Immigrants pack spirit of Christmas for flights to Caribbean, S. America

Many arrive at airport overloaded with gifts for family left behind


MIAMI - Some folks need snow and Santa to feel it's Christmas. But in some Central American mountain villages or sandy Caribbean islands, a lot more people are depending on William Lora, especially when their stateside relatives implore him to check his holiday list: a schedule of cargo flights.

Lora shares more than his girth and his smile with the season's better-known package delivery specialist: He is the Santa of last resort. As the manager of ABS Freight Forwarders at Miami International Airport, Lora is the go-to guy for desperate travelers who discover that many airlines here have strict holiday restrictions on the number of bags and boxes they can take back to the old country.

This is not a minor concern. Every day of the Christmas season, 100,000 people troop through the airport, carrying everything from toys and television sets to car parts and livestock. Festively wrapped in green-and-red Christmas paper, encased in yards of transparent plastic or stuffed into crates and bags, the packages make the airport's main concourse look like a seasonal swap meet.

Forget about the duty-free stores hawking Chanel, Hermes or Dior. The big names on the concourse are Zenith, Samsung and Casio. They are a testament not just to the strength of the economy but also to the enduring allure of the North American dream, which makes Latin American and Caribbean immigrants leave behind everything they know and love.

To these women and men - wise, but weary from hard work - the gifts they bear are signs of success that ease the months, and sometimes years, of separation.

"Latin Americans work all year so they can take gifts home," Lora said, with a nod to a pile of packages that included a chandelier bound for the Dominican Republic, a solar panel headed for Haiti and a boombox destined for Nicaragua.

"From past experience, as far as the Latin American traveler," Lora said, "the airlines tell them you can only bring two pieces per person, and they show up with eight. They always bring gifts to relatives, and once a year they travel. Their relatives expect that from them."

Baggage handlers and airport clerks who work at the airport during its busiest season have come to expect almost anything. Most of the presents are run-of-the-mill consumer items, especially electronics, clothing and toys. But some people get a little carried away.

"Roosters," said Luis Arce, a supervisor with the Miami-Dade County Aviation Department. "You can hear roosters in the terminal. I once saw a guy walking a bobcat like a pet on a leash."

Geneva Hairs, another county aviation worker, is still wondering about a woman she once saw at curbside. "I saw a lady with a tail hanging out of her blouse," she said. "It was a black tail. She was going to Santo Domingo or someplace."

But the only snapping that airport workers usually have to fear is from irate passengers when they learn that their airline will not permit them to take their gifts on board.

"They bring everything," Lora said, with a dead-serious look. "People have brought 700 pounds worth of goods. That's just one person."

American Airlines, the dominant carrier to the Caribbean and Central America, imposes a no-box rule from early December to early January to prevent cargo holds from being so crammed with packages that luggage will not fit. Selected flights also have a two-bag luggage limit.

Airlines also have safety rules barring aerosol cans, flammable liquids and some other goods. But many travelers to poorer countries show up with household goods, like the many women who try to go to Haiti with four-packs of spray starch. The airlines confiscate the cans and donate them to local charities.

The explanation for the box ban might make sense to those who are staying home. But it sounded like nonsense to Hector Castillo, who was told he could not take aboard a microwave oven that he had bought for his sister in the Dominican Republic. Now all she will get is an excuse.

"Why?" he asked. "This is the time of year when people bring the most gifts. My sister asked for this. Now I'll have to take it in the summer."

Good luck - American Airlines has a similar ban during the heavy travel season in the summer.

The reactions are not quite passenger rage, but letdown, eased a bit by some holiday entertainment at the freight-forwarding counter, where merengue music is sometimes played to soothe travelers.

Maria Isabel hugged a brown teddy bear as she waited with her teen-age son Martin to check into their flight to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Beside them, still in their boxes, were a laptop computer and "My Walking Doll," which wasn't going anywhere, walking or otherwise, as long as she stayed in the box. Isabel had already left at home a bicycle and a television set that she had bought for her grandchildren in Honduras and will now have to ship.

"The computer is for my daughter because she started her first year at the university there," Isabel explained. "I want her to get ahead."

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