A Philly 'Parranda' brings its own kind holiday cheer to displaced families

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Santa makes an appearance at a  Christmas party for Puerto Rican families at the office of Association of Puerto Ricans In March, on Philadelphia Saturday, for about 20 families displaced from Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Santa makes an appearance at a Christmas party for Puerto Rican families at the office of Association of Puerto Ricans In March, on Philadelphia Saturday, for about 20 families displaced from Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

In Puerto Rico, Thanksgiving through New Years  Day is packed with “parrandas,” or colorful holiday celebrations with lots of music and food. As hundreds of people come to Philadelphia after Hurricane Maria, struggling to adjust, a group of local volunteers have attempted their own version of a parranda for displaced families.

“They feel disconnected still. They feel displaced. They’re still missing their land, and they’re still not adopting to this big city,” said Pastor Roberto Luis Lugo, with the local non profit, Association of Puerto Ricans In March.

He and others organized the party Saturday – complete with music, pizza and presents – for about two dozen families inside his North Philly office. Volunteers had raised money to “adopt” the families, providing hundreds of dollars worth of essentials, like coats and hygiene products.

Jesus Rodriguez and Sandra Martinez came to Philly with their three kids from Puerto Rico after they say their house was destroyed in hurricane Maria. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

“Esta buenisimo, un buen idea! [It’s great, it’s a great idea],” said Luz Rivera.

Her daughter clutches a new “Elena of Avalor” doll.

Rivera, a 32 year old elementary school teacher, left her town, Culebra, about a month ago and has been staying in Philadelphia with her cousin. It’s been really difficult, she says. She has her two little kids with her. Meanwhile, she misses her family still in Puerto Rico, still struggling after the storm – and of course, she says, the parrandas.

Jesus Rodriguez, along with his wife and three kids, lost their house in the hurricane. He came to Philadelphia first and stayed with a friend. His wife and kids followed earlier this month.

“All we need is a job, we don’t ask for nothing else,” Rodriguez said.

As he and his family try to rebuild their life here, he says meeting next month’s rent is a big worry. This is the only holiday celebration they’ve been to.

Since the hurricane, more than 400 families have left Puerto Rico and sought assistance at the Disaster Assistance Service Center at  5th and Allegheny Avenue in Philadelphia, according to Phil Pagliaro, with the Salvation Army of Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.

The group has been a main entry point for people in need of help in Philadelphia, which is home to the fifth largest Puerto Rican population in the country. Since the hurricane, they’ve provided nearly  $100,000 in supplies and gift cards to families. Other grassroots groups in Philadelphia, like Unidos Pa’ Puerto Rico, have formed in the wake of the hurricane to raise support.

Lugo says he knows how isolating it can be, coming to a new place as he did from Puerto Rico nearly 30 years ago. Plus, he worries about his own family still on the island, his mom and in-laws, who were in the eye of the storm.

He tells the group he wants them to know they’re cared for and supported.

“We are extend family of you, you’re not by yourself,” he said.

Moments later, he disappeared.

Shortly after, in came Santa, with a bag full of toys.

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