Tucked away on Chicago’s near North Side, the Puerto Rican Congress of Mutual Aid has held its ground at the same three-lot West North Avenue space for more than four decades. The Congress, founded at a time when the city’s now-affluent Wicker Park neighborhood was still a haven for drug dealers and gang members, stands as the last bastion of cultural diversity in the ward, though you’d never register it on a casual walk by. The once-vibrant murals depicting Puerto Rico’s creative elite are faded and cracking, one tuck-point job away from oblivion. Inside—and open by appointment only—a quaint museum chronicling the Congress’s history collects dust. The history of a Puerto Rican social club is barely of interest to Chicago’s Puerto Ricans, much less to passersby anxious to get back inside their million-dollar brownstones. So it’s no wonder that the stories of Carlos Ruiz, his Ebirac label, and Orquesta La Solución have gone untold.
Chicago salsa, owing to the city’s demographics, is almost purely Puerto Rican, drawing its soul directly from the Commonwealth’s verdant rural countryside, recycling traditionals that have been sung by jibaros—Puerto Rico’s agrarian populace—for centuries. Carlos Ruiz borrowed a treasured piece of Puerto Rican culture and bought with it tickets off tough streets for countless Chicago Latinos. Like a message in a bottle, music preserved by his effort has surfaced again on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Carlos "Caribe" Ruiz and dancer Conchita
In the 1940s, Chicago’s Puerto Rican population numbered in the hundreds, grouped disparately into enclaves in Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, Humboldt Park, and Pilsen, each with roots in a distinct Puerto-Rican municipality. 1917’s Jones-Shafroth Act made Puerto Ricans citizens of the United States, but Depression- and World War II-era migration to the mainland held at a steady trickle until the airline boom of the 1950s. As Operación Manos a la Obra—Operation Bootstrap—industrialized the burgeoning commonwealth, its effects rippled into a rash of high unemployment, pushing hundreds of thousands of rural Puerto Ricans north in search of work. Their arrival in Chicago was met with hard-nosed racism.
While he was still merely a visitor on contract in Chicago, “Caribe”--as Carlos Ruiz was known to those near, dear, or even in fear–drafted his blueprint for Congreso Puertorriqueno de Ayuda Mutua (Puerto Rican Congress of Mutual Aid). The Puerto Rican Congress would adopt a single mission: to unite Puerto Ricans, not only by the familial or regional ties that bound them but by their common nation as well. Using as headquarters his basement apartment at 1640 N. Greenview, Caribe launched a social club in 1948 that would embrace every Puerto Rican in town. When the club outstripped its lowly basement space, the northeast Lincoln Park neighborhood—1606 N. Larabee, near North Avenue, to be exact—would become the Congress’s second base of operations.
In general, Caribe’s Congress concerned itself with gala events, banquets, coronations, athletics, the hosting of visiting Puerto Rican dignitaries, and developing a handful of youth orquestas. Caribe was never Chicago’s most important bandleader, nor was he the city’s most successful. But he did manage to do one thing that the city’s salsa elite did not do: roll tape in a studio and issue the recordings of his orquestas on vinyl.
Caribe discovered La Solución at a 1972 benefit concert at St. Sylvester Church. Cored by a group of Wells High School attendees, La Solución featured members ranging in age from 11 to 17. Though the lineup would undergo several changes over the band’s eight-year run, the base consisted of leader Jesus Soto, Tony Gonzales, Angel Oliver, Edwin Rodriguez, Santos Pagan, Marcelino Gonzalez, David Rodriguez, Tony Del Valle, Ivan Gonzales, Jimmy Ortiz, and David Febles.
The band was in the middle of the Latin rock wave, surfing the sounds of Santana and Malo with some proficiency, but little originality. Refinement courses began at Congreso Puertorriqueno immediately, with Caribe channeling much of his time and energy into grooming—an effort meant to keep the group’s younger population focused and out of trouble.
Never quick to turn down a gig, La Solución found themselves on stage three or four times a week, playing to a wide swath of venues that included libraries, city council events, parks, church picnics, university amphitheaters, high school assemblies, and weddings. If the money was right, La Solución could be found entertaining block parties hosted by the Latin Kings, Young Lords, Disciples, and even the notorious motorcycle gang Sons of the Devil. Despite Caribe’s commitment to keeping active gang members out of his Congress’s programs, he saw such events as a kind of outreach, a way of keeping his players safe by tagging them as musicians, outsiders to the street gang fray.
At the time, Chicago’s Latino recording industry did not yet rightly exist. New York labels considered Chicago little more than salsa music’s Triple A. If they were so good, why weren’t they playing New York? Despite the second-rate status, Chicago’s top-notch studios, pressing plants, Latin music radio stations, and all manner of distributorships had primed the city’s pump. To Caribe, it was a vacuum waiting to be filled. His Ebirac label, bearing its founder’s inverted stage name, was born.
Ebirac existed to serve the needs of Caribe’s stable. La Solución and Caribe’s other orquestas required LPs and 45s to hand to promoters, disc jockeys, and club owners, not to mention to sell directly off whatever stage they took. Ebirac's output shone brightest when Caribe shelled out in the promo and production departments. Full treatment was lavished on La Solución’s epic album trilogy: Desde Mi Barrio en Chicago, Mi Barrio se Quemo, and Mi Barrio es Fuego Y Te Canto Con Todo Mi Corazon.
No expense was spared in the recording of the LPs; all three were cut at Universal Recording (46 East Walton) and engineered by either the baby-faced Larry Huerta or Jerry DeClerk, Universal’s lathe operator. But before a single guitar string was picked inside Universal’s $60-per-hour “A” room, La Solución had run through the 11 tracks that would make up Desde Mi Barrio en Chicago (or Around My Neighborhood in Chicago) a hundred times.
La Solución performs at Mayor Daley's Neighborhood
As the entirety of La Solución was raised stateside and none of the singers spoke natural Spanish, Puerto Rican-born singer Hector del Valle was added to the group shortly before the session to help other singers perfect phrasing and cadence. La Solución’s sets were devoted primarily to their re-arrangements of traditional Puerto Rican folk music—including the excellent “Historia De Cueros”—though three originals managed to make the cut: “Sufriendo,” “Pensamiento,” and “Con El Tres En La Mano.” To bolster the freshman La Solución LP, Caribe brought in Juan and Jap Castro from La Justicia, another of his orchestras.
Although the recordings were highly sophisticated, Caribe kept the packaging as grounded as any community center art program. Collaging, cut and paste elements, and uneven typesetting all found their way to final products. Caribe left design mostly to his musicians, especially La Solución singer Hector del Valle, who displayed a real conceptual flair. Jimmy Hernandez of La Justicia handled Desde Mi Barrio en Chicago’s rudimentary design. A simple photograph of a mural painted on the side door of the Congress’s North Avenue headquarters graces the album’s cover.
For the third Ebirac LP, La Solución’s Mi Barrio es Fuego (My Neighborhood is Smoking), Caribe brought in the big guns. Florencio “Ramito” Morales Ramos—poet, singer, prison warden, writer of the unofficial Puerto Rican national anthem–joined the group for a rendition of his “Mi Patria” that ran to nearly seven minutes, virtually ensuring sales to nostalgic Puerto Ricans. To further drive the point home, La Solución wrote “Homenaje a R. Clemente'' to consecrate the opening of Roberto Clemente Community Academy, Humboldt Park’s newest high school. The LP cover bore collaged images of Ramito, Clemente, and the band, all surrounded by a simple heart shape. It might as well have been called “Puerto Rican Pride, $7.99.”
Album cover of Mi Barrio Se Quemó
La Solución’s final album found them moving away from Ramito’s quaint jibaro approach into more politically charged territory. Mi Barrio se Quemo (My Neighborhood is Burning) attempted to address growing pains in Humboldt Park, where white flight was driving down property values and landowners turned to arson in their attempts to squeeze what value they could out of buildings left fallow. The cover for the 1976 album—drawn by lead singer Hector del Valle and his brother Tony— portrayed a match being struck to burn down a tenement building. Inset images included boarded-up businesses, neglected tenements, a smoking joint, and a needle in a junkie’s arm. The musical guest on these recordings was fittingly aggressive; Caribe tapped acclaimed Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria to bulwark the extraordinary “Mozambique.” Caribe bit his tongue as studio time—and corresponding dollars—ticked away during the hour it took Santamaria to bandage his hands before cutting what may have been Ebirac's finest recorded moment.
While touring New York City in 1977, La Solución’s leaders laid plans to continue the creative success of their third LP. They approached Machito—bandleader of Latin music progenitors the Afro-Cubans—to inquire about recording an album of his compositions. Machito, impressed by their youth and ambition, agreed to make exclusive arrangements for La Solución’s particular needs. A brief illness sidetracked him halfway into the work, leaving La Solución’s fourth LP in permanent limbo. The Orquesta limped through the latter third of the decade before coming apart in 1979 as group members got older, went to school, got married, or simply lost interest. Caribe suffered a sudden heart attack and death on April 22, 1987, shocking and breaking the hearts of hundreds of devoted friends and relatives.
Although Caribe and his Orquesta La Solución barely grace the history books, their impact on Chicago’s salsa scene remains potent. Claiming three albums and the scads of 45s that bear their name, Orquesta La Solución is far and away the most prolific recording artist in Chicago salsa history.