Photo: Nicholas Hernandez. Daisy Santiago purchases “La Borinqueña” comic books during Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez’s book signing of his new comic book.

Chocobar Cortés strives to provide space to celebrate Caribbean culture

Bright yellow awnings on the corner of Alexander Avenue and East 134th Street catch the eye and announce something new. Inside, black-and-white checkerboard floors, bright yellow trim and Caribbean melodies transport visitors to an island atmosphere at the newly opened Chocobar Cortés.

See a video of conguero Daniel Valdez of Congas and Chill at Chocobar, by Alicia Gajraj. 

From chocolate grilled cheeses to chocolate old-fashioneds to dark chocolate bonbons, the innovative restaurant and bar infuse chocolate in almost every dish. The fourth-generation, family-owned business, originating in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, opened in Mott Haven in December 2021.

Carlos Cortés, the executive director of Chocobar Cortés and youngest of the 4th generation Cortés brothers, said he wanted to create a space that not only shares the chocolate tradition but also provides a platform to celebrate the culture’s music and art traditions.

“I feel like here in New York especially, we have such a strong Puerto Rican presence. But I don’t feel as though we have enough Puerto Rican spaces that truly represent us,” he said. “I wanted to create a space that was changing that trajectory.”

After World War II, the development of U.S. corporate interests, an increase in population, and a rise in unemployment in Puerto Rico led many Puerto Ricans to migrate to New York. By 1966, the Puerto Rican population soared in the South Bronx, the Lower East Side, Williamsburg and East Harlem, according to a study by John Shekitka.

However, the Puerto Rican population has decreased in the Bronx and statewide since 2016. The Puerto Rican population dropped from 1.11 million to 1.07 million residents, according to the American Community Survey. In the Bronx, over the four years, the Puerto Rican population has dropped by nearly 25,000 residents to 265,000 residents.

Cortés said the decision to locate in Mott Haven was a combination of the residents and potential for a small business owner.

“Because we are this Puerto Rican and Dominican brand we wanted to go to where our community was,” Cortés said. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and people are really excited to have us, a Puerto Rican business, a Dominican business there. I think the Bronx is the future.”

Enjoying dinner at Chocobar Cortés, Daisy Santiago, a 56-year-old middle school art teacher, would be introduced to something she has never seen in her life as dozens of comic books of the Puerto Rican superheroine “La Borinqueña” are displayed in the restaurant.

“I think it’s great to see my face on a comic book,” Santiago said. “I was like ‘about time.'”

Creator of “La Borinqueña,” Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez hosted a book signing of the new “La Borinqueña” comic book at Chocobar Cortés, striving to create a space to celebrate Caribbean culture by collaborating with the likes of Miranda-Rodriguez, musicians and artists.

As Miranda-Rodriguez and Santiago pose for a picture, he said that meeting a wide range of people from five- and six-year-old children to adults to senior citizens reaffirms the idea that “it’s never too late to enjoy these stories.”

“Seeing an intergenerational audience receive my work is truly an overwhelming affirmation,” Miranda-Rodriguez said. “It’s really affirming that someone in their eighties is as passionate about this character as someone who is 8, and it’s truly an affirmation.”

Photo: @Chocobarcortesbx via Instagram. Daniel Valdez performs with congas and bongos, combining a mix of classic salsa music with current hits.

Chocobar Cortés collaborated with The Salsa Project, an organization dedicated to preserving the dance of Salsa, on a monthly series to celebrate the culture and traditional dance. In addition, the business teamed up with Daniel Valdez, the founder of Congas and Chill, for a weekly live music event.

“The place has this great Puerto Rican vibe,” Valdez said. “It feels like home. It just feels like a slice of Puerto Rico here in New York. And I wanted nothing more than to share in that and be able to share my love of Puerto Rico.”

Every Thursday, Valdez combines a mix of classic salsa music with current hits as he strives to keep the music scene alive in New York for all ages.

“It’s not like how it was in the ’70s, every club was Latin music,” Valdez said. “You didn’t have to go far to find salsa. And nowadays I feel like you have to know where to go and where to find it. I’m just trying to make sure we keep it, keep it at the forefront.”

Valdez said he is excited to continue performing at Chocobar and spread his message throughout the area.

Melissa Rivera, a Mott Haven resident for 22 years, said she enjoys Chocobar Cortés as the place resembles “home” and reconnects her to her Puerto Rican culture.

“It’s a wonderful thing because it brings us back,” Rivera said. “It brings your memories of your ancestors of what you remember when you do visit Puerto Rico when you did go visit grandma’s house.”

Santiago shared a similar sentiment and said she believes the impact of having Chocobar Cortés and events highlighting the Puerto Rican community is important. 

“I think it’s crucial to the culture,” Santiago said. “It’s crucial to the neighborhood, to our kids. I think that we do, we should do more of this.

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