MEXICO CITY — As a gardener, Carlos Bonilla Torres endures a series of indignities much of the year.
Clients order him to scoop dog droppings, tote furniture and wash their cars for no extra pay. Some never speak to him except to complain that the grass needs mowing. He bears it all for $134 a week.
But December is payback time. That's when even Bonilla's most imperious customers hand over envelopes stuffed with cash. The extra $512 he received this year will allow him to buy new clothes for the family and treat them to a movie. The respect that comes with it: priceless.
"Once a year … I feel important," said the 48-year-old father of four. "It makes all my effort worth it."
The Christmas bonus is fast disappearing in the United States, a casualty of pay-for-performance and corporate cutbacks. But south of the border, that fat December paycheck is a near-sacred entitlement protected by law and tradition.
Most Latin American nations require employers to pay their workers a year-end bonus, compensation that can equal as much as three months' salary for some. This so-called aguinaldo — which means Christmas or New Year's gift — is the Spanish-speaking world's most beloved employee perk. Families build their budgets around it. Labor unions go to the barricades over it. Retailers bank on it. Pro-business advocates don't dare even hint at reform.
In a region of grinding inequality, it is one of the rare benefits that trickle down to workers such as Bonilla. Mexico City-based retail analyst Marc Monsonego likened aguinaldo to U.S. Social Security, the so-called third rail that officials tinker with at their peril.
"It's one of those things that you just can't touch," said Monsonego, a managing director at Neoris, a consulting firm. "It's this huge cultural and economic force."
Indeed, aguinaldo lifts holiday spirits and powers the Latin American retail sector from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego.
In Argentina, the federal government has accelerated the payment of some public-sector bonuses that it used to hand out in January by a few weeks to boost pre-Christmas spending. Brazilian workers finance their celebrations with the so-called 13th month, the extra four weeks' pay they get in December. Aguinaldo is the salvation of Central American retailers, said Eduardo Valdez, owner of a small chain that sells music CDs and video games in El Salvador's capital, San Salvador.
"It breathes life into the Christmas season," Valdez said. "I don't know what would become of our sales" without it.
It's the same in Mexico, where an estimated 25 million workers receive aguinaldo that pumps at least $5 billion into the economy in a matter of weeks, experts say. Consumers discharge old debts and pile up new ones in a frenzy of consumption.
"I pay as much as I can on my credit cards and use the rest to buy my presents," said Cesar Onofre, a 28-year-old Mexico City accountant who plans to put every peso of his $373 bonus back into circulation. "I save absolutely nothing."
Aguinaldo has its roots in religious tradition and political populism in Latin America. Like other nations in the hemisphere, Mexico took what long had been a voluntary practice among some employers to give a little extra at Christmas and turned it into law. Mexico's 1970 legislation requires all salaried employees to receive at least 15 days' pay as a bonus that must be paid by Dec. 20 each year.
Workers in Mexico's powerful public-sector unions have negotiated better deals than that. Teachers receive 90 days' salary as an annual bonus, as do employees of the nation's largest public healthcare system. But elected officials really know how to stuff their own stockings. Mexico's 500 federal representatives received about $8,200 each in aguinaldo this year, and one state governor scored nearly $33,000.
But even gardeners, maids and others who labor without benefits or a formal contract are entitled to aguinaldo. Many of these workers labor part time for several employers, all of whom are supposed to pay a prorated bonus prescribed by law. Cheapskate bosses can be fined or even sent to prison. But in practice, these workers say their year-end premium often depends on the whim of their patrons.
Gardener Bonilla's stingiest client handed over $75 this year, and the most generous gave $233. Luckily it all balanced out as he garnered nearly a month's salary in total.
"It's like a blessing," Bonilla said.
Other workers aren't so forbearing.
Teachers in the impoverished southern Mexican state of Oaxaca went on the warpath this month when officials hinted that they might not have the funds to pay Christmas bonuses averaging about $2,100 each for the state's 71,000 educators.
Thousands of teachers abandoned their classrooms and took to the streets, blocking roads, surrounding public buildings and camping out in the historic center of the state capital until the government ponied up.
"It's something that we need and that we're counting on," said Rufino Gutierrez Hernandez, a teacher who participated in the sit-in. "Although it appears to be a lot, the truth is that it's not very much considering our [small] salaries."
Even Mexican business groups that have been pushing hard for changes to Mexico's rigid labor code say they have no interest in tampering with aguinaldo. Labor experts say that it's because wages here are so modest and that it is an inexpensive way for employers to buy labor peace while appearing bighearted at Christmas time.
More than half of Mexican workers earn less than $13 a day. Thus aguinaldo equates to less than $200 for most of the labor force. Employers simply figure it into the entire compensation package and budget for the extra payout in December.
Although workers technically would be better off getting higher wages spread over the entire year, most look forward to the year-end jackpot in a region where few have bank accounts and many live paycheck to paycheck.
"It's the one time of year that people have a lump sum, a bunch of extra cash they can spend on that big-ticket item," said economist Chris Woodruff, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego.
December is a chilly month for auto sales in the United States, but it is red-hot in Mexico as customers flush with aguinaldo head for dealer showrooms. Furniture and appliances are big movers. So are liquor, food and electronics.
But retailers aren't the only ones angling for a slice of those year-end bonuses. Assaults around the holidays are common in Mexico City, where security guards with shotguns and flak jackets patrol shopping districts and shoppers hide money in their undergarments to foil muggers. And attacks have risen in smaller cities as well.
Authorities in the city of Zapopan in western Mexico this year unveiled a program called Safeguarding Your Aguinaldo, which provided police escorts to citizens nervous about leaving work alone with their extra holiday pay. The service was a response to 40 reports last year of residents being robbed of their windfalls.
However it leaves their wallets, Mexicans' year-end bonuses never seem to outlast the festivities, Maria Contreras Romero said.
The 42-year-old Mexico City nurse recently received aguinaldo of 60 days' salary, or $708, a hefty sum here. But Christmas season is a marathon event in Mexico. It starts with the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, Dec. 12 and runs through Jan. 6, the traditional gift-giving day known as Three Kings Day.
Contreras said she and her husband would be so broke by then that they'd be sweating it out until the mid-January payday.
"We will be praying for the 15th to arrive to get our salaries," she said. "Because by that time, there won't even be a shadow left of our aguinaldo."
An extreme-right French group has found a way to distribute Christmas cheer only to a chosen few by offering homeless people free hot soup containing pork, which observant Jews and Muslims do not eat.
The soup kitchen, set up at the harbour of this Riviera town, draws about as many protesters as poor people. Police stand guard between it and a Catholic charity group distributing vegetable soup outside their church.
Dominique Lescure, head of the small ultra-nationalist group distributing the soup, disputed charges by angry protesters on Wednesday evening that what he called his "patriots' soup" was meant to exclude Jews and Muslims.
"I don't see why I should not be able to put pork, which has always played a major role in my country's cuisine, into a traditional soup that I want to distribute, admittedly, to my compatriots and European homeless people," he argued.
"I'm not excluding anyone," he shouted in a heated exchange with a handful of jeering protesters. "We're tired of being treated like little Nazis. If a Muslim comes, I'll serve him, but the real poor these days are our people."
Standing nearby under bright Christmas lighting, a city official said he could do nothing about the controversial soup kitchen. "Serving soup with pork is not a crime," said deputy mayor Noel Ayraud.
The nationalist far-right is a strong fringe group in France, where its supporters feel under threat from Europe, globalisation and the country's five-million-strong Muslim community, the largest Islamic majority in Europe.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant National Front party, finished second in the first round of the 2002 presidential election, stunning the country and knocking Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin out of the race.
Protesters at the soup kitchen denounced the group as racists. One Muslim woman shouted at Lescure: "Our fathers are Muslims and they fought for France with honour and loyalty."
A local left-wing militant said the protesters did not want Lescure's soup kitchen to operate unopposed.
"This pork-based soup kitchen is pure discrimination, it's an in-your-face way of telling people who don't eat pork -- you can stay in your cardboard boxes and starve," said Teresa Mafeis, holding back tears of anger.
"After the holidays, we're going to set up our own soup kitchen and there will be shorba for everyone," she said, using the Arabic word for soup.
Standing at the church soup kitchen, a Catholic priest urged the two sides to calm down. "This is not the place for politics or divisions," said Father Patrick Brizore.
When he launched his soup kitchen in early December, Lescure said in a statement he wanted to help "our least fortunate blood brothers ... in this hour when the black tide of demographic submersion and free-market impoverisation is rising."
His ultra-nationalist group is named "Soulidarieta" -- "solidarity" in the local dialect -- and its motto is "Ours before the others."
"We have been in contact with them on the issue," McCormack said. "What I can assure anybody who's listening, including Mr. Hamadi, is that we will track him down. We will find him. And we will bring him to justice in the United States for what he's done."Surprisingly tough words from a State Department flunky.
"My Muslim brothers, you know that the enemies of Islam are malicious to Islam," one person wrote on a jihadi site. "What helps them is their knowledge of chemistry, physics, mathematics and programming languages, as well as their knowledge in the sciences of cartography, electronics and others. So if you possess knowledge in any of the aforementioned sciences that would benefit Islam and Muslims, say so."What's to be done? The intelligence community often downplays open-source intelligence and unless it's stolen, it's undervalued. In some agencies it's hard to get authority to pretend to be a jihadi on a forum. Kristof says that to avoid tipping off terrorists he was asked not to mention one other "similarly foolish constraint." I wonder what the constraint was; maybe that if asked whether they're an FBI agent they must answer the truth? I hope not.
Sure enough, one woman replied that she was skilled in English, cytology and molecular biology. A man said that he would be happy to share his skill in chemistry and explosives.
"There is this expectation that they're not being watched, or that if they are it won't be translated for six months," said one expert who monitors the traffic for the U.S. government, and who shared these examples partly to help draw attention to the problem.