I Won’t Dance. Don’t Ask Me.

One of the biggest adjustments you make in a new culture is in the celebration of the Christmas season. My first Christmas in Puerto Rico took some getting used to. “Jingle Bells” sounded weird at 85 degrees. I worried that local children would be scarred for life, since none of their houses had fireplaces for Santa to come down. And then there were all those parties and all that dancing.

Puerto Rican men love to dance. And they all know how to dance. To this day, many families send their teenage sons for dance lessons to the same lady who taught them, and who had also taught their grandparents. During the holiday season, they are out in full force to take advantage of those lessons by dancing one of the easiest of the latin dances: Merengue.

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Merengue, which literally means “frosting” in English, is not a terribly difficult dance to learn. As a friend pointed out, “It’s easy. You just limp”. Which isn’t all that far from the truth. There are two widely circulated stories about the origin of the dance: The first, that the dance originated with slaves who were chained together and, out of necessity, were forced to drag one leg as they cut sugar to the beat of drums. The second, that a great hero was wounded in the leg during one of the many revolutions in the Dominican Republic. A party of villagers welcomed him home with a victory celebration and, out of sympathy, everyone dancing felt obliged to limp and drag one foot.Merengue

In my first few years of living in Puerto Rico in the mid-80’s, I worked in marketing for a major multi-national company, where women were badly outnumbered. As soon as the music started at my first company Christmas party (employees only), all of the salesmen immediately started dancing with whichever willing partner they could find. I tried to beg off, stammering that I had no idea what I was doing, but they weren’t having it. I spent the rest of the afternoon being passed around the dance floor like a hot potato, dragging one leg after the other.

Since then, my merengue style hasn’t gotten much better. Every season, I take my obligatory lap around the dance floor, and try to make it through at least one song – they are ridiculously long, after all. But then recently, I discovered that the deficiency in my merengue style has little to do with me, and more to do with my partner.

Turns out, it’s his fault. He was born in Havana, Cuba and as he is so fond of saying, “The fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves”.

I have it from one of the highest authorities in the land that Cubans just can’t dance. Sonia Sotomayer, the 111th Supreme Court Justice, recently gave this advice during an interview with the Washington Post, “Never dance with a Cuban“.

Official Portrait of Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Her reasoning? Cubans are the “worst” at keeping a beat and they take “very tight little steps”.

So let’s just say that one “wise Latina woman” just gave one Accidental Boricua the excuse of her life to stay sitting down when they strike up the band this holiday season.

Feliz Navidad to you, Justice Sotomayor!

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Let’s Keep It Local People!!!

 

christmas in puerto ricoNobody does Christmas quite like Puerto Rico.  The celebrations start immediately after Thanksgiving, and go onto into mid-January. Forbes Magazine once named it one of the World’s Top Christmas Destinations.  You’ve got your coquito, your pasteles, your léchon. Friends show up at your house at all hours of the night for a parranda, the Puerto Rican version of Christmas caroling, but noisier, with lots of food and adult beverages.

Then there are the presents. Puerto Ricans love to give, and the giving goes on for weeks. Not only are there presents on Christmas Day, but there are presents again on January 6th, the Epiphany. Better know as Three Kings Day, this the day when the children of Puerto Rico expect even more gifts from the original bearers of Christmas presents.

This year, the normally joyous season is juxtaposed against the dispiriting reality of our local economy. You can’t go for more than 24 hours without hearing complaints about how horrible things are in Puerto Rico. Unemployment is at 14%, almost 2.5 times the U.S. rate of 5.8%. The local economy has shrunk by 19% since July of 2005 and the population has declined for 8 straight years, as the second largest Puerto Rican diaspora in history continues. The crisis casts a serious pall over what has traditionally been the best time of the year on the island.

So what’s a Boricua to do in the face of all this dour news? GO SHOPPING! You heard me. Because if the gift giving goes on for weeks, the shopping goes on for months. But here’s the caveat:  SHOP LOCAL. Spend your money here – on the island. Resist the tempting option of on-line shopping this year. The single biggest driver of any country’s economic growth is its consumer spending.

In Puerto Rico, consumer spending accounts 60% of our economy; in the US, it is almost 70%. With less disposable income than ever, it is also more important than ever that that spending stays local. Ordering that video game your teenager wants from Amazon does nothing to help our local economy – going to get it at your neighborhood Best Buy or Costco does. The money you spend here gets reflected in the sales for that local store, which helps keep that local person employed, which keeps our economic cycle spinning here, locally – on our island.

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I know, I know, I know – it is easier and maybe sometimes cheaper to order that video game on-line. You don’t have to fight the crowds of shoppers at Plaza las Americas or circle the parking lot 3 times to find a space. On-line shopping may save you a bit of money, some time, and keep you out of the tapón. But in the end, the time or money you saved using your powerful consumer spending off-island just keeps our local economy stuck in its downward spiral.

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So take the pledge to SHOP LOCAL. Unless you absolutely can’t get the gift you are looking for here on the island, avoid on-line shopping. Use the SHOP LOCAL pledge as a way of rediscovering the good in Puerto Rico: spend an afternoon shopping with friends in Old San Juan and enjoy the festive street decorations; buy presents at Plaza las Americas and catch dinner and a movie afterward; or try shopping at one of the many artisanal fairs in the island towns.

SHOP LOCAL and use your personal consumer power to help improve the Puerto Rican economy.  Because the well being of this island is too important for us not to each take responsibility for it.

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Can a Country Create a “Customer Experience”?

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In 2012, Puerto Rico enacted law 22, or the Individual Investors Tax Act, in an effort to bring high net worth individuals to the island. The goal is to have them invest in the local economy and help pull it out of it’s 8-year and counting recession. The law creates a tax haven for investors and traders, once they become bona fide residents, by allowing them a 100% tax exemption on all dividends, interest and short-term and long-term capital gains on income earned in Puerto Rico.

To date, about 300 individuals have taken advantage of the law and have moved lock, stock and barrel to Puerto Rico. The average net worth of these individuals is roughly $7 million, although there are one or two billionaires in there. So if you invite a whole bunch of wealthy people to upend their comfortable lives and help you re-start your economy, what can a country do to ensure a positive customer experience? Because that is what these migrants essentially are: customers.

This type of customer is every entity’s dream. And their nightmare. Yes, this customer has more money than they know what to do with. But because of precisely that, they may be the hardest customer to keep happy.

All kinds of companies have stepped up to the plate to assure the newly minted Puerto Ricans that they can replicate their lives here. Sotheby’s opened a real estate office here. Government officials set up a conference to educate them about private schools, recreational activities, the arts and philanthropic opportunities. Beachside towns, such as Dorado, have pulled out all the stops to lure the island’s latest immigrants to their communities. The settler’s themselves have set up their own non-profit organization, The 20/22 Act Society, to foster a sense of community amongst other individuals and entities coming to PR for the tax incentives.

Will the government’s experiment to bring in a few hundred millionaires have a significant impact on the Puerto Rican economy? Will they be able to provide their new found citizens with the kind of “customer experience” that will help them adapt and flourish? They may have come here for the tax breaks, but how much of their lifestyle are they willing to give up in return? Only time will tell.

A significant part of the equation will depend on how happy they are living their lives here.  The government can try very hard to entice them to remain in Puerto Rico by cutting their tax burden. Still, there’s that old “money can’t buy happiness thing”. And in the end, if they aren’t happy, they might just start remembering the words of Benjamin Franklin, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

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When in Rincón…

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    “When they are at Rome, they do there as they see done”                —Robert Burton,The Anatomy of Melancholy

Recently, I was back in my hometown and had the opportunity to visit some very close friends of the family, whom I hadn’t seen for years. They were like my second family when I was growing up, but as the story so commonly goes, once I left for college, and then left the continent for good, our paths didn’t cross very often. Since my mother had moved from the area some years before, I hadn’t much reason to go back and we had missed out on most of the significant events in each others lives, like marriages, births, graduations, and the like.

When I arrived at their house, I effusively greeted their father, who was now nearing 90, but looked to me as he did when I was a child. I then hugged and kissed my old friends, brother and sister, who did look slightly different than when we were kids. Finally, my old friend’s husband was there with his hand extended. As I took his hand and leaned in to kiss him as well, he recoiled back and said with some degree of surprise, “Have we met?”

It was then that I realized that the boricua in me was showing. I’ll admit that when I first came to PR, I found strange the custom of greeting everyone – friends, family, complete strangers that you were just introduced to – with a kiss. I found it particularly strange when it happened in the workplace. Don’t get me wrong – I was not adverse to physical greetings – I grew up in a large Italian family and we were expected to greet each other with a kiss. But that’s kind of where it ended.

Over the years, like any species engaged in self-preservation, I’ve adapted and adopted. Because of his profession, my husbands knows lots of people and I often find myself in social situations where I am being introduced to people I will mostly likely never see again. And yet, I now have no compunction about bussing the cheeks of these complete strangers.

Once you’ve lived in a new culture for a while, some of your behaviors are bound to change, consciously or unconsciously. I don’t remember the exact moment I got over my surprise at the practice, and just started smooching everyone I met. But I do know that living here has allowed me to kind of pick and choose those customs from each of my cultures that best suits my true nature. In the process, I guess I’ve developed my own, unique culture — some mix of my family’s Italian heritage, my American upbringing, and my Latin living. Will all this cultural melding improve my chances in evolutionary terms? I’m not sure. But I know that for right now, it feels just right.

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