February 9, 2018 at 9:00 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Puerto Rico gay bar becomes ‘oasis’ after Maria

Bear Tavern PR is a gay bar in the Ocean Park neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It reopened eight days after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — It was around midnight on Feb. 2 at the Bear Tavern PR, a gay bar in the Ocean Park neighborhood of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, when a woman began to pass around pieces of her Birthday cake.

Roughly 20 people were inside the bar, which is located near the intersections of Calles Degetau and Loiza, as Foo Fighters “Learn to Fly” and other songs that include Gerardo’s “Rico Suave” and Kid Rock’s “Cowboy” played. Other patrons were smoking cigarettes and drinking beers outside on the narrow sidewalk.

Ismael Acosta, who co-owns Bear Tavern PR with his partner of nine years, Gabriel Acosta, noted it is the only bear and leather bar in Puerto Rico. Gabriel Acosta added it became an “oasis” for Ocean Park residents after Hurricane Maria.

“They would come here and say finally I can talk to people about what happened to me at home,” he said as he and Ismael Acosta spoke with the Washington Blade from behind the bar.

Maria on Sept. 20 devastated Puerto Rico when it made landfall on the island’s southeastern coast with 155 mph winds.

A combination of storm surge and flood waters mixed with raw sewage left large swaths of low-lying Ocean Park flooded for three weeks after Maria. Bear Tavern PR — which opened last May — was able to reopen eight days after the hurricane after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló lifted a dusk-to-dawn curfew and the Acostas were able to obtain a generator.

“The first night that we opened it was a Friday and it was magical,” Gabriel Acosta told the Blade. “Its like we had never seen each other for the past year.”

Gabriel Acosta said the bar was without power for eight days after Hurricane Irma brushed Puerto Rico on Sept. 7.

He told the Blade it took a week to get ice for Bear Tavern PR after Maria. Gabriel Acosta also said he and his partner spent several hours each day going to stores to buy beer, liquor and other supplies.

“We’d be running around to stores; getting ice, getting plastic, getting everything,” he told the Blade. “It was difficult, but we were the only bar open.”

The Acostas’ home in Caguas, a city that is roughly 20 miles south of San Juan, was undamaged during Maria.

Ocean Park residents were able to get ice at Bear Tavern PR and use the electricity the generator was providing after the hurricane. Ismael Acosta told the Blade that some of the bar’s patrons “lost everything.”

“They lost everything,” added Gabriel Acosta. “They come here and they’re smiling and they got more joy and more happiness than we do.”

Maria ‘was very strong here’

Power was restored in Ocean Park in December. Sunset Sunrise, an LGBT-friendly bar in Boquerón, a village that is located on Puerto Rico’s southwest coast, reopened just before Christmas after its electricity was restored.

Sunset Sunrise is an LGBT-friendly bar in Boquerón, Puerto Rico. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Tita, a bartender at Sunset Sunrise, and Oswaldo, a Boquerón resident, on Feb. 2 showed the Blade pictures on their iPhones of homes and businesses that Maria damaged. The storm surge also washed sailboats into mangrove swamps and destroyed at least one house that had been built over the water.

“The hurricane was very strong here,” Tita told the Blade.

Boquerón, which is located roughly two-and-a-half hours southwest of San Juan in the municipality of Cabo Rojo, is a popular destination for Puerto Ricans and tourists alike. Boquerón also hosts a Pride celebration that takes place in June.

A handful of people were sitting outside Sunset Sunrise on Feb. 2 when the Blade was speaking with Tita and Oswaldo. Most of the bars and restaurants in downtown Boquerón were open, but Tita confirmed the number of visitors has dropped 50 percent from a year ago.

“Things are now picking up,” she said.

Hurricane Maria damage in Boquerón, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 21, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Tita/Sunset Sunrise)

Bar owners: Trump has ‘forgotten’ about Puerto Rico

Back in Ocean Park, the majority of the traffic lights are damaged and do not work.

Mangled power lines, damaged utility poles and buildings, piles of debris and sand remain common sights throughout the neighborhood. Maria also damaged Ocean Park’s sewer infrastructure.

Damaged traffic lights at an intersection in the Ocean Park neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 30, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz continues to criticize President Trump over his response to Maria. Ismael Acosta’s face grimaced with anger when the Blade asked him about the White House’s handling of the hurricane’s aftermath.

“We’ve been forgotten by the president,” he said. “He forgot about us. My face can tell you everything.”

Gabriel Acosta agreed, pointing out to the Blade that LGBT Puerto Ricans “have never had the full support” of the island’s government. Ismael Acosta also suggested Cruz has not done enough to help her city begin to recover from Maria.

“She’s getting a lot of attention for the island,” Ismael Acosta told the Blade. “But for us here in San Juan . . . she forgot about San Juan.”

“That’s what people are complaining about,” added Gabriel Acosta. “Yes, you’re famous in Washington, you’re famous in New York, but what happened to San Juan. You still walk around, drive around, you still have trees on the side (of the road) and everything. And people are saying what about San Juan? We are here, but you went to the states.”

Ismael Acosta nevertheless praised Cruz for doing “an amazing job talking, trying to let people know about us” in Puerto Rico. Ismael Acosta also described Cruz as “one of the only ones who stood up to” Trump after Maria.

“We need to respect that too,” said Ismael Acosta.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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