Thursday, May 27, 2010

Eating Locally via the Urban Market

A few days ago, I was pleasantly surprised as I came across el mercado urbano ("urban market") at Plaza Las Américas (PLA), the largest mall on the island. It was strange seeing a farmer's market there but it was great to see locally-grown produce and food products. There were pineapples, papayas, bananas, tomatoes, honey, goat's milk, candy and much more. For the first time in my life, I bought a bag of mesclun salad at a mall that was grown in Ciales. Although it didn't come cheap, at $4 for a small bag, I am more than happy to support local farmers.

I had previously written about Puerto Rico's heavy reliance on food imports, which is estimated at around 80%. Sadly, the agricultural sector does not play a significant role in the local economy. The island certainly has the climate and the terrain to grow crops, but the work is arduous and the economic returns are dismal. The local government is aware of this situation and is now trying to re-activate and support agricultural activity on the island.

Puerto Rico's Department of Agriculture and the Bank of Economic Development (Banco de Desarollo Económico) are the two government agencies which organized el mercado urbano. It was first launched in December of last year, and it is usually held in Condado's Ventana al Mar.
This is the first time in which el mercado urbano was held at PLA. According to most of the farmers and vendors, it was a huge success as PLA is a heavily transited shopping mall. It was a terrific idea to promote this farmer's market at such a venue. In times when the island has a serious obesity issue, greater access to fresh fruit and vegetables can perhaps encourage people to eat healthier. For those of you who are, or will be, on the island, el mercado urbano will be held until this Sunday, May 30th on the first level of PLA, as part of the Plaza Food Fest event. For future urban market events, best thing to do is check the local paper for dates and locations.

(The picture above was taken during my first visit to el mercado urbano in Condado in April).

Thursday, May 20, 2010

On Shaky Ground

Last Sunday at around 01:16 AM, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake hit Puerto Rico. Moca, a town in the Northwestern part of the island, was the epicenter. I actually didn't feel a thing, maybe because I was exhausted that night, but my brother was woken up by it. It wasn't until that morning, as I was scrolling down my Twitter feed, when I found out. Ironically, about a year ago or so, when a much smaller earthquake hit the island, I did feel my bed move. Go figure!

It is not unusual for Puerto Rico to experience earthquakes, as it lies atop the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates. This latest one is the strongest registered since 1974, when a seismic network was established on the island. The most deadly earthquake ever to hit Puerto Rico occurred in 1918, which caused the deaths of an estimated 116 people. It was registered at 7.5 magnitude. Luckily, there were no reported deaths or serious injuries attributed to this latest one. Needless to say, one can't help but wonder if Puerto Rico is prepared for a massive earthquake and potentially, a tsunami. The answer, according to many experts, is a resounding "no."

A recent article ("Estructuras vulnerables"-translation: "Vulnerable Structures") published in the local paper, states how most government buildings and hospitals around the island would not survive the impact of an intense earthquake. An earthquake drill carried out yesterday in Bayamón confirms this theory. On one hand, the island does have the necessary emergency personnel and measures in place in the event of a massive earthquake. However, should such an event take place, most buildings on the island would collapse. In fact, most buildings constructed on the island before 1987 are particularly vulnerable, since it wasn't until then when all buildings and structures on the island had to adhere to the International Building Code. In the meantime, for those of you who live in earthquake-prone areas, do take a look at FEMA's guidelines "What to do During an Earthquake."

(The image above was obtained from

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Puerto Rican Diaspora

A few weeks ago, when I came across a article in the local paper with the title "Hay más boricuas en EE.UU que en la isla" ("There are more Boricuas in the U.S than on the Island") I was not surprised. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term "boricua," it means Puerto Rican. As stated in this article, 4.15 million Puerto Ricans live on the mainland. Out of this number, an estimated 2.8 million were born in one of the 50 states or in the District of Columbia. The island itself has slightly less than 4 million inhabitants. Since Puerto Ricans born on the island are U.S citizens, they can easily emigrate to the mainland by simply purchasing a one-way plane ticket. Keep in mind, boricuas wouldn't be considered immigrants, but instead would be considered emigrants. The largest wave of Puerto Rican migration took place between 1950-1959, according to Wikipedia. During this period, most boricuas settled in the New York City area.

I have yet to meet a boricua who doesn't have any family members or relatives who live on the mainland, except perhaps one person. The search for better economic opportunities, and a better life, are the primary reasons why Puerto Ricans go Stateside. This has resulted in somewhat of a "brain-drain" as many medical professionals, engineers, etc. have indeed left the island as wages are much higher on the mainland. On the other hand, I do know many Puerto Ricans who have returned to the island after living in the mainland for many years, and some were actually born Stateside. So, which states do most Boricuas prefer to emigrate to nowadays? Here are some numbers gathered from 2000-2007 which I came across in another article titled "Fuga de boricuas a Texas" ("Escape of Boricuas to Texas"):
  • Florida (124,361)
  • Pennsylvania (49,723)
  • New York (40,951)
  • Massachusetts (28,802)
  • New Jersey (23,011)
(*Source: U.S Census, American Community Services, Prof. Jorge Duany)

Monday, May 3, 2010

Consolidating Puerto Rico's Banks

Last Thursday, I came across an article in the New York Times with the following title: "Puerto Rican Lenders Face their Own Crisis." It was a foreshadowing as to what would occur the following day, when RG Financial Bank, Westernbank and Eurobank were bought by Scotiabank, Banco Popular (the island's largest bank), and Oriental Bank and Trust, respectively. This sell-off cost the American taxpayers a little over $5 billion. All three bank closings by FDIC agents took place smoothly and without incident. Deposits of up to $250,000, at nearly all banks on the island are protected by the FDIC, just as they are on the mainland U.S. Thus, there was little or no panic amongst bank customers.

This latest round of bank closings didn't come as a huge shock to some, as all three banks have already been warned by the FDIC to raise its liquidity levels, or merge with other healthier banks. In fact, they were given a March 31st deadline to do so. Most of these failed banks bet heavily on the local housing market, which is considered to be over-saturated. Their combined deposits represented over a quarter of the island's total deposits. The financial crisis, which has led to over 200 bank failures in the mainland U.S since the beginning of 2008, can now include these three Puerto Rican banks on its list. After this consolidation, the Puerto Rican banking sector now has seven major players. Gov. Fortuño claims the island now has a stronger banking system, as a result of these closures. However, many foresee an even more tightening of the belt when it comes to taking out a loan. Thus, adding insult to injury to an already weak economy, which has been in a recession for the past four years going on five.