January 19, 2008

Walgreens and the American Corporative Takeover of Puerto Rico; Plus, Farmacies

So, this recent post from Dondequiera about how Walgreens has bought 20 Farmacias El Amal has inspired me to confront two important topics.

The first is the question of American corporations (mostly those pesky chains) and their presence in the island. While most Americans (or at least most of us "hippie" college students, anyways) would be quick to decry the "Americanization" of the island, I don't think it is so simple.

Now, I am not about to deny Americanization. After 100 years of American colonization obviously large parts would be adopted into the culture of the island. But I would like to suggest that Puerto Ricans have had a large share in deciding how to accept Americanization.

This may be a stretch for some, as the concept of globalization and cultural imperialism imply a sort of oppressor/oppressed system, where the oppressed is an innocent victim, and the ending is the Americanization or Westernization of the entire world. Looking at Puerto Rico, it's hard to see it in that light. I would say that Puerto Rico has quite a bit of control over its fate. After all, early attempts at Americanization failed (the island is still speaking Spanish, in case you haven't noticed) and large parts of the culture remain intact. Spend more than a few days outside of tourist areas and it should be obvious.

The question that interests me more is how Americanization has come into Puerto Rico. It's been adopted in pieces only when convenient for the island. Thus, you can find the standard American malls in Puerto Rico (although with some different stores; the food and a few local chains come to mind) and any kid will be able to tell you about Santa Clós. But these American traditions are still forced to compete with local family-owned stores and Three Kings Day.

Now, I am going to save a more cultural look at this for later and return to my point, which is Walgreens. See, Puerto Rico loves its Walgreens. Really. According to the post I linked to above, that puts the total of Walgreens on the island above 90 stores. This number doesn't seem so high until put in the context of the island, which after all has the rather small dimensions of 100x35 miles (not exact, of course). For me this manifests in a Walgreens in nearly every neighborhood, particularly in the outskirts of San Juan. This is in addition to the other American chains like CVS (although there aren't many), local chains like El Amal, and independent farmacies.

This is kind of verging into my second topic, that Puerto Rico is obsessed with pharmacies and everything related with the medicine industry. My experiences tell me that each neighborhood usually has about 2 pharmacies, usually within 2 minutes or less walking distance... I can even think of a neighborhood where there is a Walgreens and directly behind it another local pharmacy. Puerto Rico is also the source of many medicines, since a lot of large American corporations have their factories on the island. There additionally is a large number of nurses on the island, along with private practices, hospitals, specialists, and much more. It is a huge part of their economy. It also is beneficial for tourists; after all, if you are going to get sick anywhere in the Caribbean, it'd be better to be in Puerto Rico. At least, that's how I'd like to see it.

Anyways... so there are a lot of Walgreens. And they are rather popular. Right now I'm looking at a group on facebook called "Porque janguear en Walgreens es lo mejor que hay!" ("Because hanging out in Walgreens is the best there is!") which has nearly 7000 members, all Puerto Ricans. In fact, I would say Walgreens is more appreciated there than it is in its native land.

In other words, you may be surprised to find what seem like American chains but either are more popular on the island or hardly even exist stateside. The most noteable one for me is Tacomaker, which has more locations in tiny Puerto Rico (101, to be exact), than it does for all of the United States. There's also Kress, a clothing store that fell apart in the U.S. after a long time but continues to expand in Puerto Rico. There are more, but I'm not sure listing them all is necessary.

Point is, the American chain has been accepted on the island, but it's not really straightforward, as most large corporations (McDonalds, department stores, etc) share space with both local chains and obscure American companies.

Like I said, I'll delve into the more interesting cultural conflicts dealing with this at a later date; I hope this is mildly satisfying in the meantime!


:: VEGA :: said...

just discovered your blog... and I LOVE IT!!! - I'm a Puertorriqueña living in NYC (been living here for 3 years)... and you can't imagine how much I miss my island... nothing like home!

Thank you for all your effort in putting this blog together!

And yes... I can sadly say and agree that Puertorriqueños absolutely love Walgreens!... but I can predict that Starbucks will be closing their stores sooner or later... why pay $4+ bucks for a coffee when you can buy a "pozillo" for a $1 or less... made from delicious Puerto Rican Café... I mean... nobody messes with our coffee!

Speaking Boricua said...

Thanks! I'm glad I can help you out. I miss your island too! Haha. I know how you feel though, I had to watch my friend adjust to living here as well and so I've heard all about it!

Yeah... I definitely see Starbucks closing in the island, everyone I know HATES it! Puerto Rican coffee is definitely the best... my friend just brought me some from the island and I had it this morning! So I have to agree on you with that.

Thanks for stopping by!

Minerva said...

You might disagree - and you probably will - but in my humble opiion earlier Hispanization did far more damage to Puerto Rico (the culture of corruption, pomposity, ridiculous bureaucracy, inefficiency etc.) that Americanization ever could.

Puertoricans love Walgreens because it offers them what they perceive as VALUE. Not only - and I'd guess from my visit's to my PR Walgreens - not even mainly in pharmaceutical goods, but in small usefull and useless gadgets.

Speaking Boricua said...

Sorry, I've been meaning to reply to your comment but I've been busy, not surprisingly.

Anyways, you may be shocked, but I don't necessarily disagree with you. Certainly PR's nearly useless government smacks of the same inefficency as much of Latin America (you are lucky to have missed them going broke and then refusing to fix it)... the only difference is that they don't really have any power to let their corruption affect anyone but themselves. Not that Puerto Rico would elect a Castro, either, but...

Gadgets? I remember some strange toys at Walgreens ("breathing" sleeping dogs? who would buy that?) but not so many trinkets. Maybe I just didn't even notice because I never wanted any and usually just came for food or something... medicinal. I understand what you're saying though. "Frugal" is not exactly a word I'd use to describe Puerto Ricans. Unfortunately, the way I see most Puerto Ricans interpreting capitalism is thinking that more is good as long as it is cheap (or flashy in some cases), which does lead to quite an accumulation of junk.