PILSEN — After a fire destroyed Pilsen's Nuevo Leon restaurant, residents are banding together to spread Christmas cheer to employees in need.
A fire decimated the 53-year-old restaurant Dec. 2, leaving at least 50 employees out of work. But since then, the Pilsen community has come together to present the employees with temporary jobs, money, gifts and even an all-expenses-paid employee Christmas party this holiday season.
After receiving the blessing of the Gutierrez family who owns Nuevo Leon, Little Village resident Jorge Valdivia plans to stage a holiday party for the Nuevo Leon families at the National Museum of Mexican Art Dec. 22.
"When I watched everything unfold on the news, I felt compelled to do something. I knew that was the worst time of year for them to be unemployed," said Valdivia, who previously worked for the Pilsen museum. "Reading comments [on social media] I realized the community wanted to help and needed somewhere to channel that good energy."
The party will include a visit from Santa Claus, gifts for the children of out-of-work employees, Christmas photos, live music and other entertainment, food, drinks, "dancing and a good time," Valdivia said.
Nuevo Leon employees will be presented with gift cards to help with household expenses and the Eighteenth Street Development Corporation plans to present employees with the proceeds from the ongoing GoFundMe campaign at the party, said Alex Esparza, executive director of the organization. To date, more than $10,800 has been raised to help the families, with a goal of raising $50,000 before the party.
The community has rallied together to make the party possible, Valdivia said. The National Museum of Mexican Art is donating the space, Sonorama and The Ponderers have agreed to donate their musical services to the cause, Magali Rangel Photography will take photos and La Casa del Pueblo has made an in-kind donation of beverages, water and gift cards.
About 45 children, ages 1 to 13, will benefit from the toy drive at the holiday party. The proceeds of a recent toy drive and a generous private donation will ensure that every child has gifts this holiday, Valdivia said.
"We want them to at least enjoy Christmas in spite of what happened," he said.
Through their efforts to help and despite the tragic fire, Valdivia said Pilsen's community spirit is shining bright this holiday season.
"In times of tragedy, there is an opportunity to see something beautiful emerge," Valdivia said. "These are the kind of [holiday stories] that aren't scripted out of telenovela or a Disney movie. This is real life, and you're reminded that there are people who care. That's the spirit of the community coming together, the power of humanity."
On Dec. 2, crews prepared to board up Nuevo Leon after it was a fire destroyed the business. [Alex Nitkin]
Some employees find work
Nuevo Leon owner Danny Gutierrez Jr. has vowed to rebuild the restaurant, which he estimates will take eight months to a year-and-a-half.
Gutierrez's first priority, he said, is to start serving food in the smaller space his family owns across the street, at 1511 W. 18th St. He's also hoping to purchase the vacant space at 1514 W. 18th St., formerly occupied by Veneno de Nayarit restaurant.
In the meantime, 10-15 employees have found temporary work at other restaurants after the business owners indicated a willingness to help, according to Esparza. Some of the employees are working at Lalo's on Maxwell and Fabulous Freddie's Italian Eatery, a family-owned restaurant in Bridgeport.
The owners of Fabulous Freddie's know what it's like to cope with a devastating fire, Christie Bertucci-Vega said earlier this month. Her family lost everything when the 31st Street restaurant burned to the ground in March 2011, and didn't reopen until November of that year.
A few Pilsen business owners have also stepped forward to "adopt" a Nuevo Leon family during the holidays, helping them out with their holiday wishes, Esparza said. The benevolent business owners wish to remain anonymous, he said.
How you can help
• Drop off gift cards that employees can use to help cover the costs of bare necessities (to places like grocery stores, La Casa del Pueblo, Target and Walgreens) during the winter months at the Museum of Mexican Art. The gift cards will be distributed to employees at the Christmas party.
• Make a donation online to the GoFundMe campaign that benefits out-of-work Nuevo Leon employees.
• Temporarily hire a Nuevo Leon employee. If your business can offer help, contact Esparza at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Offer up services to help make the Nuevo Leon employee holiday party possible. Valdivia is still seeking food sponsors, a liquor/beer sponsor and a mariachi band. Interested in helping? Contact him at email@example.com.
Nuevo Leon restaurant in Pilsen was destroyed in an extra-alarm fire Dec. 2. [Byron Sigcho]
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