Why This Bartender Got Turned Away at the US Border

After Sebastián Fernández was denied entry to Puerto Rico, a US territory, the island's bartenders rallied in solidarity with their colleague and against anti-immigrant rhetoric.

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Mar 6 2017, 5:00pm

Photo via Flickr user s-timestwo

Bartender Sebastián Fernández had to fly about eight hours from his home in Mexico City to San Juan, Puerto Rico on February 17, 2017. He was scheduled for a guest spot at Old San Juan bar La Factoría, where he'd make and film his entry to the Bacardí Legacy Cocktail Competition, part of his promotional package for the nine-year-old contest. His entry, the Micaela, is named for the Puerto Rican boogaloo song—one that reflects tropical joy, "that happy and fun part that characterizes us and identifies us as Latinos and Caribbean," he tells me.

Fernández was sent home, though—barred from entering the US territory where, despite being citizens, the residents of the island don't have any say in who becomes president. Immigration officials thought he intended to stay and work, not trusting the bottles in his bag, so he was put on a plane back to Mexico.

Carlos Irizarry of La Factoría, who had organized the guest shift, felt he had to take some action. "After waiting for five hours in the airport with no news, talking with a friend over beers, we figured we should take advantage of this situation to show how what is happening nationwide affects our industry," he says of heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric. "As soon as I contacted some of the top bartenders in San Juan, everyone was excited and happy to be part of the initiative."

Sebastián Fernández. Photo courtesy of Sebastián Fernández.

In Fernández's absence, some of the city's best bartenders rallied around him, making the Micaela for a video in solidarity with their friend and colleague—someone known for his work at Limantour in Mexico City, named the best bar in Latin America and the Caribbean last year by World's 50 Best Bars.

The bartending and cocktail industries are built on community, and the ability to travel freely is essential to career growth. "Traveling doesn't just open the doors for meeting other like-minded individuals but it opens a whole new spectrum of flavors, spirits, and techniques that wouldn't be accessed otherwise—and if they were it might not have the same relevancy or value," says Natasha Velez, a Puerto Rican–born bartender living in New York City. "Coming from Puerto Rico to New York City in a time when we didn't have much access to a lot of tools that are normally taken for granted in other markets taught me a lot about flavor, cocktail builds, and spirits I hadn't heard of that later became essential to my creative process."

José "Chuck" Rivera, who made his name as head bartender at José Andrés' D.C. spot barmini, recently moved back to the island to be part of bars Caneca and Jungle Bird. "For me, traveling helps you in different ways, for example, understanding different palates. Not everybody has the same ingredients," he says. "You have to understand their influence from their ancestors and respect it. But from there you will make something really nice. Thankfully, in the bar industry and on social media, you know people from everywhere and they will be your best guide."

The shutting-down of that exchange of ideas is why this particular situation caused such shock, especially given Puerto Rico's ongoing economic woes. "Guest shifts or bar takeovers are a crucial part of growth, especially when you come from a bankrupt island with a limited perspective on the outside world," Irizarry says. "Learning new tastes, new dynamics of hospitality, new rituals of consumption and, most definitively, through strong relationships among bar communities, we can ensure an exchange of ideas and practices that enrich each other."

Irizarry took it upon himself to shoot and edit the video (before becoming a bartender, he studied filmmaking) along with his friend Giovanni Maldonado over the course of a weekend. "We had to do it as fast as possible because Sebastián needed to submit his marketing to Bacardí before his competition," he says. "We didn't sleep, but we enjoyed the process very much."

Inside La Factoría. Photo by the author.

One of the bartenders who made the Micaela for the video was La Factoría and Jungle Bird co-owner Roberto Beredecia, who appreciated the opportunity to do his part. "I really hate when somebody gets denied entrance to a country, but as the hashtag says, #bartendingbeyondborders," referring to the closing of the video. "The industry got together to help."

Irizarry notes, "Hospitality is a trait that, no matter the cultural context, is very well communicated."

"I do not believe that there are borders or walls that can divide the great talent that we have," Fernández says. "Latin American and Caribbean Latinos have so many flavors and ingredients in common, and we like to share what makes us unique. This video is the result of that."

In hospitality, it always makes sense to have one another's backs. As Rivera says, "Some days you support, and some days you are supported."