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Relief Effort


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"Pa' la isla, broder, pa' la isla," shouted David Castro above the din. In front of the offices of the Puerto Rican Parade Committee at California and Division cars were passing, huge stereo speakers across the street were blasting, and the two cops were directing pedestrian traffic through a bullhorn.

"For the island, my brothers, c'mon," he continued, shaking a clanging box at motorists. On the eastern edge of Humboldt Park, traffic slowed as it got to him and frequently drivers would drop change into the box.

"People are emptying their pockets mostly," he said. "But that's all right, a little change here and there adds up."

With his partner Oscar Yuarez, Castro had been standing in the middle of the street collecting change for the Hugo Relief Fund since early morning. Every time he got somebody to give something, Yuarez would hand them a bumper sticker that read, in Spanish, "If you drink, don't drive. But if you drink... drink Pepsi."

"Hey, it's a little something--to say thank you," Yuarez yelled. The stereo speakers were broadcasting pleas for funds, clothes, and canned goods being collected at the parade committee headquarters.

Further down the street from them, a wiry young guy named Wilfredo was shaking a box at motorists too. "This hurricane, man, it's kind of brought everybody together," he said, staring down a motorist who quickly offered up a couple of dollars. "Like, ordinarily, I wouldn't be here, you know, because I'm a Cobra and this whole part of the park--" he waved his hand at the green lawn where a woman and a pair of kids were playing on the swing set "--this is Disciples territory. But see, with this hurricane thing, everybody's got to do their part. You know, I saw Disciples, Kings in there--" he pointed at the parade committee headquarters "--but this is different, man, this is big. We don't even mind them." This time he nodded at a crew of Guardian Angels.

"Hey, it's our neighborhood too," said Paul Grudzinski, an area coordinator for the vigilante group. He was making a brief stop in Chicago before heading out to organize Guardian Angels in Ireland. "Our headquarters are here; we got Puerto Rican members; and we just got to band together, like one big person." Behind him, his crew in red berets, white T-shirts, and Army pants stood practically at attention.

"See? That's great," Castro said, still shaking his box. "And this guy, he's Cuban." Yuarez smiled, handed another guy a bumper sticker. "There are Mexicans helping, people from Nicaragua, even black people," added Castro.

"Hugo was the worst thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico," said Miriam Colon as she pushed her kids on the swings about a half a block from all the activity. "It's like God is always testing us Latinos, have you noticed? The earthquake in Mexico, the mud slides in Colombia. Remember the earthquake in Managua?"

Maria Garcia, a tiny woman who was in Nicaragua at the time, remembered. "I always knew something would happen and I'd get a chance to pay people back for helping us," she said as she carried a package of Pampers up to the second floor of the parade headquarters. "Roberto Clemente died taking us food after that earthquake. I always knew I'd help Puerto Rico when I got my chance. So here I am."

Flora Santos, who'd been dealing with donations all morning, took the Pampers and thanked her. "Have you noticed?" she asked in Spanish. "All kinds of people helping, except Americans--well, except for him." She nodded in the direction of a nervous young white man who was poking his finger through a hole in a pair of pants somebody had donated. "Don't send that," Santos admonished. "That's a reject. That'll tear. That won't help anybody."

Downstairs, representatives from more than a half dozen different Spanish-language radio shows were in the middle of a marathon broadcast. Orlando Miranda, a jolly Cuban known as "Pelencho" to his fans, was holding court at the microphone, smoking a long cigar. With him was a team of Spanish-radio veterans, including the courtly Jose E. Chapa, who'd been pulled out of retirement for the occasion.

"My God, we're all old men," said Miranda, laughing.

"Not me, not me," protested gray-haired Chapa.

"Look at this table--there are about 500 years of age between us," Miranda said. "This is terrible." They were laughing so hard, Tony Paez--another, younger DJ--cut them off and, suppressing his own laughter, began telling the listeners how well the fund-raising was going.

In the middle of the meeting room, behind the podium, a graphic showed that more than $41,000 had already been collected, and $19,000 more had been pledged.

"Mostly we tell people who want to donate to send the money directly to the banks," explained Elba Alicea, one of the dozens of volunteers answering calls at the phone bank set up to disseminate information about the disaster. Two local financial institutions, Banco Popular and Caballeros de San Juan Credit Union, have set up accounts for relief funds.

"Some people want to drop off the cash, and so we tell them where to come," said Alicea. "I've had some weird calls, you know, like the American guy who said he wanted to donate a million dollars. Of course, I don't believe him."

"Yeah, when I was working the phones I got a couple of calls--just a couple--from Americans," said Flora Santos sardonically. "One guy said, 'I hope Hugo hits again; I hope you all die, you spicks.' That was sweet, huh?"

"You know who's helping? Latinos, that's who's helping," said Maria Sanchez, a volunteer serving food. "You know what Americans have been here? The Guardian Angels. And you know what they do when they get here? They eat, that's all, they stand and eat, then they leave like they need a presidential escort or something."

Indeed, as she spoke three Guardian Angels were heaping Cuban black beans and rice, lechon, and yuca con mojo on their plates. As soon as they ate, they left.

"I think we're going to be able to get Senator Simon to help us," state senator Miguel del Valle was telling a small circle of men not far from the food line. "I called him and he's going to see if he can get an authorization for the Illinois National Guard to use one of their planes to get relief supplies to the island." The men beamed.

"The senator's been here the whole time," said a short, barrel-bellied man with a two-day stubble. "That thing in the Tribune? That was a lie."

When the parade committee set up relief efforts, the "Inc." column had reported that del Valle was not among the local politicians involved in the program. But a few days later, "Inc." reversed itself and admitted del Valle had been there all along.

"Isn't that cheap?" asked the senator as he looked over a list of towns in Puerto Rico in need of help. These included Aguas Buenas, Barranquitas, Patillas, and more than 20 others. "It's not the time or place to be interjecting local politics like that. We have a national emergency here. The Tribune got used and they know it."

Back in the food line, a woman asked, "Hey, you only have Cuban food?"

"Hell no, we got Puerto Rican chicken and rice, OK?" responded Maria Sanchez as she scooped some onto a plate. "And salad, honey, we got Puerto Rican salad." She tossed some lettuce, tomatoes, and avocado next to the chicken and rice.

"I don't know what's going on," del Valle continued, "and I'm not going to blame what happened on anybody because I don't know for sure. I'm going to do the right thing. I'm going to announce my new campaign in November and I'm going to ask [Alderman] Luis [Gutierrez] to join us and we'll see. I heard from a black elected official that [Alderman Richard] Mell went to him and offered him four state jobs to find a black candidate against me. I said, 'Four? Man, we're worth more than that, don't you think?'"

A few hours later, David Castro could barely carry his box of change when he came into the headquarters. "I think I got about $600 in there," he said proudly before disappearing into the accounting office.

Wilfredo, the Cobra, came in behind him but his box was a lot lighter. "I don't mess around with change," he said, still glaring. "I get paper money. This is serious."

Out in the street, Oscar Yuarez was still working. "My wife is Puerto Rican," he explained. "I gotta do this for her, for her family who lives in one of the damaged areas in Puerto Rico. You know, Puerto Ricans have always been good to me. I wish I could give money, but I don't have any, and besides, money isn't everything. I can give labor, like this."

He stepped up to a rusty blue car whose driver offered a crumpled $5 bill. "Every time I do this, I put in a little prayer too," he confessed. "I'm praying I'll win the Lotto, then I can give about $5 million to Puerto Rico. I'd keep the rest for myself, though."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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