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Tales of a Changing Island by William Lewis
This Article was originally published in 1986 in "Islands Magazine" under the title "Roatan- Heart of the Bay Islands."
William Lewis, Ph.D. is a writer and a primitivist painter who since 1970 has lived in Honduras. He lives in Tela and Santa Lucia. He first came to Honduras as a Fulbright scholar.

A dory off Punta Gorga

Legends abound on Roatan. They are, like the sea that sustains the island, both a nutrient and an inspiration--a fusion of folkloric wisdom distilled from the eight separate cultures that have fought and flourished here during the past 400 years: Payan Indian, Spanish, English, Garifuna, Afro-Antillean, Anglo-Antillean, Spanish Honduran and, most recently, North American. All islanders, it seems, regardless of their ancestral origins, tell tales of duppies (evil spirits), yaba ding dings (pre-Columbian artifacts) and pirate treasures still buried on Roatan. Garifuna (black Carib) seamen describe the magic of dreams-men like 75-year-old Benito Gotay Caballero, who has fashioned more than 150 hardwood dories by hand, each one inspired by a vision. "Dreams," he told me, "are a gift; they are like bright stars. No man can navigate without them."
Our dory pushed off the quay at Oak Ridge before dawn, bound for Port Royal. The bay was silent save for the sputtering of the Briggs and Stratton 16-horse inboard that propelled 10 of us past the white, monolithic hulls of the shrimp fleet at anchor. By mid-June the shrimp and lobster season would begin again, and these vessels, along with many others, would leave Oak Ridge and head for Serrana and Quito Sueno, better known as "the banks."
Four of the passengers in our weathered 32-foot mahogany dory were Garifuna fishermen from Punta Gorda, who sat in the bow, chatting and joking in their native dialect. Behind them, a middle-aged ladino from Barrio La Fuerte sat beside his plump and pregnant wife, who shielded her face from sea spray with a piece of clear plastic, She smiled shyly, saying, "I don't want to get wet." Her husband told me that he was going to Port Royal to work on a building project for gringos. He later added that greater numbers of mainland Hondurans were going to the islands to seek a better life. I found myself wondering if escalating military activity and political tensions on the mainland might not be the reason.
The teenage skipper of our vessel, a muscular Creole (Afro-Antillean) from nearby Calabash Bight, was seated in the stern on sacks filled with mainland produce-lettuce, cabbage, carrots, beans and coffee. He opened the throttle a notch, then spoke to an old man seated beside him: "Dere be pleny a breeze in de wind's eye today, mon ... but dat sun, when she jump up, she gonna be hot."
"No matta, boy," the old-timer retorted, "I know you gonna be sittin in de shade when de woikin starts, cause you surely was blocked-up [drunk] last night."
"Hah, no way, mon. By noontime, dis dory be full a snapper!"
Trade winds from the southeast stirred palm fronds on the hillside above Pandytown as we passed and waved at the mail boat headed east. Along the docks that framed the bay, powerboats and yachts lay silent at their moorings beside rust-gutted oil drums and wooden crates. A scrawny mongrel yipped at us from the dock as we entered a shallow, winding channel cut through mangrove and outcroppings of flint gray ironshore. Beyond the channel, the water was clear and I saw clumps of turtle grass and coralline algae against the sandy white bottom. Beside me, Henry Genthe, a marine biologist and photographer on Roatan--and my guide to the island--pointed eastward to a spreading veil of light upon the water. His camera was poised, as the sun slowly bulged against the horizon.
Approximately 400 miles to the north-east of Honduras's north coast, near the Cayman Islands, a colossal crack runs along the floor of the sea. Lava from the earth's mantle upwells through this crack, forming the Caribbean plate. As the plate pushes south and west, it buckles, creating the Bonacca Ridge upon which "ride" six small islands and more than 60 separate cays, known collectively as Las Islas de la Bahia, the Bay Islands. Roatan, 30 miles long and 4 miles wide, dominates the chain in size, followed by Guanaja and Utila. The other three islands--Helene, Barbaret and Morat--are tiny by comparison; they are, in fact, detached parts of Roatan, surrounded by reefs interlaced with narrow, mazelike channels.
Uplifted by thrust faulting to summits of nearly 1,000 feet, Roatan slopes gently on its southern side and more sharply on the north. The igneous and metamorphic rock that makes up the island has been eroded into sloping hills and valleys, broken by extrusions of solid rock. Resting on the ridge, the island becomes a discontinuous extension of the mainland Sierra de Omoa.
Vegetation on the island is dense. Thick stands of Caribbean slash pine and oak line the central ridge, jutting up through chunks of white quartz and tall grasses. At the lower elevations, deciduous hardwoods are covered with lianas and epiphytic bromeliads, orchids and philodendrons, creating patches of impenetrable forest. Fruit trees bloom throughout the island: zapote, hog plums, cherimoya, cashew, mango, guava and breadfruit. On the southern slopes and along the road from Coxen's Hole to Oak Ridge, thorn scrub forests grow side by side with small oaks and dense clusters of "cuttin grass." Near the waterline on both shores, coconut palms, sea grape, coco plum and creeping morning glory stabilize the sands.

A Horse hides in the shade of a palm tree on Saint Helene
The southern shoreline, along which we passed, meanders erratically through 12 natural harbors fronted by 20 coral and mangrove cays and numerous reefs. Horse Shoe Reef at Port Royal is typical--a solid mass of storm-broken coral fused with calcareous red algae and covered, in places, with gardens of living coral.
We continued eastward, into the wind, as Genthe pointed out tiny inlets lined with coconut palms and sporadically dotted with small houses of wild cane and thatch built on pilings above the water. Except for two inland ladino towns--Juticalpa and Corozco--people (white, black and brown) have settled exclusively on the coast, where breezes from "the trades" provide natural air-conditioning. Since Roatan is situated in an east-southeast arc, there are no truly windward or leeward shores, so both sides of the island experience onshore winds during some months of the year. Staying cool is but one reason for elevated homes; the other is to escape the plague of mosquitos and other insects, most notably the jejenes. "We sometimes call them no-see-ums," Genthe said. "They breed in the wet sand an inch below the surface. Mosquitos will give you a break now and then, but these critters bite 24 hours a day!"
A blue and yellow angelfish swam into view, then quickly disappeared within the spires of elkhorn coral. "These reefs," Genthe enthused, his eyes on the water, "have spawned some of the richest and most varied sea life in the Caribbean--more than 50 species of coral and infinite varieties of tropical fish and plants." For the past four years, Genthe has escorted groups of student naturalists here from the states to study marine biology and to learn to scuba dive. "There's no better diving in this hemisphere," he assured me, then added: "I've seen a lot of `tropical paradises.' Roatan is in a class by itself. Basically, it's still a frontier."

Of the 18 states that comprise Honduras, only one--the Bay Islands--is detached from the mainland. As a result, this tiny state is like a separate country, historically rooted to a heritage more British than Spanish, which has left its imprint on language as well as attitude. During the Falkland Islands war, Bay Island sentiment clearly rested with Britain. Most islanders still refer to mainland Hondurans as "Spaniards," with an air that reflects not only indifference but, at times, clear and unabashed distrust. As Mrs. L. Starry, an 80-year-old resident of Oak Ridge, explained, "It's not blood or boundaries that hold people together, luv; it's language."
[In early 1980s] fewer than 15 percent of the 18,000 inhabitants of the Bay Islands are ladinos. The majority are Creole blacks--descendants of Cayman Island slaves who came to Roatan in the 1830s to found and settle Coxen's Hole and the other coastal towns. Not until 1859, with the support of the United States and its Monroe Doctrine, was Honduras able to gain control of the islands the British had called "the Keys to the Spanish Main."
Psychologically and culturally, the "keys" have never changed hands. The reason is obvious. Honduras has paid little attention to the islands, leaving them to evolve on their own.
The sun blazed above Port Royal through a haze of clouds. I sat beside Lee Matute, a Creole native of Roatan, on the porch of Henry Genthe's beach house. Across from us, Genthe reclined in a hammock, cleaning his camera lenses. For the past two days, the two of us had been touring Port Royal in Mr. Lee's dory, which was now tied at the dock in front of the house. Genthe and 72-year-old Mr. Lee were longtime friends and had shared more than one Port Royal adventure.
"I brought you here for two reasons," Genthe said to me matter-of-factly, "to know Port Royal and to know this man."
Mr. Lee chuckled, holding up the line he was rigging to better examine it. I watched his fingers; they were long, slightly arthritic, strong. He caught my eye and grinned. "Goin fishin today, mon!" he said jovially. He was hurrying so that he could fish the reef off Lime Key before it got too hot. At Genthe's request, he had consented to take us to the island of Helene to meet his family. But fishing came first. "Yes sir, mon," he declared, securing the last hook, "Dem Port Royal grunt [fish] be bitin good today!"
We pushed from the dock at Port Royal in the early afternoon, bound for Helene. Again, we moved slowly eastward, just outside the reef, and Genthe pointed out scattered homes along the hillsides, most of them owned by North Americans. The tangled shoreline of Careening Key was visible behind the wreck of Rambler, a decaying, storm-battered hulk that teetered on the sandbar at the edge of the bay. Mr. Lee sat at the tiller, a smile on his face, a sack of fish at his feet.
Lee Matute's house was built on the cove in the center of a large family compound not 30 feet from the water. Within minutes of our arrival, many of his children and grandchildren had shown up to welcome us. Leonara, Lee's wife of 47 years, told us at once that another healthy grandchild (their sixty-first!) had been born earlier that morning and named after his grandfather. Mr. Lee insisted that his family was small. His great-grandmother, he said, had a "large" family--175 great-grandchildren!
In many respects, Lee Matute epitomizes the Creole islander. Living off the sea and a few small plantation crops, he works hard to support his family. He raises pigs and chickens and, at times, hires out as a laborer for North Americans who, in recent years, have begun to settle Port Royal and the outlying areas. Unlike many of the foreigners, however (whose connection to the island is often tentative), Mr. Lee and his people belong here; their bond to Roatan is visceral, immutable, linked by blood to a rich maritime-island tradition.
While Leonara and three of her daughters busied themselves with cooking, Mr. Lee took us around the island to meet others in his family--more sons and daughters and scores of eager-eyed grandchildren, whose reverence and love for this gregarious old patriarch was warmly expressed. He showed us the boat he was building, his pride and joy, a vessel that has been three years in the making. "Pleny good size, mon," he said, "haul maybe 15,000 coconuts. ... She soon be in de water!"
After Leonara's dinner--fish fried crisp in coconut oil with beans, plantain, coffee and pineapple cake--we went looking for Mr. Lee's friend, Sam, who had promised to take us to the interior of the island for a look at a pre-Columbian site. A short time later, we were on our way, using machetes to cut a trail as we climbed over jutting blocks of iron shore into a cool, high canyon overgrown with vines and wild orchids.
Sam was visibly excited as we reached the top of the ravine and came upon the site--a wide circuitous plateau extending more than 100 feet and covered with hundreds of bone white conch shells. Sam told us that kids from the far side of the island had found the site and dug some small jadeite carvings and pottery shards from beneath the shells, but that few people on the island knew the place. Too exhausted from our climb to dig, we rested for a while, then started back down the canyon.
"Why did the Payans drag those shells all the way up there from the beach?" Genthe wondered aloud.
Mr. Lee shrugged. "I don know, mon ... but I used to take my girlfriend up dere, long time ago ... Got her away from her mama before de roosters crow. ... Boy, boy!"
That night, Genthe and I joined Mr. Lee on the porch. Leonara served us coffee and cake, and we heard music coming from a portable radio someplace down the beach. There was a full moon and its light cast a brilliant sheen across the cove, illuminating the island of Barbaret, about two miles distant. I watched two of Mr. Lee's sons rolling up a large net, which they stuffed in the head of their dory. The old man was talking about his youth days when he boxed as a young middleweight in port towns along the mainland; days when the sea turtle was abundant and sailing from Helene to Trujillo and back in just 10 hours was a matter of routine. His new boat had clearly inspired him. He said now that he could go to sea again and fish for conch and lobster. "Yeah boy," he repeated, "she soon be in de water!"
At my prompting, he described voyages he once made to Belize and Nicaragua, from the Gulf of Honduras to the Cayman Islands, and he remembered his mates--"Sponish," Waika (Miskito Indian) and Jamaican--unified by the sea. "De sea is every mon's country," he said, "She got but one language."
I asked him about duppies. "Duppies, mon!" he snorted, with a grin. "Why duppies ain't nothing but de devil; never bother you if you live right, by de rules." Lee laughed aloud. "Never hit a frog with a yucca stick, cause dat frog chase you till he dies!"
Genthe said good night and entered the house while Lee and I remained, watching the light upon the water. I looked at Lee's arms; they were still lean and well-muscled, capable of quickness and agility. Even in old age he was vital and rugged. But there was a seasoned gentleness about him, too, a serenity that comes only with generations of time.
He asked suddenly, sitting upright in the hammock, if I believed there was ever a man on the moon.
I told him there was and mentioned the Apollo space flight.
He grinned, looking up at the moon. "I don think so, mon," he said, almost apologetically. "Dat be in de hands of de Lord. I think dat de Lord made de moon to light up de night, just like he made de sun to light up de daytime. Well mon, listen to me good: if de Lord can do dat, he surely can put a man on de moon if he want one up dere."
On impulse, I asked if he'd like to go to the moon. "Boy! Boy!" he chortled. "You must be crazy... I'm an island mon. I stay right here. Dis be pleny fine place for Mr. Lee."

Mr. Lee on his Porch in 2008.
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The Honduran Gringo by Thomas Tomczyk

Profile of William Lewis, AKA Guillermo Yuscaran

In 1966, at the age of 27 Guillermo wrote a 212 page dissertation and received his PhD in Hispanic Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He soon realized "that academic the thing wasn't for me." At 32, he answered a wanted ad: 'Teachers wanted in Tegucigalpa,' in the "Saturday Review of Literature." He travelled by a Norwegian freighter to Panama and then on to Tegucigalpa.
At Honduras' capital Lewis and his young American wife taught grade 7 to 9 Social Studies at the American school. Lewis started freelancing, writing stories about Honduras for "Readers Digest," and his first fiction stories. "You've got to trust the rightness of what happens to you, even if it's bad. That's when it gets tough," says Guillermo.
In the 1980s, he met Velasquez, a well known primitivism Honduran painter, by knocking on the door of the painter's Tegucigalpa home. "He had a congenital hair lip and kind of a cleft palate. So I figured that was the reason that no one ever wrote about him," said Lewis, who wrote an article about the artist and soon found himself being his official biographer writing books that now define this Honduran artist.
Guillermo uses art as a tool in his self analysis. Dogs, snakes, moons, fish and doves: Guillermo's canvases are a true Jungian workshop. The artist has been painting images and feelings from his dreams for years. "Dreams are a source of imagery, symbols; it's a tool for keeping my life on track," says Guillermo. "Over the years I've been familiar with what comes out of my unconscious and how it applies to my life."
He prefers working in the mornings, writing or painting, but once he gets inspired he works around the clock, for two or three days. "When I get off base I really get into my dreams." The painter often uses a tape recorder to describe his dreams the moment he becomes aware of them. "I just bury the dream into the recorder and try to stay asleep. It's almost like watching a movie," says Lewis sitting in his studio surrounded by colorful canvases.

Lewis at his art studio in Tela.

People recognize Guillermo, 69, on almost every Tela street. When he walks into a restaurant people smile. He divides his life between Santa Lucia and Tela, where his young son attends school and his wife studies at University.
Everywhere he goes, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, a Hawaii shirt, shorts and sandals, he is a recognizable and welcome visitor. A poet, writer of fiction and biographies, and a painter, Lewis has spent twenty plus years in the city of Tela documenting the landscapes and human characters through what he calls "metaphysical music."
Lewis is a Californian who moved south, first to Venezuela, then to Honduras. "I'm just a writer. I write about Honduras, but I am a Gringo," says Lewis, who's other two sons: Jebney and Greg live in US.
"The nexus of my own work down here is identity, without realizing it. Here I am Bernard Lewis, my given name, and I am Guillermo Yuscaran. Its like two countries, two identities, two names," says Lewis whose mother was half Iranian, and whose father was a Welsh-Irish emigrant to the US. "I am a soup of identity," he says to describe himself.

The Municipal Library
An underutilized resource fades away

The Roatan Municipality is paying the operational costs of the library, but doing little else. The damage from the recent 7.1 earthquake is visible in cracked walls. The ample spaces designated as a children's library and a driver's education center are closed and filled with junk.
Joanne Dixon, the head librarian, says that sometime no one shows at the library during the entire day. Other times there can be as many as 16 people, mostly students whose teachers require them to do assignments using library books.
"If you pick up this library and put it in Coxen Hole maybe it would work [and attract more readers]," says Dixon, who believes that the French Harbour location just isn't urban enough to attract readers. Of the approximately 130 people that have current library memberships half are children and the other half are expats. "Not a single [adult] islander ever came to the library," says Dixon.
According to Dixon the books in highest demand are books in Spanish - novels, dictionaries and history books. Three years ago Dixon was responsible for cleaning the library, but when the position of a head librarian opened, Dixon got the job.

Young library visitors from French Harbour public school in the main reading room.

When the Jarred Hynds Community Center Library opened its doors in January 2006, it was to be the center for the culture and education on the island. More than three years later the building sees little regular use.
The two-story, 6,500 square foot bright yellow library building was constructed with Municipal funds thanks to the relentless efforts of Catherine McCabe, an American retiree who lived on Roatan at the time.

H1N1 on the Rise
The Swine Flu Pandemic Claims the Life of a Roatan Doctor

A Roatan doctor working at the AKR clinic has become the sixth victim in Honduras of the H1N1 virus. Dr. Delia Vallecillo, an AKR Clinic Doctor, was seven months pregnant when she contracted the influenza. In a Tegucigalpa hospital her baby was saved in a C-section procedure, but Dr. Vallecido died. It is not known where and how Dr. Vallecillo became infected with the H1N1 flue, but it is understood that her pregnancy made her especially susceptible to H1N1 and would have complicated her recovery.
According to Dr. Janice Louie, MD, an infectious diseases specialist who volunteers at Clinical Esperanza, H1N1 is especially dangerous to people suffering from diabetes, asthma, cancer, the very young, very old, and pregnant women. Patients in their 20s, 30s and 40s also are susceptible to the flu, but tend to "do better and get through the flu." Dr. Louie contributed to the study of susceptibility in pregnant women to the H1N1 virus published in July issue of British medical journal "The Lancet."
The H1N1 flu is spread by cough droplets, by bacteria that can survive for several minutes on hands, doorknobs, etc. According to Dr. Louie, 97% of H1N1 patients suffer a fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Other symptoms of H1N1 sufferers include headache, stomach ache, and diarrhea.
According to Dr. Louie, in early July, 25% of all patients walking in for consultation at Clinica Esperanza exhibited flu-like symptoms. Some of these patients were H1N1 flu carriers, but for 95% of H1N1 sufferers, the flu is a mild, transient illness. Only occasionally the patients are referred to AKR or the Roatan Public Hospital. Only these two places have Tamiflu, the drug that is known to fight H1N1.

Roatan Hospital offers the H1N1 rapid screening test, but proper testing for the H1N is expensive (in the US it's around $300) and the closest testing facility is currently in Tegucigalpa. Because it takes at least four days to get tested, most people are evaluated for symptoms and advised to "rest, drink a lot of fluids" and let the body fight off the flu infection.
On June 11, the World Health Organization declared H1N1 a phase 6 pandemic, marking the first declared global pandemic since the 1968 Hong Kong flu. In Honduras, the first case of influenza was confirmed on May 21, and the first death due to the flu was recorded on June 22. According to Honduras' Ministry of Health, by early July, six people had died so far from the H1N1 virus, and over 230 have been diagnosed to have H1N1 virus.
There are also high risk areas that are particularly susceptible to H1N1 bacteria presence. These areas include places with large numbers of people and places that sick people are likely to frequent. People working in high traffic areas are more susceptible to infections with the flu and employees working at the Galaxy Wave terminal and on the boat have been wearing masks for months.
The annual flu season is due to begin in the fall, and the rainy season is likely to create an additional challenge to medical staff on the island.

Island's Biggest Shopping
After two years of construction, Megaplaza Mall opens in French Harbour

The rental spaces vary from 50 square meters up to 350 square meters. The biggest retailers will be Carrion Store, Lady Lee, Applebee's, and Supermercado Mega.
Ing. Jorge Hullinghorst, general manager of the Roatan Megaplaza Mall, estimates that the cost of constructing the mall will be somewhere around Lps. 200 million, or $10.5 million. The rental prices for stores vary between $10 and $15 a square meter per month, much lower then mall rental prices in San Pedro (up to $45 a square meter), or Tegucigalpa (up to $35 a square meter). According to Hullinghorst the Roatan rental prices were adjusted due to the economic downturn on the islands and motivation to fill in the rental spaces as soon as possible.
The mall was started in October 2008 and originally scheduled for opening in October 2009. In the end the mall construction is expected to be complete around 24 months after it began, and the official opening is scheduled for business on September 12.
Copreco, the multinational company that won the bid for construction of the mall was employing up to 300 people during peak construction. According to Hullinghorst Copreco has used around 40% of labor from Guatemala. "They won the bid and needed to keep their cost low," Hullinghorst explained the strategy of importing foreign workers to Honduras and Roatan.

A worker finishes work in front of Appleby's restaurant.

The largest mall constructed to date in the Bay Islands is about to open. Several businesses that rent space at the mall already opened in early August- the first international fast food burger joint on the island, Wendy's, a local ice cream maker, Cream of the Trop, another bank, Banco Continental, and a cell phone company, Claro. At the end of August of the 62 rental places at the mall had, all but eight have been rented: 6 restaurant and two shop spaces.

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The 'Pawn' phenomenon

A Bulletproof Business in a Down Economy is Booming

"Being able to tell the quality of gold is important in my work," says Alexander, "and I draw on the many years of experience behind me." The shop occasionally deals with customers trying to sell or pawn imitation gold as the real thing, says Alexander, who uses chemical tests to test that gold is genuine.
Pawn shops, or 'Casas de Empeño,' lend money at high rates - up to 2% compounded daily - based on the value of goods that are 'pawned', or left with the shop as a kind of collateral. Hannoh Ebanks, owner of a Coxen Hole pawn shop explains, "We accept tools, electronic gear and other valuables as collateral, but the vast majority of pawned items are gold."
Gold, the staple of pawnshops, is valued on a per gram basis by the shops, which then offer loans at approximately 15% of the value. Customers pay interest at set periods varying from every week to every two months, depending on the shops they deal with, with some shops imposing limits on how long goods will be held.
Some customers understand the high cost of loans, but have few other choices. "I gave the ring to my wife many years ago, she keeps it in a box and doesn't know I'm here pawning it," says a pawn shop customer from Los Fuertes about pawning a gold ring handed down from his mother. "I only do it because we're under such financial pressure."
The ring was valued at $400 and has secured a loan of $60 for the man, who knows he is paying a high interest but feels he has no other choice. With interest calculated daily, in just one month the man will owe almost $50 in interest, an effective rate of over 40%. To maintain the loan for a year is likely to cost over $500.
It's no surprise then that many customers are unable to make payments and reclaim their pawned items. According to Ebanks 60% of customers never come back for their property. In many cases pawn shops sell gold items in bulk to trading partners on the mainland, where demand and price is higher.
Pawning is a growing business, and Calix estimates that business has risen by as much as 20% since last July, with the family opening a second shop in Coxen Hole in November in order to store the increasing numbers of pawned goods. "People need money in times of stress, and we provide a service which gives people more options," he said.

The Coxen Hole Pawn Shop 'Inversiones #1'

Melvin Calix spends nine hours a day behind bars, but he's committed no crime. Instead he's working in a family business that's booming not despite of the recession, but because of it. The Calix family pawnshop in Coxen Hole, Inversiones Dinero Urgente, is their first on the island after several on the mainland, and takes its security seriously.
While most Roatan pawn shops have an open, walk-in feel with goods for sale openly on display, customers talk with Calix through an imposing cage of bars flanked by a securely padlocked iron door. Calix puts the precaution of the cage down to the family's experience on the mainland. "We've never had any trouble here, people are relaxed. But in our mainland stores people have been assaulted, so we take care of ourselves with the cage."
Another pawn is located in a crowded area of Coxen Hole, nestled in the strip shops of 'the Mercado,' doubling as a watch repair shop since its establishment in 2000, "Taller Joyeria" specializes exclusively in gold items as collateral for loans. Of the many items that become the property of the shop when borrowers default on payments, Manager Alexander Contrera says most are shipped to San Pedro to be melted and turned into new gold items.

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