New York

Meet the Puerto Ricans Who Fled to New York After Maria

“A marvelous lesson was realizing that Puerto Rico is not the island, but its people”

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“For you, this is a minor setback,” the worker at the Hurricane Service Center in East Harlem said to me, as a Puerto Rican woman with her child and husband sat nearby. “But for others, it’s their lives.”

The Hurricane Service Center was set up by NYC Emergency Management in October of 2017 for displaced residents of Florida, Texas, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, following Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. I had gone there because I needed help: I’d been living with my grandmother in the northern coastal Puerto Rican town of Arecibo and went through Maria with her when it made a direct hit on the town; though the house suffered no damages, our daily lives became limited to setting up whatever receptacle we could find to gather rainwater and seeking whatever food was available in the small grocery stores nearby. As a video editor and filmmaker working in a small company in the south of the island, I couldn’t work without an internet connection, let alone power or generators. Eventually I decided to leave for New York City, where my brother lives.

But the reality is that there is nothing minor about this crisis, for anyone. Some island residents lost homes, belongings, family, and friends, while others lost their jobs. The inefficiencies of the Puerto Rican government, its slow response time, its interest in helping only those it deemed necessary, the lack of resources, and the island’s crippling debt have led tens of thousands of people to relocate to the mainland, many to New York.

As of December 2017, the Hurricane Service Center had been visited by members of 1,762 Puerto Rican households displaced since the hurricane, many of whom had returned to the center more than once. “We don’t know when we’re going to be done,” says Johanna Conroy, director of human services for NYC Emergency Management. “Every day there’s still new people coming to the center. When we opened in October, [demand] was definitely very, very high. We were operating at full capacity every day, seven days a week, and we’ve seen that need slow down a bit, which means the center is doing its job the way that it’s supposed to.”

Some of the displaced Puerto Ricans I spoke with have sought help from the center, while others haven’t had the time or need to search for it. Some have found work in New York City and plan to stay as long as they can, while others are either moving back to Puerto Rico or moving to other states in an effort to find the stability and opportunities the island can no longer provide them.

Shanti Lalita

Lalita, a musician who specializes in cello and voice compositions, has spent her life devoted to culture: as a technician and promoter in radio (with José Pesante at Radio San Juan); as an events coordinator, promoter, and booking agent under Lalita Productions (even striving to create an annual music festival dedicated to independent and emerging artists called Bronson Fest); and as an independent musician. She had a lot on her plate before the hurricanes came through, including preparing for the release of her solo EP El Grito, organizing the third annual Bronson Fest, and working on plans to create an art installation at Art Basel in Miami with other fellow Puerto Rican artists.

Against a backdrop of mounting debt, with a government administration bent on cutting funds and suspending projects related to music, art, and culture, musicians in Puerto Rico exist mostly in defiance of their bleak environment. When Hurricane Irma grazed the island, Lalita’s EP release was canceled and moved to another date. Following Hurricane Maria a few weeks later, the Bronson Fest was officially canceled; unable to fund her planned art installation in Miami with the money she had hoped to make from her shows, Lalita decided to go to New York.

With her experience as a booking agent and a trusted network of artists, she had already been able to book some shows in New York last year for Puerto Rican band Los Bronson, and felt confident she could book some for herself as well. “I knew I had somewhere to stay. And I knew I could book some shows while still in Puerto Rico and that I could move around well. I could walk here, take buses, and even play on the train, whatever. I can survive New York.”

Following a tour that took her to North Carolina and Baltimore with puppeteer and performance artist Deborah Hunt, Lalita is now returning to Puerto Rico. Not only does she miss her island, but she can’t afford an apartment here. That’s not to say she leaves only with bitter feelings about the city: “I love Brooklyn. The people here are a bunch of weirdos and I love them. I love the queer scene and in Brooklyn I just feel comfortable.”

Luis Gabriel Santiago Claudio

Santiago Claudio had left the island three months before the hurricanes in search of work as an actor. However, he returned when his grandfather fell ill, staying at his grandparents’ house while he visited. Maria made sure he stayed for longer.

Despite the ordeal of searching for food and water and the long lines to fill up with gas, he at least felt fortunate to be with his grandparents during the hurricane. “It was devastating,” says Santiago Claudio, “but I was happy to be able to be with my grandparents and go through the hurricane with them. If I would’ve stayed in New York, they would’ve gone through it alone.”

Santiago Claudio currently has a seasonal job at the Oculus in Manhattan, but as soon as that’s over, he hopes to continue pursuing his acting career by auditioning for roles and applying to graduate schools. New York has been a great place for him, but he misses the Puerto Rican countryside and his family. The expensive and difficult cost of living in the city keep him from wanting to make a life here, but right now, he says, its art and culture fill him with hope.

Josué Rodríguez and Gabriela Rosario

When I ask the couple what they think of living in the city, Rodríguez doesn’t hesitate: “I’m in love.” Rosario, stunned, reacts: “Really? Wow.”

“Yeah, and I was skeptical about New York,” Rodríguez adds, pointing out that the only reason New York was an option was the fact that Rosario had an aunt living in the Bronx.

Though they’ve been together nine months, the couple have only lived together since moving to New York City after the hurricane, but that has only strengthened their bond. Rodríguez, who had been working as a digital director for a local ad agency in Puerto Rico, decided to quit his job after many of the company’s clients’ marketing departments stopped paying their fees because of the emergency. Rosario had already lost one of her jobs after Hurricane Irma hit, when the Roberto Clemente Coliseum, where she taught salsa classes, was turned into an emergency shelter. Her other job just wasn’t enough for her, so they both made the decision to get out and find work elsewhere.

Rodríguez is now looking for work in ad agencies and part-time jobs to get on his feet; Rosario is starting a certification process to become a teacher while working her own part-time job. While Rodríguez has a dream of helping the island from afar by eventually creating his own ad agency, Rosario can only think of the now, trying not to worry too much about the island or the people she misses. “Not knowing when I’m gonna get back,” she says, “that’s the most difficult.”

Josué Román

The current Puerto Rico administration recently passed a bill stating that employers can keep a new employee in a probationary period of nine months. Román was hired at an events design company in April, and five months later, Hurricane Maria hit; he was easy to let go when the company found itself struggling.

Even with a B.A. in accounting and having just finished law school, Román had no luck finding work on the island after Maria. So when his grandmother, who lives in the Bronx, offered to help, Román found a cheap one-way ticket and took the chance.

“Living in the city was always one of the dreams I had,” he says. “I was born and raised in Aguadilla, which is a small place. I moved to San Juan because I liked living in cities, and I love the way diversity is here — you get people from different parts of the world.”

When Román announced his departure on Facebook, a friend offered him a job at the popular Manhattan board game café the Uncommons. He works the night shift, and also works at an events production company as a finance and legal intern, which has helped him learn some of the legal language he already knows in Spanish. He’s set to begin soon as a finance contractor at the same company, where he’ll put his accounting skills to good use. Román ultimately wants to settle down and take the bar in New York so he can practice law and eventually bring his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and his mother to New York. He’s currently looking for places for them near his grandmother’s house so he can help his parents settle in when they arrive.

José “Pepe” Pesante

José “Pepe” Pesante was working as a producer-coordinator at Radio San Juan last year when the municipality decided to cut the station’s budget by two-thirds. A radio host, producer, and technician for years, he quit his job at Radio San Juan and opened a store in the San Juan area dedicated to selling used music, movies, books, comics, and magazines.

To his surprise, he was doing quite well, considering it wasn’t a big business. Then Maria came and put a damper on all of it.

“If you only have ten bucks, are you going to eat or are you going to buy a book or a comic book or a magazine?” Pesante asks. Like many other Puerto Ricans, Pesante applied for help from FEMA, which dragged its feet on inspecting his damaged house for about a month and a half after he applied. Having put all his money into his new business, he needed income fast, and decided that New York, with its public transportation and variety of job opportunities, would be the best place for him.

With help from friends, Pesante got what he needed to move, but he still had to make sure he could find a place to stay for a few weeks until he found a job. That’s when he found out he was approved for transitional shelter assistance through FEMA, which covered a three-month hotel stay that has since been extended until February. He sought help from the Hurricane Service Center, which provided him with help filling out all the necessary paperwork for SNAP benefits and Medicaid, and helped him obtain vouchers from the Salvation Army for winter clothing and food as well as a bag filled with toiletries and socks. This has allowed him to focus on searching for work in retail, going to interviews, seeing the sights, and getting inspired by the city.

Though he’s felt comfortable in New York, Pesante has remained practical, knowing that if he doesn’t find work in time, he might have to move somewhere else. All his merchandise is on the island, and when the time is right he wants to return and give it another shot. “The things that I want to do, I want to do for my people there,” he says. “I don’t necessarily want to do them here, ’cause I think that I can help the island recover, I can do these things so the island can go back to being better than it was.”

Frances Reyes

Even though Reyes was offered a great job in New York as a pricing analyst, at NNR Global Logistics, after the hurricane, and her parents and family were already established in the city, her newborn baby was always the main reason behind her decision to move. “The opportunity came at the right moment, because I was with my baby down there,” she says while holding her eight-month-old daughter, Leah. “Maybe I could handle it, but my baby? It’s different.”

Leah was five months old when Hurricane Maria left her family without water or power amid an outbreak of mosquitoes that were a danger to her well-being. Reyes didn’t hesitate to move, since she had a job offer in her field (international business), and her parents were more than willing to give her a place to stay and take care of Leah while she worked. She’s received help from the city in the form of Medicaid, diapers, a new crib, and other essentials for her child since visiting the Hurricane Service Center in East Harlem. She loves her island, and hopes to return to Puerto Rico at some point, but at the moment she’s looking for an apartment so her husband, who is still working as a nurse in Puerto Rico while waiting to take the exam to get his license to work in New York, can join her and Leah in the city.

Eddie Rodríguez

Rodríguez remembers his last day in Puerto Rico, feeling like getting on the plane to New York was the most normal thing. He had no nerves or anxiety, just mixed feelings about leaving his family and many other people behind.

“I just need to be out right now,” he says. “And challenge myself more, because in Puerto Rico there’s still a lot to be done and there’ll always be things to do, but I sometimes felt that I needed to be doing more than what I was doing there.”

After devoting fifteen years of his life to the dance company Gíbaro de Puerto Rico, Rodríguez needed a change, which is why even before Maria struck he had already made the decision to move to New York in January of this year, even asking his cousin in the Bronx if he could stay with her. The hurricane forced him to act sooner: The company’s productions and his after-school dance classes were canceled, and even his job driving for Uber was rendered useless thanks to massive power outages. Having already received a callback for a play in New York, Rodríguez was hopeful about pursuing his acting career.

Rodríguez soon found a seasonal job at a pop-up shop in Times Square and was offered a full-time post shortly afterward. But he wants to focus on what he came here to do: get a regular part-time job at night so he can focus on acting and vocal training and auditions during the day, while also collaborating with fellow artists. He’s already even shot a music video for a Puerto Rican cuatro player who visited him. “I always need to be doing something,” he says. “I just can’t stay still.”

Juan Miranda

Miranda was already struggling with the death, last June, of his mentor and friend, Jesuit professor and leading Puerto Rican historian Fernando Picó, and with taking over full teaching duties at the prison where they worked together while he finished his master’s thesis, when the hurricanes hit. After Irma arrived, Juan was left without clean clothes or fresh food; when Maria followed, Miranda had to seek refuge in friends’ homes, while spending what little money he had on food and helping those who’d helped him.

As soon as a phone with a decent signal became available, Miranda contacted a friend in Manhattan and asked for help. Next, he called his aunt in Queens and asked if he and his girlfriend could stay with her. “I arrived in New York at eleven at night,” he says. “First thing I did was go to a supermarket to buy some things so I could eat until I burst.”

Though Miranda and his partner both found jobs quickly, New York proved too frustrating for them to live in. Miranda is a war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he had difficulty adapting to his new job at a charter school, while the recent terror attack at the Port Authority put a strain on his mental health. His girlfriend experienced tensions at her workplace as well. As a result, they’ve decided to relocate to Minnesota, where another Puerto Rican friend has offered to help.

Despite this, Juan leaves the city knowing that “New York was a reminder that another world was possible, and that I didn’t have to limit myself or subscribe to the Puerto Rican reality. And a marvelous lesson was realizing that Puerto Rico is not the island, but its people.”

Griselle Mariette Calderón Morales

Calderón was no stranger to living outside her home country, if only temporarily. When she was studying for her master’s in linguistics in Lyon, France, she missed Puerto Rico deeply, and returned as soon as she finished her studies, with the hope of finding work and saving up enough money to make a move to New York to pursue a doctorate in phonology.

But despite all the résumés she sent out, work never came. With CUNY and NYU as places where she could continue her studies, Calderón had planned a New York trip to get a feel for the city. Following Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, however, when the time came to make the trip, she decided to cancel her return flight.

Calderón now works in the Financial District in Manhattan, with one steady part-time job at a call center and a regular temp position as an administrative assistant at TheraCare of New York; she hopes to get a full-time job soon so she can focus on saving and applying to universities. She works every day, including weekends and holidays, but as she attests, “Having my weekends free would be delightful, but I think it keeps my mind occupied. It helps me adjust to my new life.”

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