Juan Padró on Puerto Rico: "I Learned the Importance of Doing Something"

On Juan Padró's visit to Puerto Rico, he gave out solar-powered lights in remote parts of the island.
On Juan Padró's visit to Puerto Rico, he gave out solar-powered lights in remote parts of the island. Courtesy Juan Padró
Last month, Sloan's Lake Tap & Burger hosted a fundraiser to benefit the Puerto Rican victims of Hurricane Maria. Owner Juan Padró, who is Puerto Rican, used the proceeds — more than $100,000 — to distribute aid on the island with the help of Dr. Alison Thompson, a world-renowned humanitarian. What follows is Padró's account of what he witnessed in Puerto Rico, and where those aid dollars went.

Juan Padró, as told to Laura Shunk: My father is Puerto Rican. He grew up on the southwest part of the island, near a city called Yauco, in a barrio called Rancheras. The mountains in Puerto Rico are very different from the cities — there’s a huge contrast in wealth. My dad was born on the side of a mountain; places like where my dad grew up have tin roofs.

He came to the U.S. as a social worker in his thirties, and he met my mom, who was a sister in a convent. She left the convent to marry him. Aunts, uncles and cousins come in and out of the States, but in general, everyone lives there. I’m there quite a bit. We inherited my grandfather’s land in the hills and rebuilt the house my dad grew up in. It’s concrete, sturdy, and withstood the hurricane, but places around it weren’t so lucky. When we went down there, we had a dozen people sleeping in our two-bedroom house because there weren’t enough tarps to cover people's homes, where the roofs had blown off.

We did a fundraiser for Puerto Rico here in Colorado — people really came out and backed us at Sloan’s [Lake Tap & Burger]. We had a committee of people, including Elsie Collado Flecha and Evelyn Cartagena-Meyer. I [first] met Elsie in the airport when I was getting a shoeshine the first year I was here, and it turns out I’m related to her distantly. She has a company called ET Cleaning — she cleans all of our restaurants — and she put on the Puerto Rico Day festival for the first two years. She knows everyone in the Puerto Rican community. In 2010, when we moved here, it was a lot smaller; it’s grown quite a bit. There are a lot of Puerto Ricans in the military. Evelyn works for TransAmerica Wealth Management and did the donation match.

click to enlarge In Aguadilla, Dr. Alison Thompson gives light to an elderly man. - COURTESY JUAN PADRÓ
In Aguadilla, Dr. Alison Thompson gives light to an elderly man.
Courtesy Juan Padró
We raised $54,500 on a Tuesday night — $109,000 with the match — from a combination of charging people $25 per head for food and drink, and silent auction items. Demaryius Thomas donated some stuff, so that was cool, and we had stuff from the Nuggets. We did it for lunch and dinner, and dinner was nuts. We had a line out the door at Sloan’s for five hours — everyone working volunteered their time and tips. In the kitchen, we had this Puerto Rican kid, Joshua, who worked at the Broadmoor and has a bakery; myself; [partner and brother-in-law] Pat O’Shea and Rafa Rodriguez, who were in two-time Grammy-nominated [band] Soja; Jeff Westin, the executive chef at Sloan’s; Max MacKissock, who's been so supportive of all of this and deserves a lot of credit; and a host of other volunteers. Those guys cooked, and we had some women from the Puerto Rican community come and help. It was just this line of people prep-cooking and listening to music. We smoked more than 400 pounds of pork. A bunch of people from the Mexican community and north Denver came out as well.

The money we raised went to Dr. Alison Thompson, who is a world-renowned humanitarian and has two organizations: Studio Unite, which hands out solar lights, and Third Wave Volunteers, a volunteer network that’s growing and is becoming a 501(c)(3); she’s asked me to sit on the board. She spent time in Syria, Niger and Nigeria; she’s an environmental ambassador for Haiti, she’s had books published, and she’s a pretty amazing lady. She is definitely an activist. She’s on the ground handing stuff out; she goes door-to-door. I met her through a common friend, and she invited me to go with her to the island.

click to enlarge The living room of a man's house, which had been totally destroyed. - COURTESY JUAN PADRÓ
The living room of a man's house, which had been totally destroyed.
Courtesy Juan Padró
I flew down to Miami and met Allison at a 100,000-square-foot warehouse filled with stuff, where volunteers were wrapping and packing. Joining us were Michael Capponi from Global Empowerment Mission — a well-known, well-respected guy who gave up his past life to do humanitarian work in Haiti — as well as Bobby Rodrigo with We Do Better, and a well-known travel writer named Lesley Murphy. Bethenny Frankel is involved, too, and has been at the warehouse. People make fun of celebrities doing this, but Bethenny is doing real fucking work — she deserves a lot of credit.

I chartered a plane — the government had contracted all the cargo planes, and you can’t just fly commercial. We had a Black Ops bodyguard because of where we were going. We landed in Aguadilla, on the west side of the island. There was no water because the dam is compromised, so we brought water filters, solar lights, water-filtration straws and medical stuff, since Alison’s a doctor.

Night one, we got there and didn’t have anywhere to stay. We were handing out solar lights, and we went up into the neighborhood. It gets really dark. Light is really important. Light and water. We met someone in a restaurant, and there was a house next to it; they let us stay there. It smelled like dead animals.

click to enlarge Paris Jackson holding both the American and Puerto Rican flag. - COURTESY JUAN PADRÓ
Paris Jackson holding both the American and Puerto Rican flag.
Courtesy Juan Padró
The second day, we got a call from We Do Better, which flew down Paris Jackson, Michael Jackson’s daughter. We went up to Aguadilla and went to a school where they were collecting rainwater for the kids. Paris was holding a Puerto Rican flag, and we grabbed an American flag and gave it to her, because I think it’s important that people recognize that Puerto Rico is American, that the U.S. and Puerto Rico are the same. We handed out backpacks with food and lights.

We met the mayor of Guayanilla, Nelson Torres Yórdan. This is an example of politicians doing good work. He told us, “You’ve got my Hummers and my police department, if you’re going to help my people.” He also gave us the Hummers and police department to help surrounding towns, because he knew we were doing good work. Part of our job, aside from handing out aid, was to vet politicians and key people to hand out goods, because we wanted to make sure the money’s going to the right place. The most encouraging thing down there was that the mayors that vetted out the best were, like, thirty years old — they were young kids who were moving back to the island. They were there for the right reason. We could tell when we were up in the hills, because those hills are easily ignored. There were guys coming out of their homes and they knew this kid, the mayor of Guayanilla. He’d clearly been up there trying to help.

We started to drive into the mountains, where we met elderly and mentally ill folks. One woman who was mentally ill was peeing on the floor of her house. Her husband needed medical work. We saw a house that slid off the side of a hill — there was a guy still living in it because he had nowhere else to go. People were doing laundry in the river, which was all contaminated.

click to enlarge Padró found the conditions bleak in some remote areas. - COURTESY JUAN PADRÓ
Padró found the conditions bleak in some remote areas.
Courtesy Juan Padró
At some point, our Hummer caught on fire, so we pull off at this coffee farm, and turns out I’m distantly related to the guy who owns it. All the roads nearby, a landslide came down and blocked. Way up there, you see this house and, as we get closer, hear this guy. We get up there — we found our way up and around. A lot of people don’t have TVs and cable — they don’t know a hurricane is coming. It’s a rainstorm to them. The guy says, “The rain started coming, so I got into my house.” The roof of the house and bedroom wall was ripped off. He says, “I walked out and saw trees flying, and I knew it was really bad. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but it’s where I live, so I stayed, and saw a mountain of mud just flying down.” He was an old guy. He’d been up there three and a half weeks by himself before anyone found him.

On the fourth day, we were in Villaba, and we saw a line of people to get one government-issued bottle of water. The government was supposed to hand them out, and the government no-showed. So a private citizen showed up in a van and started hanging out cases of water.

click to enlarge A line for water. - COURTESY JUAN PADRÓ
A line for water.
Courtesy Juan Padró
We went for a few days to the southeast part of the island, which is where the hurricane came in, and the winds were clocked at 237 miles per hour. There was this old couple — we gave them one bottle of water, and she broke down crying. Winds at 157 miles per hour is a class five hurricane. It looks like a fucking atomic bomb went off. We saw water levels of about four and a half, five feet inside a guy’s house. We saw a two-story house reduced to columns.

The last day, we were twenty minutes outside of San Juan in Loiza. The people there are poor; they live on the water, and no one had visited them yet — and it’s twenty minutes from the airport. When we drove in, little kids were chasing us yelling, “Comida, comida, comida!” [“Food, food, food!”] I was almost crying.

We are there for the last day of the National League Championship with the Astros and the Yankees. Puerto Ricans love baseball. It was interesting to see: You couldn’t watch anything on TV, but somehow, they got baseball. We were in this restaurant sitting outside, and there was one TV with the game. In an inning and a half, the power went off three or four times. I thought everyone was going to get into it.

click to enlarge Scenes of destruction in the southeast. - COURTESY JUAN PADRÓ
Scenes of destruction in the southeast.
Courtesy Juan Padró
It’ll be a year in the mountains before they get electricity. Last weekend, my cousins texted me they have power. The water comes out and looks like fucking Bud Light. It’s crazy. During the day, driving around the cities, McDonald's is open, hotel lobbies are open, coffee shops are open, people are dressed to the nines — people are doing shit. Day-to-day life is going on. You could tell there was destruction — power lines down, streets closed — but life is going on. People in the cities are better off. At night, it’s so different. It sounds like a war zone — all you hear are generators. And in the remote areas, people are fighting for food, and it can be dangerous.

Over the course of our time there, we handed out 84,000 meals, 5,000 solar lights, a bunch of medical stuff, and we didn’t see one person from FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the federal agency that deals with crises like these]. People kept asking, “Are you FEMA?” And we’d say, “No, just private citizens.”

This is pretty gnarly stuff. It’s stuff that will live with me forever, that’s for sure. We do a lot of stuff in the community here, but what I learned through the fundraiser at Sloan’s Tap was if you really want to do something, you can make it happen and you can raise significant money in a short amount of time. When I was on the plane, I was like, what am I doing? Handing out a bottle of water to people? But people cried when we did that — over a bottle of water. I learned the importance of doing something. Do it to do it. Don’t half-ass stuff just to say you did it.

click to enlarge A pitch-black neighborhood in the city of Aguadilla, before Padró and his crew distributed lights. - COURTESY JUAN PADRÓ
A pitch-black neighborhood in the city of Aguadilla, before Padró and his crew distributed lights.
Courtesy Juan Padró
I’m going back down after Thanksgiving. [Alison’s organization] has thirty shipping containers a week going down now. When all is said and done, there will be over 10 million pounds of aid sent down there. We’re hearing our group is one of the largest private humanitarian efforts in U.S. history. This would be a large thing for major organizations like United Way — never mind a group of eight.

It’s really easy to give Alison [and Third Wave Volunteers] money — she’s there to do good work, and she’s well-trusted and well-respected. That’s who people should send money to if they want to help. She takes the money and goes to the ground. A guy in San Francisco raised $10,000 and sent it out to me, Clementine's Salon did a cut-a-thon and raised money, other groups are raising money, and that’s what I want to see, that’s the point. I don’t give a fuck who gets the credit for it, I just want this problem to get solved.

You can donate to Thompson's effort via her Crowdrise campaign, which can provide a 501(c)(3) receipt for you. The People for Puerto Rico organization is hosting a fundraiser at 5 p.m. Sunday, November 19, at the University of Denver Josef Korbel School of International Studies. Proceeds from that event go to UNIDOS, a disaster relief and recovery effort.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk