On any other night at El Floridita, it’s hard to catch what someone is saying over the live salsa music. And it doesn’t matter anyway, because people don’t come to the festive Cuban supper club in Hollywood to talk. They come to celebrate. But last Thursday night, there was nothing to celebrate.
For the last 48 hours, members of the Puerto Rican community of Los Angeles had been watching videos of their loved ones brave Hurricane Maria’s 160 mph winds. They were devastated by what they saw: broken bridges, flooded yards and streets, fallen palm trees. Storm shutters were torn off apartment buildings, cell towers toppled and entire roofs flew off over people’s heads as Maria whipped across Puerto Rico.
It was terrifying watching the damage unfold in real time, they said, but it became worse when they heard nothing from loved ones. Not long after the hurricane struck, cell service was completely lost on the island and electricity was gone. Airports were destroyed. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said the island now faces a humanitarian crisis, according to a report from CNN. It could take months before electricity and cell service is restored. Other reports cited damage to a critical dam in the northwestern region of the island, prompting evacuations as Puerto Ricans still reel from the effects of the catastrophic hurricane.
“Communication has been really difficult,” said Victor Manuel Cruz Jr., a native Angeleno who has family in Aguadilla and Aguada, some of the hardest-hit regions on the island, where the eye of the hurricane traveled.
Cruz, who is half Puerto Rican and half Mexican, has been particularly taxed by the recent tragedies on both the island and in Mexico City.
To ease his mind and “stay sane,” Cruz said he has been very active on Facebook, trying to organize donations and relief efforts on a grassroots level and get in touch with people who might have heard from family and friends on the island. Thursday morning, after not knowing what to do or where to go, he saw a Facebook event for a meeting at El Floridita, a venue Cruz usually frequents for salsa dancing, not organizing.
Gaby Duran, who helmed the meeting and donation efforts at El Floridita that night, created the event. Duran was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and moved to L.A. two years ago — for love. Like Cruz, Duran turned her panic and anxiety about the disaster in Puerto Rico into action and led her community to mobilize.
“I remember hurricanes at home and we’ve been through them but this just — I can’t tell you why — but the night before, it just felt different and very scary,” Duran said. She remembers what hurricanes meant when she was growing up in San Juan. You would stay inside, cook, play dominos and know you weren’t going to school the next day. But Maria was different.
“The anxiety, I think, grew and grew and grew. My mom lives alone with my grandma and my grandma is bedridden. They live on the 19th floor and people were saying the shutters were flying. When you’re in a situation like that and can’t get ahold of anyone, you go into crisis mode,” she said. Duran couldn’t work; she couldn’t focus on anything other than organizing relief efforts.
Within 24 hours, Duran and her friend received more than $10,000 in donations from the Latin American community of Southern California. And a lot of that was thanks to Facebook, where the Los Angeles for Puerto Rico organization formed.
“Facebook was instrumental. We really need to give a shout-out to them,” Duran said. Even after creating the El Floridita event on Facebook, she admitted that she wasn’t expecting a huge turnout.
Instead, people from all over the L.A. region showed up that night. She estimates about 150 to 200 people from both the Puerto Rican community and other Latin American communities attended. Extra chairs and tables were brought out and set up on the dance floor. The boricuas had come with heavy hearts but even heavier shopping bags. The stage was filled with food, clothing, cases of water, fresh produce, boxes of diapers for babies, pads and tampons for women, medicine for the elderly, soap, rice, beans — anything they could buy.
“We had to rent a U-Haul for all the donations,” said Sandra Bonaparte, assistant general manager at El Floridita.
Bonaparte also has been helping the Latin American community in any way possible since the hurricanes. A lot of the musicians at El Floridita are Puerto Rican, and it was hard for her to watch them play, considering they hadn’t heard from their families back home. The restaurant had donated to Irma relief, but staffers felt they should do more for the devastation left behind by Maria.
“We’re usually a festive people. Thursday night was so different. There wasn’t any dancing. We were more just trying to figure out what to do,” Bonaparte said.
It’s hard being away from family when disaster strikes, both Cruz and Duran had said, but it was the outpouring of love and support shown by the Latin American community in Los Angeles and throughout that kept them strong.
“These past two days have also brought a lot of calm to me knowing that a lot of people in the diaspora, including myself, we’ve been organizing our efforts, and that’s been helping me stay sane,” Cruz said.
Duran seemed to share that sentiment, especially acknowledging that it’s been a whole community project, from a grassroots level, and the way everyone has stepped up has been invaluable for the group’s efforts.
“That to me was one of the most beautiful and humbling things. That night I stood there and I said I can continue to lead you all forward but I think this is way bigger than I am and if we really want to create an impact we need to do this together,” she said.