With no ice, electricity and customers to speak of, what’s a bartender to do? In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the category 4 storm that brought devastation to Puerto Rico in September, some have packed up and left—at least for a while.
Though the situation has slowly been improving, many Puerto Rican bartenders have taken refuge in the States, where they’re finding work until the island makes a full recovery.
“I am still shocked that I’ve been here for a month,” says Irvin Roberto Cofresi. The bartender had been working at Caneca Coctelería Movil in Lote 23, an outdoor space studded with kiosks that serve everything from tacos to pernil to bao buns, located in Santurce, a district of San Juan. “I told myself I’d be back in a week or two.”
But after staying with family in Florida for a while, Cofresi got an invitation to go to Chicago and work at The Drifter under bar manager Jill Anderson. Connections he had made while on the island had served him well.
But not everyone has been so lucky. A program sponsored by Don Q rum is helping Puerto Rican bartenders find work on the mainland during the island’s recovery. So far, more than 15 bartenders have been placed behind the stick in cities like Houston, Miami and New York. It’s one of a handful of programs, backed by everyone from major spirits brands to the United States Bartenders’ Guild, that are helping those in the industry during this time of need.
Another Caneca bartender and manager, Abner Barrientos, has found a job at Bobby Heugel’s mezcal bar The Pastry War in Houston; he has been staying with brand ambassador Ninotchka Daly Gandulla, whom he had known on the island as well.
“The last two weeks that I stayed on the island, we were selling beer for two bucks,” says Barrientos. “We reduced our working hours to one day per person. One of my employees lost 20 percent of her roof, and I wanted to give more shifts to her. Another had two children, so they were on the priority list.”
On October 23, a little over a month after Maria hit, he made his way to Houston, where Gandulla volunteered to host him.
“It’s about creating a community that’s sustainable,” Gandulla says of the program. “Most of my friends who are taking these opportunities, whether they’re in Chicago, New York or Miami, are going to bring great things back to the island in the future.”
The decision to flee during such a tumultuous time has been difficult for many. “It’s mentally and physically draining to leave the place you love behind,” says Cofresi. “Besides the fact that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, we are also good people with really big hearts who take our food, drinks, culture and pride very seriously. We at times joke that there’s nothing in this world that can stop a Puerto Rican from drinking, eating and hanging out.”
Yet Hurricane Maria did just that. Some bartenders have stayed home to try and help with the relief effort. Milton Soto, of Old San Juan beer bar La Taberna Lúpulo, has been been traveling around Puerto Rico as part of his Island People Recovery Fund, which aims to bring aid to those in the more ravaged, less urban areas.
Barrientos feels optimistic about his time abroad and the effect it could have on the future of Puerto Rico’s cocktail scene.
“It’s a blessing in disguise,” he says. “I know that all of us are committed to going back in six months to a year and a half. I know we won’t be living in the United States. Our mindset is just grow, acquire knowledge and bring it back home.”