PDX: For A Few Days, You Can Visit Puerto Rico Without Leaving Town
And help the island in the process.
December 5, 2017 ● 2 min read
By Richie Nakano | Image by ChefsFeed
Chefs, by nature, are not passive people.
They roll their sleeves up and dive into things with reckless abandon. A gentle mix of a desire to care for people, tireless work ethic, and an overall hospitable nature means that if you need a volunteer for a tough job, someone in the industry will probably already have a crazy text chain going to get whatever you need from the word go.
After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Chef Cristina Baez (180 PDX, Atuala) felt completely helpless. As a native of Puerto Rico, the 4,000 miles between her and the island may as well have been four million.
“The first month, I was crying every day and frustrated. Crying out of that feeling that I couldn’t do anything. Maybe three weeks after the hurricane, I was working at 180, making churros in the morning, and this lady walks in. She makes her order, she orders coffee. And when she pays, she pays with a card from a bank in Puerto Rico. So I instantly look up, and without even saying a word, we both just kind of got teary-eyed and gave each other a hug. All without talking. She told me that she came in because she still hadn't heard from her family and she [was] desperate and sad. It’s like, what do you do with yourself?”
Fed up with feeling useless, Baez decided to use what she knows best: food and drink. She and husband chef José Chesa organized PDX Feeds Puerto Rico, a week of Puerto Rico-centric events featuring a hefty roster of local talent, and even flew in chefs Pax Carabello and Mario J Pagan from Puerto Rico to participate. The details online describe everything from a tropical bar takeover to an “Asian-Rican” night at Han Oak, to a Caribbean brunch all spread throughout the city. On Thursday, December 7, the Nightwood Collective will throw an epic party complete with salsa dancing, domino games, and a panel on what it’s like to operate restaurants in a storm-ravaged city. It’s all in an effort to capture the island vibes that define Baez’s home so completely.
“It's a feeling. I can't explain it,” she says. “I've done pop-ups for about two and a half years here in Portland and I just create the ambiance like my parents would when they throw a party. The music that we play and the vibe and the warmth of the food, it's just—it works when you have it all together. It's like island time, at our own pace.”
The response to hurricane relief, even all these months later, has been notoriously slow and insufficient. I asked her if she had any special words for the current administration. She’s polite, so she said this:
“We, and millions of Americans in Puerto Rico, do not understand. I talk to my family and my friends and they don't see anything [happening]. How can you see children and elderly people who haven't eaten in two days, or elderly people who are dying because there's no oxygen…I want to be diplomatic and I want to be respectful, because that’s the way I was raised, but how can you be when you know the administration doesn’t even understand that?”