Fifteen hours before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Irvin Roberto Cofresí was shopping in Wal-Mart in San Juan, stocking up for the storm. At the same time, he was searching flights on his phone, hoping he’d find a good deal and get off the island before destruction hit. As he was shopping, he stumbled upon a flight and immediately bought it. Then he ran home to pack.
“I left the groceries there in Wal-Mart,” Cofresí said, remembering the moment with a chuckle. “I ended up not buying anything; I dumped my things and left.”
Cofresí was born and raised in Puerto Rico and has worked as a bartender for about six years. He was lucky to leave the island and join his parents in Miami, Florida. He said he feels blessed to be one of the last people to leave before Maria struck.
Cofresí’s luck was extended when a friend and fellow bartender in Logan Square reached out to him to come to Chicago to get away from hurricane-prone lands. Eager to make money to support himself and send back to his family, Cofresí came to Chicago on Sept. 25 and plans to stay here until the situation on the island improves. He said all of his loved ones are alive, but he does not know if his house — which is in Isla Verde, a touristy beach town on the coast — is still standing.
“It is really hard to talk about it,” he said. “I have not been myself in the past three weeks. To see that happen, and that [Puerto Ricans] do not know what is going on around themselves, is even worse.”
Still in the Dark
The hurricane, which tore through the island on Sept. 21, has left a humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, and most of the island is still in the dark. Many houses and towns are demolished, resources are scarce, communication and internet are rocky, and people are dying or sick from waterborne illnesses and a lack of medicine. Hospitals and nursing homes have had to close down, people have lost jobs and industries are halted. Maria changed everything in a matter of one day, and life on the island will not go back to normal for years.
The Los Angeles Times published a photo essay and article Oct. 13 and said about 85 percent of residents still lack electricity, and 40 percent are without running water. Residents are now tapping into drinking water from a hazardous-waste site because there aren’t other options. Many are leaving the island and creating a new surge of migration that could have drastic impacts on the island. Its government said the hurricane killed at least 45 people, but Cofresí is sure the death toll is much higher.
Amidst the natural disaster and political comments fired from the White House to San Juan’s mayor, U.S. communities and celebrities have shown support for the island, raising funds and hosting relief efforts to bring resources and supplies to people in need. Chicago is no exception; there have been a number of events and organizations raising money for Puerto Rico since the devastation hit.
Humboldt Park and Logan Square, known for large Puerto Rican populations, have been vocal about sending helping hands to the islands.
Barbara Moretti, a Logan Square resident who works at Eagle Printing (2894 N. Milwaukee Ave.), has a big family in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. She said her family is all okay, and their homes were not damaged as much as they had expected. Moretti has been sending money to them, but it’s hard to make sure the resources get to the right people in the right places.
“My aunt was saying how hard it is for them to even get cash,” Moretti said. “If you send money, it is impossible; lines are so long at ATMs.”
Even after almost a month, the main worry is how to get supplies to less populated, rural areas of the island and to make sure government programs like FEMA spread them to people in need. Like many, Moretti was angry that President Trump took a week to respond to the crisis and that musicians and celebrities contributed to Puerto Rico before the U.S. government spoke up. Even if it is not a rich country with little money and infrastructure compared to the U.S., Moretti said people’s livelihoods are on the line.
“This is their homes, they don’t have much. They are part of a country that should be able to take care of them,” she said.
Events for the Cause
Moretti attended a Sept. 26 Puerto Rico hurricane relief fundraiser event at Crown Liquors (2821 N. Milwaukee Ave.), organized by several local bartenders, including Cofresí, Daniel de Oliviera and Kelly Galassi. The event’s proceeds went to the staff at La Penultima, a small bar in the neighborhood of Santurce in San Juan, where Cofresí and Galassi used to work. Cofresí said that despite having had to close for business after Hurricane Irma, La Penultima has kept its generator running, operating as a daytime refuge for the industry community, providing wi-fi, charging cell phones, sharing beer and a hot meal with the community.
Galassi, who is well-connected in the local bar scene and won a Facebook contest as Best RiotFest Bartender last year, said the event raised just under $3,400 in less than three hours. She admitted she was nervous about the event turnout, but shortly after 8 p.m., the bar was slammed and didn’t stop until past 11 p.m.
“People didn’t stop — there was a wall of people all night,” Galassi marveled. “Logan Square turned out in a way that none of us imagined.”
She said the organizers wanted to send the money to a personal bar, help people in their industry and make sure the money did not get lost in the bureaucracy. The bartenders at La Penultima were blown away by Logan Square’s generosity and how much the event raised in three hours. They expected $200 or $300, but this brought relief and love to them and financial support for the staff.
Cofresí was also struck by the immense love and supportive energy the community has shown him — and not just that night. He feels extremely blessed to be surrounded by the love Chicago has given him and hopes to be part of more events to help his home. Since his time here, he has guest bartended around the city and spread awareness of Puerto Rico’s crisis.
“From what I’ve seen in Chicago, people are amazing here,” he said. It’s been overwhelming but in the best way possible; it’s the kind of love you feel better than you can describe,” he said.
The giving is far from over. Logan’s bartender family includes Puerto Rican Pito Rodriguez, who grew up around Logan Square and works at Best Intentions (3281 W. Armitage Ave.) and Sable Kitchen and Bar in River North (505 N. State St.). As one of the few Puerto Rican cocktail bartenders in the city, he said he had to organize something for his home through his work. His home of San Lorenzo, south of San Juan and about 20 minutes from Caguas, is in a rural part of the island that has not received much attention.
“The reconstruction is going to take years. It’s going to get real bad soon,” Rodriguez said. But the upside is he is sponsoring two events at his bars to shed light on the stressful situation and unite friends and industry leaders.
Rodriguez is organizing an event at Sable on Nov. 19 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., with live salsa music and an unveiling of six small new cocktails. All the money will go to United for Puerto Rico, and patrons can keep giving until Nov. 30. Rodriguez said the bar and kitchen is getting ready for the fundraiser with the hashtags #getsabled and #getunited.
The passionate workaholic is also organizing a Halloween event at Best Intentions on Oct. 30 called Pirates for the Puerto Ricans, which will ask for a $40 donation ticket purchase and offer a variety of drinks from 7 p.m. to midnight. Proceeds will go to Puerto Rico’s food bank Bancos de Alimentos and Serve PR, an organization of volunteers on the ground helping people affected by hurricanes. He made sure to point out the costumes are encouraged, and there will be a raffle to support the cause as well. He hopes to get guest bartenders like Cofresí to serve throughout the night and pack the place by bringing people together for a good cause.
“There’s not much we can do from here except raise donations and keep this in the spotlight and let people know this is a real issue,” he said. “Because in general, unless you are Puerto Rican, you don’t understand how the whole thing is.”
All the Puerto Ricans echoed the same sentiment: That the situation on the island is complicated, but that people on the outside need to grasp just how strenuous the crisis is. The big talk — and block for some — is FEMA, which the president says cannot be around to help those in Puerto Rico “forever,” yet it has helped San Juan but not smaller towns or devastated areas. FEMA Administrator Brock Long said 16,000 federal and military assets are on the ground, and about 350,000 Puerto Ricans have registered so far in the FEMA system to receive financial assistance. Cofresí thinks it would be more conducive for resources to be distributed by neighborhoods instead of public places like plazas, ports and convention centers, where some people cannot reach them because of damaged infrastructure; this is starting to happen as more military hands are on deck, but the infrastructure will take years to rebuild.
Government outreach and media coverage on the issue has increased since the hurricane, but there is still a disconnect between what is happening on the ground and what the media reports. Cofresí said there are still towns that have not been visited, which is why Rodriguez stresses now is the time to help.
With all the heavy news surrounding Puerto Rico, the love is even stronger and reverberates not only in bars and fundraising events, but through art and communities. Famous Puerto Rican rapper Residente gathered food to send out to people in need; LGBTQ star personalities are hosting benefit shows and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a song called “Almost Like Praying” with several Puerto Rican artists such as Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Luis Fonsi, Dessa and Gloria Estefan to benefit the Hispanic Federation’s UNIDOS Disaster Relief Fund. The song was released Oct. 6 and reached iTunes’ top charts in no time.
With a warm laugh and a positive attitude, Rodriguez said that is Puerto Rican culture; ample music and dance will thrive from this tragedy, and people will be “bopping.”
“Our blood flows via the music,” he declared. “We are going to come back stronger.”