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Mexicans Are No Scrooges With Christmas Bonuses

Holiday pay is so traditional it's `enshrined in the Constitution' ... or is it? - a letter from Mexico

THE rubbish men collect one (from everybody). Our 78-year-old postman, a rail of a man on a vintage bicycle, graciously but firmly expects one. The members of Congress take home a generous one. Indeed, it comes as a shock to our Mexican friends and neighbors to learn that some people don't get one.

I'm not complaining, mind you. Intellectually, I understand that in the United States one is as likely to receive a Christmas bonus these days as to spot a partridge in a pear tree. It is an anachronism, compensation consultants say. They say the modern science of labor-productivity enhancement points to an incentive-based, merit-pay system of behavior modification.

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But maybe, just maybe, Mexican and US officials might want to broaden the North American Free Trade Agreement pact to include an exchange of customs - starting with the aguinaldo.

Here, it's not just a pleasant tradition or the altruistic sharing of a rich overflow. It's the law.

Article 87 of the Federal Work Law of 1931 stipulates that every full-time employee has the right to receive at least 15 days worth of pay before Dec. 20. Of course, 15 days is a benchmark figure; employees at the Mexican social security office have a three-month pay bonus written into their contract. Other federal employees get a 40-day allocation at Christmas.

Then there are the politicians. Members of Congress earn 15 million pesos a month (about $4,800) in a country where only 7.6 percent of workers earn more than $900 a month, according to the 1990 census.

A recent political cartoon pokes fun at "outraged" legislators whose aguinaldo is apparently somewhat less than in years past: "No Rolex, no turkey, just 20 million pesos [$6,400].... A representative without a Rolex is not a representative. The only thing to distinguish us from the street venders is our cellular phones."

Where this generosity got its start is not clear. One labor union director says the aguinaldo is enshrined in the Mexican Constitution. I found the section about companies sharing profits with workers, but that is a separate, more complex issue. A librarian was "almost certain" Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada, president from 1872 to 1876, was the first to make the dispensation mandatory. But it is not listed among his most notable acts in the history texts.

A Spanish encyclopedia published in Madrid says the word "aguinaldo" derives from an old French phrase ``au gui l'an neuf" describing the New Year's celebrations.

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The tradition of giving New Year gifts dates back to early Roman times, when friends exchanged dates and honey, the encyclopedia says. Later, Spanish and French royalty adopted the custom of giving money, precious metals, gems, and artwork at the New Year.

A British encyclopedia traces the practice back to Epiphany, Jan. 6, when the three kings visited the infant Jesus. This is also when Mexican children open their Christmas gifts.

AFTER Spain began mining the wealth of the Americas, aguinaldos were bestowed with greater frequency upon the favored subjects of the Spanish court. Today, the cash payment to employees is widespread throughout Latin America.

Many friends say the aguinaldo is fair compensation for dismally low wages. Others call it a "godsend."

"I'll be able to pay my debts off," says Angel Francisco Gonzalez Lopez, a taxi driver. He gets no aguinaldo but keeps all earnings between Christmas and Jan. 2 without paying rent to the owner of the cab.

Berta, a trade unionist, is using her bonus to fly home for Christmas with her family in Chihuahua. Rufina, a teenage maid, is buying clothes and tapes of her favorite rock artists. Like many living in Mexico City, Graciela, a government secretary, is using her aguinaldo to finance Christmas at the beach.

Perhaps as a test of the policy, US migrant workers in Mexico should fall under this North American free trade in aguinaldos. And the beauty of it is you wouldn't have to change the NAFTA acronymn.

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