Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Gambling on Hope

Fresh faced and wide eyed, I arrived in the Dominican Republic. It was my first time visiting in years.

The first person I wanted to see was my favorite cousin, Tati.
“Let’s surprise her at work” my aunt suggested.
“Let’s go!” I beamed, “Where does she work?”
“Right up the block, in la banca”
I looked to where my aunt was pointing, there wasn’t a bank in sight.
“No, not a banco, a banca” my aunt said.
“Oh yes, of course” I nodded, pretending to know the difference…

Bancas are small betting parlors found most prominently in the Dominican Republic. They process almost all types of gambling activity, from the national lottery to wagers on athletic competitions. Sport Bancas accept bets on local sports, as well as American athletic leagues such as Baseball (MLB), Basketball (NBA), Football (NFL) and even hockey (NHL)!

Bancas are usually very small in size but stand out due to their brightly colored storefronts, painted in cheerful shades of greens, blues and yellows. Inside, they are inhabited by a single clerk, who sits behind a glass window typing away in the computer used to record the bets.

Bancas are a fairly new phenomenon, with the majority emerging around 2006. By this estimate, most bancas are not even 10 years old. But boy have they spread quickly!

In the Dominican Republic alone, there are about 30,750 legal betting parlors. However, it is estimated that there is a similar figure of illegal establishments, bringing the total number to a little over 60,000 bancas in the country. In some areas, there are two or more bancas in a single street block, disregarding the law that states that Bancas must be located more than 400 meters apart.

Setting up a banca requires a permit, which may be expensive and difficult to obtain. Illegal bancas are more profitable for their owners because by setting up shop without a permit, they can keep most of the profit for themselves.

Dominicans wager about RD $300 million pesos, or the equivalent of $70 million US dollars on betting parlors a day. And this figure only accounts for the legal parlors. Assuming that the same figure is staked on illegal parlors, it can be said, as noted by Dominican news source, Dominican Today, that Dominicans are currently spending over RD $600 million pesos or $140 million American Dollars on gambling activities each day.

Let that sink in…

In a country characterized by poverty, where unemployment is currently at 15% and about 41% of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, people are gambling the equivalent of the listing price of the most expensive mansion in the Hamptons on a daily basis.

Illicit gambling activity is not just limited to the Dominican Republic. Gambling is a growing problem in all of Latin America. Largely in part due to lax gambling laws and regulations, many Latin American countries are plagued by illegal street lotteries, unauthorized use of slot machines and a wide array of both legal and illegal casinos.

In Chile, for example, recent years have seen a boom in illegal slot machine parlors, known as neighborhood slots. There are about 150,000 slot machines accessible in local storefronts, even though the law restricts their use to casinos only. A similar issue occurs in Uruguay, where there are about 20,000 illegal machines located in neighborhood businesses nationwide. In Mexico, an estimated 107 of the nation’s casinos currently operate without a license.

Not surprisingly, gambling is a source of big money in these countries. Illegal slot machines in Uruguay generate an estimated $170 million a year, not counting the $240 million generated by legal slot machines. A Latin American Gaming & Gambling Report published by Research and Markets in 2011, estimated that if the legal and illegal gaming activities of Latin America were combined, they would generate over $150 billion dollars in revenue a year.

But who is this money going to? Certainly NOT to the people making the bets, that’s for sure.

Studies show that people who live in poverty gamble at a higher rate than those who are better off. It should come as no surprise then, that Bancas and gambling establishments like them, are most abundant in poor neighborhoods. Neighborhoods in which you may not find a paved road to walk in but you can expect to find several colorful betting parlors only steps apart.

So why do these people, who for all intents and purposes do not have the means to do so, continue to gamble? Are they stupid? Are they lazy? Or are they just people like you and I, driven by hope? Hope that things will get better. That luck will finally be on their side. That one day, “van a pegar una” and they will make it big. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all hope for?

Originally Published in LatinTrends Magazine, May 2015

Star Watch: Interview with Daniela Alonso

Photo Credit:
Hard working, animal-loving, 100% honest and the star of the new movie Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 out in theaters April 17, 2014. We sat with the Beautiful Daniella Alonso, and this is what she told us…

Can you tell us a little about the movie and your character Divina?
The movie takes place in the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, there is a Mall Cop convention and Paul Blart ends up going. All the mall cops show up. So you get to meet different kinds of mall cops from all over the Unites States, which is just even funnier! My character, Divina Martinez, she’s the manager of the Wynn Hotel, she’s very put together and everything runs smoothly under her command, until she meets Paul and …

And then madness ensues

What’s your favorite memory from working on the set of this film?You know, there’s so many because I have to say, this is one of the most amazing sets I have EVER been on. Not only is almost the entire cast comedians, which is amazing because you’re laughing nonstop… Kevin [James], Gary Valentine, Andy Fickman, who’s the director, these guys are so generous with their talent and their time and every time you do any scene with them, it’s like nothing’s ever wrong. You were just having fun and doing the work. So it was just… I can’t pick a favorite moment, because they were all pretty amazing.

I’m glad that you had such a great experience! You’ve been quite busy lately, in addition to PAUL BLART, you are also playing the titular role in ISOLATED VICTIM, produced by Zoe and Cisely Saldana. Can you tell us a little bit about that film?
That was a very special movie, in a different way. We shot in the Dominican Republic. It’s loosely based on a true story of this woman who came to Haiti after the earthquake to help out for a few days. She saw that a lot of the kids there lost their parents and they were sold as slaves and the government turned a blind eye. She couldn’t believe what was going on, so she started to fight for these kids and found two orphanages. It’s a beautiful story about a hero. A normal everyday woman that saw something wrong and decided to do something about it.

How your character, Liliana Santana, different from you other roles?I’ve never played a real person, so that was kind of a little added pressure. And somebody like I said, a hero, a real modern day hero and you want to do her justice. When I got the script, I was working on a TV show and I literally had three days to prepare. I worked on it and worked on it, and the day before shooting, the director was like “The whole movie is in Spanish, English and Creole” and I had no idea! So I had a little mini nervous breakdown…

You had to learn Creole?Yes…I had a coach who came on set everyday during lunch and we would work on my Creole.

That’s amazingIt was one of the best experiences of my life. We worked with a lot of Haitian children, actors and non-actors. It was just something that as an American, you’re not really exposed to. They are just the sweetest people, the most generous, they have nothing but will offer you everything they have. It was really life changing. And I got to work with one of my favorite actors, Algenis Perez Soto, he’s like one of my best friends.

Another Latino! The past couple of years have seen a rise in Latinos/as on film and television. What do you think about the growing numbers of Latinas in the media?
I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction. A lot of people that have come before us have fought for this and I’m thankful and always grateful. At the same time, it’s still just a step in the right direction. We are still just “the girlfriends of” and “the best friends of”. We are still supporting, as opposed to leading. Once we have leading roles and a full Latino cast without just being the one Latino to fill the quota, I think that’s when real change would have taken place. Again, I’m grateful because I have been given so many opportunities and I’m so thankful for them…I just still see the road ahead and see that there’s still work to be done.

Who is your favorite Latina/o actor or entertainer right now?I love Jennifer Lopez for everything that she’s done, across the board. Her, Eva Longoria, actresses like that, who really fight for Latinos to be seen and represented. I really respect them, and would love to one day be able to do the same. I definitely respect them so much.

If you could work alongside anyone in the future (Latina or not), who would it be?Right now, my favorite actress is Cate Blanchett. To me she can do no wrong, the way that she transforms, from role to role, she looks amazing, and she takes risks, not only in fashion but in her roles, they’re so different…I’m obsessed with her right now.

Talking about fashion, what is your favorite item in your closet right now?Probably my jeans. My black jeans. You can never go wrong with skinny black jeans. You can dress it up, dress it down, you can do anything.

I read somewhere that you always knew that you wanted to be an actress. While pursuing your dream, were you ever discouraged and if so, how would you deal with it?Yea of course, a lot of times. When you get into, and it happens to everybody, “the funk”. The lows are OK, I get it, I know it’s part of business, I don’t take it personally because I believe in myself. I think that it starts from there, you really have to believe in yourself. I know how hard I work. I know that it’s a process, and you know what, this is my dream, I’m living my dream. You have to stick with it, because it’s the people that stick with it that eventually reap the benefits. It’s the people that give up, that don’t. Everybody gets “No’s” believe me, I’m sure Jennifer Lopez and Eva Longoria, I’m sure they got their “Nos”. But you have to stay at it, just believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself it shows.

You can sense it Absolutely. I’ve sat in casting offices, which is such a great thing for actors to do. You can feel that energy. Guys walk in or girls walk in, and they are not the best, but they believe that they’re good, and you want to work with them: you have something, I like it.

What is the best advice you've been given?My very first manager, Toby Gibson, she’s amazing…She said “No is never really a no” and that always stuck with me…One casting director may say no, but they remember you and bring you back in and a few months later, or a year later, it’s a yes. So no is never really a no.

Obviously you are very beautiful. Can you share some of your beauty secrets with us?I have eczema on my face. So I can’t use anything like peels or any of that stuff, but what I really try to do is to moisturize like crazy. Moisturize, moisturize moisturize all day long. And stay out of the sun…Sunblock, stay out of the sun, moisturize and drink water. Water is the best.

You grew up in NYC and have a mix of Puerto Rican and Peruvian origins, how has this affected your cultural identity?I definitely am closer to the Puerto Rican side of my family, my mom’s side of the family, because I grew up with them. I grew up with a very large extended family, my grandmother, her sisters, all in the same building and had 5 or 6 kids, my great grandmother, my grandpa…So I grew up with this really enhanced sense of family. I had friends, but I didn’t need friends, because I had my cousins, and those were my friends. And those are the people that I grew up with and that I love and I trust in 100%, I was very lucky in that. I grew up in this Puerto Rican household with Latinas that were opinionated and loud and strong women that took care of the household. And that just really molded me. I am very honest, 100% honest.

What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?How much I love animals. I love all kinds of animals. Every single animal alive. It came from my grandfather, he loves animals and I‘ve just grown up with them…

Do you have any pets?I have a turtle, Taylor, who I got in China Town for 5 dollars, he’s 21. I got him when he was like one day old. I have a dog, my baby, my little Carolina, she’s a North American Dingo. I love her…I would get more, but it’s hard with work and the travelling.

What is next for Daniella Alonso, where can we expect to see you next?I don’t know what the future has in store, but right now I’m working on a show called “Being Mary Jane”, its so much fun, I’m such a fan of the show. I just started a few weeks ago; I’ll be playing the new Latina telecaster.

Great! Thanks Daniella. Can’t wait to see Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 on the big screen!

Originally Published in LatinTrends Magazine, May 2015