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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.