A combination of hard-core effort, empathy for the suffering of family and friends, and fiery outrage over the progress of federal relief efforts fueled a two-day weekend relief drive by Newark's Puerto Rican community to provide help for their beleaguered homeland that was torn apart by Hurricane Maria.
There were two separate relief donation drives, one held on Saturday, one held on Sunday. However, the city's Puerto Rican population, intensely motivated after Maria mauled the Caribbean island and U.S. territory, functioned as one, driven by a desire to aid in the recovery and rebuilding of their ancestral home
The Saturday drive, sponsored by the Hurricane Maria Relief Fund for Puerto Rico, was held inside an industrial park on Mount Prospect Avenue in the city's heavily Latino North Ward.
The event had the air of both an assembly line and an after-hours party as community members worked feverishly to pack a total of six shipping containers, crammed with desperately needed supplies such as bottled water and canned goods, all bound for Puerto Rico. Several bands played salsa and reggaeton music for a cheering crowd deep into the warm weekend night.
Ana G. Perez, born in Newark, came over to the benefit concert and donation drive from her Clifton Avenue home with her Puerto Rican-born mother. For them, blood ties came first when asked why they came out.
"We have family back home, in Aguadilla. We finally spoke to them yesterday," said Perez, 32, a recent graduate of Rutgers Law School in Newark who hopes to get a law clerk position soon.
"We're told that they need batteries and canned goods," Perez said. "What people are doing here today is important because from our understanding, a lot of packages are not getting to the people, especially on the west and the south side of the island. My co-worker lives in Ponce, and she told me that as of Friday, all that her family got was two bottles of water and three cans of tuna. Our people need help now."
Randy Quiles, who was born, raised and lives in Newark, was at his family's home in San Sebastián when Hurricane Maria made landfall on Sept. 20.
"I was in the house with my mom and my dad. The storm started at four in the morning and finished at ten at night. I heard that the wind was blowing at way over 100 miles per hour," said Quiles, 42, who lived in San Sebastián for 11 years until recently coming back to Newark, which has one of New Jersey's largest concentrations of Puerto Ricans.
"I had to use my mom's quilts and my own shirts to keep the water from coming in through the windows and the doors," Quiles said. "My mom is 78 years old, and my dad is 83 years old. It was such a vicious storm that all of the paint on our house was blown off. After it was over, we had no light, no water, no means of communication with the rest of the world. We were all devastated in my neighborhood. We flew out of Puerto Rico on Sept. 29. Thank God that we survived."
"What I'm seeing here today is really amazing," Quiles said as he dodged a forklift loading supplies onto one of the shipping containers while taking a break from helping to load boxes filled with needed items. "I really see the unity here in the city where I was raised. As you see from all the volunteers here getting it done, we Puerto Ricans are a good-hearted people. This is who we are, and this is what we do."
The Sunday drive, sponsored by the city's four Puerto Rican elected officials -- state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr. and Councilmen-at-large Carlos Gonzalez and Luis Quintana in conjunction with the City of Newark, raised nearly $200,000 for the American Red Cross relief effort in Puerto Rico.
The event was a display of political power combined with financial force.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka announced a $100,000 donation from United Airlines, one of several Newark-based corporations that have stepped up as responsible corporate citizens during Puerto Rico's time of need. Corporate donors have included RWJBarnabas Health and PSE&G, among others, with more to soon follow.
"Newark is part of Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico is part of Newark," said Baraka, while donation check after check after check was presented on stage at the El Flamboyan Manor restaurant, bar and catering hall on Verona Avenue. "And now is the time that the community will come together to help who we all are together."
Ramos, whose ward has the largest number of Latinos, said local residents as well as law enforcement, corporations and community organizations have stepped up to make donations soon after the hurricane hit.
"It's been a great weekend here in the North Ward," Ramos told the crowd. "This is about all of us. And we are going to be successful thanks to your efforts."
Ruiz, whose legislative district encompasses Newark's East Ward and North Ward, said the effort was borne out of love for La Isla Bonita.
"Puerto Rico will rise and return back to its fullest glory because of the generosity of the people of this great city and state," Ruiz said. "We received some big checks and some small ones, but the energy and hope that they all came in with will make a difference to those suffering in Puerto Rico. It is truly humbling to see the great spirit of human nature at its core coming together for others."
Other politicians present at the event made comments to TAPinto Newark tinged with concerned criticism, as well as corrosive candor, about the response of the federal government to the continuing crisis in Puerto Rico.
"The island has been decimated, and any President who makes light of the situation in Puerto Rico is totally wrong," said U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-8), whose Congressional district contains large parts of Newark, including the East Ward and the North Ward. "Don't forget that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. President Trump should really focus about what is happening on the island, and fix the things that need to be fixed."
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who also attended the event, said President Trump's response to Hurricane Maria has been a failure.
"We waited too long to respond, and once we responded, the level of the robustness of what we needed has not been realized. This is unacceptable," Menendez said. "He can really ratchet it up big time, but he's going at a snail's pace to do this. And throwing out paper towels to people isn't going to help the people of Puerto Rico."
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy, the former U.S. Ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama and retired Goldman Sachs executive, thanked Gov. Christie for sending 1,100 State Troopers to Puerto Rico, calling it a good start.
"This is an island that is still on its knees. The military is there and FEMA is there, which is a start. But President Trump's response at the federal level is incomplete," Murphy said. "Thank God that people like the police from Newark are there, and that Gov. Christie sent 1,100 volunteers down to Puerto Rico. But I think that we can all do more."
Murphy said the victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico deserve the same swift response as victims in Texas and Florida, also hard hit by different storms this season.
"Unfortunately, if you look at the immediacy and the strength of the response [after the recent hurricanes] in Florida and in Texas, and you compare that to the immediacy, speed and strength of the reaction in Puerto Rico, you can draw the conclusion that we were a lot more on the balls of our feet, particularly in Texas, than we were in Puerto Rico. And everybody there is American," Murphy said. "If people walk away with that impression, it's probably not without cause, unfortunately."
Inside the El Coqui social club on Saturday night, just steps away from El Flamboyan, the seminal song 'Mi Gente,' immortalized by the late Puerto Rican musical icon Héctor Lavoe, rang out loudly from the juke box. The busy bartender served a seemingly endless stream of Bacardi mixed with Coca-Cola in plastic cups to patrons, while groups of men played dominos at adjacent tables.
One man told TAPintoNewark how he really felt about Trump, for him his commander-in-chief in name only.
"Do you think that I like to, or want to, work for that guy? He doesn't give a damn about me, about my family, or for all of our people," said Jose, a federal law enforcement officer, who withheld his last name in order to keep his job. "Trump can kiss my proud Puerto Rican ass, for real."
Behind Jose, various pictures were placed on the social club's wall. Among them was a shrine to the late baseball great Roberto Clemente. He is lovingly remembered by Latinos in Newark, especially those from his native Puerto Rico, for his tragic death in a plane crash en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua in 1972.
Clemente's life means many things for Puerto Ricans in Newark, in New Jersey, and around the world.
He was a champion. A hero. A martyr. A saint. A servant of God.
Carolina Rodriguez stood in the street on Sunday in front of El Flamboyan. She held a plastic bucket that got steadily filled by locals who stopped their cars to give whatever cash they could.
Wearing a baseball jersey etched with Clemente's uniform number 21, she looked back at Clemente's life, and lasting emotional effect, after his tragic death. She, in communion with Clemente's spirit, worked hard in the street so that Puerto Rico shall not despair and die, but live long and thrive once again.
"Roberto Clemente sacrificed his life trying to help people when the plane he flew in, full of food, crashed into the sea off of San Juan," said Rodriguez, 51, also from Newark's North Ward. "If he was still alive now, he would do the same thing that he did, then double his efforts, to help Puerto Rico. That man had the ability to move people. We all have to move to help our people now."