Snow.' It's all very strange," retired anthropology professor Marcelino Canino Salgado said.

A cooled warehouse in the San Juan suburbs is filled with tons of snow shipped in from Canada. Parents lay down $10 a child for boys and girls to play in the transplanted winterland.

Escalators brimmed with shoppers running up credit card bills during the pre-Christmas rush at the San Juan mall Plaza las Americas.

With 300 stores, 2.1 million square feet (200,000 square meters) of space and 11,000 parking spots, it is the largest mall in the Caribbean and among Latin America's biggest.

"People spend a lot of money. That's the way we Puerto Ricans are," said Hilda Pagan, a 43-year-old who was buying a $200 television set at Sears.

The U.S. territory's nearly 4 million people have accumulated $17 billion in consumer debt, said Lerroy Lopez, president of Puerto Rico's Economists Association.

That debt represents 50 percent of Puerto Ricans' annual income, according to association figures - more than twice the 18 percent accumulated in the U.S. mainland, Lopez said.

Puerto Rico's per capita income, meanwhile, stands at about $8,200 a year, compared to nearly $21,600 in the U.S. mainland, according to census figures. Some experts say due to a large informal cash-only economy, the true average income is higher.

U.S. chain stores from Home Depot to Wal-Mart have become as prolific as palm trees. The RadioShack at Plaza las Americas is the highest grossing of the Fort Worth, Texas-based chain's 7,200 stores, store manager Edgardo Torres said.

The mall had more than $750 million in sales last year, with a third coming during Christmas, spokeswoman Lorraine Vissepo said. The mall is among the world's highest-grossing, she said.

Puerto Rican shoppers are expected to spend $1.6 billion dollars this Christmas, a slight increase from last year, officials said.

A Christmas village set up next to the Capitol building bears signs advertising McDonald's, Amigo supermarkets and Energizer batteries.

Some fear Puerto Rican religious traditions are being pushed aside.

"It's sad - it has become commercial like the U.S.," said Maria Elena Gonzalez, 32, daughter of Gov. Sila Calderon.

Families often sleep out on sidewalks the night before Calderon hands out free toys at her mansion on Three Kings Day, Jan. 6. The holiday is important in traditional celebrations and marks the arrival of three wise men who according to the Bible offered Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The island, seized from Spain by the United States in 1898, has been a U.S. commonwealth since 1952 and has seen more economic growth than its Caribbean neighbors.

Decades ago, "credit didn't exist except for the wealthy," said Maria Socorro Blanco, a 79-year-old university biology professor. "The obsession to consume, to buy wasn't as easy back then."

The buying has been accompanied by growing mountains of trash. Officials say San Juan generates some 600 tons of garbage a day.

Its former dump, now filled to capacity, glows next to Plaza las Americas with lights that spell out "Feliz Navidad." The city is sending its waste to another landfill to the east.

Many say consumerism hasn't wiped out Puerto Rico's Christmas past. Traditional holiday dinners still include roasted pork, blood sausage, and a coconut and rum drink known as "coquito."

Revelers go from house to house in a centuries-old tradition known as the "parranda," shaking maracas, scratching out a rhythm on gourds called "guiros" and singing carols.

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