Saturday, December 29, 2007

End of the Year Madness

Puerto Ricans love to celebrate the holidays. New Years' Eve celebration, literally speaking, can sometimes end with a bang. Every holiday season, especially after Christmas Day, I see banners and newspaper ads with the following phrase: "No me quites la vida con una bala perdida." (Translation: "Don't take away my life with a stray bullet.") We were also quite use to hearing sporadic gunshots from our living room as well, during New Years' Eve, even though they were fired from quite a distance.

It's a sad reality but some Puerto Ricans mark the New Year by firing bullets into the air. One would think, if he or she has a decent amount of brain cells, that someone can get hurt as a result... and in fact, many people have been killed. The police and various non-profit organizations, such as United Way, have worked hard to discourage people from engaging in such dangerous behavior by launching media campaigns and community outreach programs. According to the police, such efforts have been quite successful as the number of reported injuries and death has gradually decreased.

Besides stray bullets, as in many other countries in the world, drunk driving is also a serious problem here. A few days ago, I came across an interesting set of statistics in the local paper. In the state of South Carolina, which has a population of 4.25 million, there were 8,645 drunk driving arrests in 2005. Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico, the number was more than twice that amount at a staggering 19,837. Keep in mind that this island has a bit less than 4 million inhabitants. Interestingly, the article also states that the percentage of alcohol consumption, during the holidays, goes up from 51% to 82%.

Why is it that the holidays seem to provoke such outrageous behavior amongst some of us?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas in Miami

It has been quite a long time since my family and I went on a vacation together. So, I found our recent trip to Miami to be really special. We've all been there before, but I find it especially memorable this time. Perhaps, it's because we rarely made any family trips together when I was young. It's the holiday season, and with the year coming to an end, I can't help but reflect. I have so many things to be grateful for, and I feel blessed to be able to spend the holidays with my family.

When we arrived in Miami, the airport was filled with travelers. Although it was a bit chaotic, I loved the energy. I can sense the anxiousness of people rushing to be with their loved ones. Perhaps, that's what I love most about the holidays. It usually gives us a chance to reconnect with our family and friends. We did just that during our trip to Miami, and we also managed to leave work behind us! I also rediscovered how interesting Miami really is. Although I was in the mainland U.S, I felt as though I was in Latin America. Literally everyone speaks Spanish. Of course, this is nothing new. However, this time, I felt a lot more confident speaking to people in Spanish. I also enjoyed listening to all the different accents as well. We were always trying to figure out where people were from.

I do like accents, and I also like to eat different types of cuisines. One of the things I was eagerly waiting to purchase was a batida de mamey (mamey is a Cuban fruit, a bit like passion fruit and batida simply means "shake"). We also had dim sum, a Chinese cuisine which we seldom get to have in Puerto Rico. While in Miami, we walked around the trendy South Beach (excuse me, "SoBe"), and the beautiful Coral Gables and Coconut Grove. When I saw the flamingo and wreath, I knew I was in Florida and I just couldn't help but laugh. We had a great Christmas, and I hope you did as well.

Monday, December 17, 2007

'Tis the Season

The holiday season has arrived! Today, I was in the local shopping mall (as pictured on the right), which was quite packed for a Monday morning. As I was walking around, I couldn't help but feel a bit nostalgic. I do miss the beautiful store displays of Fifth Avenue, and the lights that adorn New York City this time of the year. If you've never been to the Big Apple during the holidays, I highly recommend it!

When I lived in New York, I often flew down here to spend the holidays with my family. Despite my frequent trips, I never quite got used to the idea of a warm Christmas. However, I am not usually one to complain, especially since I got to enjoy the sun and the beach. Anyhow, December is usually a busy and stressful time of the year for many of us. It is also that time of the year where we are surrounded by excess. Come on, how can you resist from having that extra slice of cake, or another glass of wine? People also tend to run up a huge credit card bill. This leads me to conclude that the holidays has become a test for each and everyone of us. 'Tis the season to exercise some willpower. Find a way to celebrate the holidays without digging yourself into a mountain of debt. Also, try to eat healthy and balanced meals.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

It's Not Always so Pretty

Ricardo Diaz Serrano/AP Photo

Besides boxing heroes and corrupt politicians, beauty queens always seem to captivate the headlines of the local papers. In this case, the latest story also appeared on the BBC's Web site. This recent scandal involves Ingrid Rivera, who was crowned as Miss Puerto Rico 2008 a few weeks ago. From the very beginning, her participation in the beauty contest has been considered to be unfair. Many believe her extensive experience in other pageants puts others at a disadvantage. After all, she was a judge in last year's contest. However, she was triumphant despite such criticism and having her makeup and dress, supposedly, exposed to pepper spray. The police are now investigating this incident, and they have even solicited the help from a prestigious forensic institution. However, about a week after the pageant, some began accusing Miss Rivera of fabricating this story. Furthermore, there's a possibility that she might have to take a polygraph test to prove her innocence. Aren't you just amazed with this fascinating drama?!

Personally, I have no interest at all in beauty contests. So, you might say, why am I bothering to blog about it? Well, it's because I am now living in the "Island of Enchantment" and Puerto Ricans take these things very seriously. Obviously, it has a lot to do with the local culture and I like to dig beneath the surface of things. Like many Spanish-speaking countries, such as Venezuela, physical beauty is extremely important. I don't think I've ever seen any Puerto Rican woman leave the house without makeup on. They also never seem to leave the house without 3-inch heels either. There are indeed many beautiful ladies here, and they certainly know how to flaunt it.

Perhaps, the focus on beauty explains why this small island of just under 4 million inhabitants has seen five of its beauty queens become Miss Universe. Thus, after the U.S, Puerto Rico is the second country to have held the title the most. I believe the focus on things, such as beauty pageants, is simply a distraction for people. This island has its fair share of problems, i.e rising unemployment and a huge government budget deficit, but people don't like talking about such issues. It doesn't surprise me at all to see an increasing number of Puerto Ricans move to the mainland U.S in search for better economic opportunities. Nevertheless, Puerto Ricans will always be proud of their beauty queens.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Growing Divide

Please note: the photo on the left was obtained from Flickr

We often avoid talking about issues that may open wounds, or perhaps may seem controversial. Obviously, we also skirt certain topics in order to avoid shame and embarrassment. Poverty is one such topic in Puerto Rico. Based on the findings of Linda Colón Reyes, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, income inequality in the Island of Enchantment is the fourth worst in Latin America. Brazil, Nicaragua and Paraguay obtained the first three spots, respectively. Unfortunately, Latin America is notorious for having a huge gap between the rich and poor. However, I was quite surprised to find out that Puerto Rico came in fourth, or perhaps I shouldn't be. It just never occurred to me that the wealth distribution is so unevenly spread here, much worse than in other Latin American countries.

The pictures above illustrate the tremendous divide between the haves and have-nots. On the left is La Perla, a poverty-stricken area in Old San Juan. On the right is Palmas del Mar, located in the Southeastern part of the island, which is filled with million-dollar homes and yachts. In many areas of Puerto Rico, one will find public housing projects (known as caserios) located close to upscale neighborhoods. The other day, I was taking a stroll in one such neighborhood, called Condado, I took a left turn on one of the main streets (Calle Loiza) and found myself in a whole different world. According to my late father, this form of city-planning was an idea from the 1950's, of the island's first governor Luis Muñoz Marin, who believed that the poor can be inspired by the wealthy to do better.

These days, the rich seem to be in a mad sprint to get away from the poor. The past ten to fifteen years, Puerto Rico has been constructing countless number of exclusive gated communities, something which continues today. This time, they are located nowhere near the caserios. Sadly, this growing divide is rarely mentioned in the newspapers, and politicians don't bother talking about it either. I commend Professor Reyes for bringing to light this serious issue in her book, Pobreza en Puerto Rico, radiografia del proyecto americano. As citizens, we each have a responsibility to be aware of what goes on in society. It's dangerous to have a nonchalant attitude, such as foolishly believing that what doesn't affect "me" directly isn't considered to be "my" problem. We live in a world where things come in full-circle.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Puerto Rico's Treasures

One of the best things about living in the caribbean is the weather. I am absolutely loving the island breeze and sunshine! For someone who likes being outdoors, Puerto Rico is definitely a great place to be. I also love the fact that I can keep my wardrobe nice and simple, just t-shirts, tank-tops and jeans. I know, I know, I just enjoy rubbing it in. So, I'll just stop right here....

Last week, we had a group of visitors from New York and I had the pleasure of showing them around the island. The photos above were taken from some of the highlights of my tour. Naturally, we did see quite a few palm trees. We also went to see the caves at Rio de Camuy, which is quite a popular spot for tourists. My most memorable experience was having coconut ice cream at Ponce's King's Cream. I've been there on numerous occasions and their homemade ice cream just seems to get better every time. Another highlight was the tour of the Bacardi distillery, because they provide you with free drinks! Try the coconut rum with orange juice. I promise you won't be disappointed.

Last but not least, Old San Juan is a "must-see" on every visitor's list. Its narrow, cobble-stone streets are a delight to navigate, as are the colorful buildings and architecture. It is the most ancient part of San Juan, and the influence of the Spaniards is quite obvious. However, it is now overwhelmingly dominated by American commercial interests, such as Starbucks and (sadly) Payless Shoe Source. Nevertheless, Old San Juan still maintains a lot of charm. The old Spanish fort, El Morro, is also located there. It is not only a national landmark, but it also holds a very special place in my heart.