BY MICHELLE SANTIAGO CORTÉS
All the instruments and teaching materials have been pushed aside to make room for cases of bottled water, Goya cans, suitcases, tables, and chairs. Two young parents take turns entertaining their toddler, and their older relative paces around their table, while a volunteer discusses housing options in Brookline. A pair of middle-aged siblings find their way to the back to wait for a volunteer.
Near the door, a young mother pushes a stroller back and forth to soothe her son, a baby with fat cheeks that spill over the collar of his jacket. (“A parachute, that’s what he looks like!” she says to the father). The volunteer assigned to them is making a call.
It’s pouring rain outside of Sociedad Latina in Roxbury, the site of one of the three pop-up centers that opened the week after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. People come here to find places for their displaced families to live.
Luisa Mercedes, 53, is from Aibonito, a mountain municipality in Puerto Rico haunted by a local myth involving a llorona (Spanish for “crier”). She paints an apocalyptic picture of a world ravaged by wind and water: “We saw the cars under water where we were staying. We saw a light post ripped out at the root.” She’s wearing jeans and a puffer jacket zipped up to her chin.
Luisa is in Boston with her 19-year-old son, her daughter-in-law, also 19, and their 11-month-old son, the parachute baby. After the hurricane left her and her family homeless, they lived in a house near Aibonito that belonged to a friend from Chicago for the past month, but the homeowner’s family will need the house during Christmastime, she explained. Boston became a solution because she has family here.
Nearly a month after her house was destroyed, Luisa and her family arrived at Logan Airport. “We got here and we didn’t have anyone to pick us up, so we were adrift,” she recalls. “There we were, crying, and this woman walked by to get a taxi. She saw the baby crying and then asked us what happened and we told her.”
They spent the night at the woman’s home, and she brought them to Sociedad Latina the next morning.
As of early November, more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans have fled the island of about 3.4 million residents, escaping the wrath of Hurricane Maria. A survey of 6,000 Puerto Ricans that have left the island found that over half of them don’t know if they will return, 19 percent have made the choice to stay stateside, and 30 percent say they plan to go back when they can.
DUCK, DUCK, HURRICANE
To quote the US Supreme Court, Puerto Rico and its people are “foreign in a domestic sense.” Even in a state that has more than 300,000 Puerto Ricans, about 30,000 of them living in Boston, this sticky mess of legal ambiguity means that Luisa, a US citizen, faces the same challenge as many foreign immigrants: She doesn’t speak English. But unlike immigrants, she’s lived on US soil her entire life. She doesn’t have to worry about a visa, but this is only the second time she has ever set foot on the mainland.
The Jones Act imposed US citizenship on island residents 100 years ago. Since then, a passport just as blue as any Florida or California native’s has helped Puerto Rican residents avoid (or survive, depending on whom you ask) the island’s hardest times by moving to the 50 states and paying visits to the island at will. There’s always something to throw the budget out of whack: the economic depression of the early ’50s, the ’70s, the 2007 recession, and now, Maria. Duck, duck, hurricane.
Although the headline-worthy lack of water and electricity is Puerto Rico’s new normal, the resulting mass migration isn’t. Most Puerto Ricans on the island have family or know someone in the States. If they haven’t lived stateside themselves, they at least know somebody who has. It’s like small-town ennui, the colonial edition: a national rite of passage. Island residents ask themselves, “Here or there?” It’s thrown around as an accusation, “You want to stay here?” or “So, you going to just leave?” For some it’s a declaration: “I’m out!” or “I was born here and I’ll die here!”
Luisa was #YoNoMeQuito (#IDontGiveUp). She always saw herself as the “us” that stayed. She planned to always stand her ground. Like many, she thought the best thing any Puerto Rican could do for her country was stay. But everything changed after the wind blew the roof from over her head.
“What happened with Maria was a matter of circumstance. But it’s hard, getting up and trying to work,” Luisa admitted. “I [heard] my kids [say], ‘Mom, we don’t have this for the baby. Mom, there isn’t any–’ I suffered, I cried. I cried so much watching my kids suffer.” For now, Luisa is just working on finding a job.
Sociedad Latina’s pop-up center has received hundreds of people from all over Puerto Rico—southern cities, suburbs, mountain townships, and beach towns. Meanwhile, as more are expected to come, with the pattern of Puerto Rican migration cycling in waves that brings islanders to mainland shores, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is now making the process even harder, if not impossible, for many of those families that are suffering. As the Boston Herald reported just last week: “Hurricane Maria survivors who fled the devastation in Puerto Rico are being dropped by the federal program that was set up to keep a roof over their heads, leaving them scrambling for shelter and praying for help.”
“You ask folks, how are you? And you get, ‘I’m OK.’ That means that they’re alive. The person that tells you they’re OK, they just lost their house,” Boston policeman Luis A. Cruz explained. “They just lost everything … That’s gotta be someone who is very resilient and proud because they’d be devastated to lose everything.”
Cruz flew into San Juan on Oct 7 with seven other BPD officers from LLEGO Boston, a social group made up of Latino law enforcement officers. More than 25 members have given two weeks of their time in Puerto Rico.
“I was one of the idiots who looked out the window,” Cruz said.
He knew that the eye of Hurricane Maria tore through his father’s hometown, Yabucoa. Cruz also knew the view from the plane would be different this time and that he would be flooded by a different wave of feelings, but he still looked.
While in Puerto Rico, Cruz and his colleagues were assigned to accompany local police on patrols. He felt they weren’t being put to good use, so his colleagues found a shipping container full of food and water. “So we just started taking the boxes and taking the water.” They had a bus for a few days to get to and from the ship that they used to transport these goods to wherever they were assigned.
Cruz says the trip wasn’t humanitarian—it was personal. It’s an island they know through the stories of others and through memories that they have inherited. “My father passed all that stuff down to me,” Cruz says. “How he grew up, how he was raised. I was close to my grandfather, el abuelo mío.”
As a child in Boston in the ’70s, Cruz says his father played “that jíbaro music,” traditional folk songs from the mountains, around the house. That same music came to life during Christmas. “We used to do parrandas here when I was a kid, in like 20 below zero.” A parranda is like surprise caroling with a live band, rum, and food.
Cruz’s family regularly visited Puerto Rico to see relatives, but his life has always been in Boston. While he says that it gets harder to pass down the culture to the next generation, he still participates in word-of-mouth journalism. The day Maria made landfall, he was at Recreo Café in West Roxbury, where Cruz was catching up with the shop owner roasting coffee beans behind the counter. Her husband is Puerto Rican, so they shared updates on the island’s status to make some kind of sense out of the rubble. The island’s uprooted cell towers and uncharged cell phones were flooded with calls with Florida, New York, and Massachusetts area codes, desperate for a 787 response.
“I consider myself to be Boricua,” Cruz says. Boricua, the word Puerto Ricans use to refer to themselves, comes from the Native American name for the island, Borikén. “Even though I was born here, por herencia de mi padre, yo soy boricua.” By my paternal heritage, I am Boricua. “So I feel like I’m part of that island. So there’s a connection, a personal connection.” In Spanish, he inhales the “s” sounds at the end of his words and scrapes the “r” against the back of his throat, as Southern Puerto Ricans often do.
ADOBO TO INJURY
Otoniel Figueroa, 45, rolls his daughter’s stroller through his office door. He points at the Puerto Rican flag on the wall. “¿Qué bandera es esa? ¿De dónde es?” he says, asking, What flag is that? Where is it from? English and Spanish are the official languages of his homeland and household. His English accent is Puerto Rican regional—not an accent of Spanish busting through English seams, but an accent born on and of a bilingual island.
A life in the States was never his plan. Figueroa studied labor relations at the University of Puerto Rico, a campus that has fueled generations of intense student activism. (A recent example: students holding signs that read “¡nuestras vidas no son tu teatro!,” our lives are not your theater, during Lin-Manuel Miranda’s visit to announce a Puerto Rico staging of Hamilton.)
Figueroa finished his master’s degree in Madrid and returned to Puerto Rico to help his sister take care of their sick mother. Then moving meant moving away. He arrived in New York four weeks before 9/11 and has lived in Jamaica Plain for the past four years. He makes a living as the director for the commercial division for a property service workers’ union and says he’s been exposed to the self-identified Puerto Rican diaspora—children of earlier waves of migration.
When the governor of Puerto Rico declared that the island’s public debt was “un-payable” in 2015, Figueroa looked to Boston’s network of Boricua organizations for answers. In time they formed a supergroup of Boston Boricuas that included Inquilinos Boricuas in Acción CEO Vanessa Calderón, former City Councilor Félix Arroyo Sr., and activist and veteran Jaime Rodríguez. They discovered that Mass Mutual in Springfield was a holder of Puerto Rico government bonds through Oppenheimer Funds and wrote a letter to CEO Roger Crandall requesting him to refrain from promoting austerity measures. They organized a small rally and brought drums to his speech at the Boston Chamber of Commerce’s annual event.
The history of Puerto Rico is written all over Boston, and Boston’s history has a few pages in the history of the island of the “rich port.” Right behind the specialty tea shops and concept stores of the South End, Aguadilla and San Juan streets serve as fortresses for the Villa Victoria housing complex—a Boricua triumph over late ’70s gentrification. In the ’60s, Puerto Rican migrant workers took over the low-wage jobs earlier generations of Southern blacks and European immigrants abandoned. New England agriculture needed Caribbean migrant workers, and Boston capital was directed toward the gruesome mechanization of Puerto Rico’s sugar industry.
“Seven weeks after Maria, we called a meeting at the offices of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción,” Figueroa says. “Two hundred and seventy-five people showed up. It was an emotional meeting.” Figueroa adds that he’s not burdened with survivor’s guilt, because he channels all his energy back into organizing.
“We opened singing the national anthem, the Puerto Rican anthem, and En Mi Viejo San Juan,” he says. “People were emotional, crying. It was a way to get together, to vent, because everybody was, ‘I don’t know where my father is,’ ‘I don’t know where my grandma is, my sister, I haven’t talked to them.’”