Puerto Ricans struggle to rebuild lives in Mass.

Evacuees face language, culture, economic barriers

ON A CRISP morning in November, Veronica Perez and Limarie Rivera, both self-evacuees from Puerto Rico, borrow a car from Rivera’s cousin and make their way to the New North Citizens’ Council in Springfield. New North is one of nearly two dozen welcome centers around the state designated as a first stop for people coming in from US territories and states pummeled by Hurricane Maria.

Finding an affordable apartment is their most pressing concern that day, but jobs, child care, better nutrition, and transportation are all pieces of the puzzle they must assemble to rebuild their lives on the mainland, a task that at times seems out of reach. “It isn’t easy,” Perez says, over and over. She and Rivera share gnawing concerns about what will happen to their families if they can’t secure jobs and housing before their emergency aid runs out.

Wolfredo Rivera, a volunteer at the New North Citizens’ Council in Springfield, helps Puerto Rican self-evacuees to Massachusetts. (Photograph by Linda Enerson)

While some evacuees are staying with relatives with the means to help them, many others, including Perez and Rivera, have arrived with little more than their suitcase and a good measure of grit. After toughing it out without power or schools in Puerto Rico, they fled their homes for a healthier environment and better opportunities for their children.

By mid-December, 4,300 hurricane survivors had registered at the state’s welcome centers. About half of them registered in western Massachusetts at New North and the two other welcome centers in Springfield and Holyoke. Others have headed to Boston, Lawrence, and other cities with sizeable Puerto Rican communities.

In the immediate aftermath of Maria, almost all public and private relief initiatives were directed at Puerto Rico. But as efforts to restore power faltered, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state governments scrambled to respond to the vast migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland. The coordination of resources is still being worked out, but in general FEMA pays for shelter (emergency, transitional, or rental) while the state provides food stamps for those who are eligible. Private and state resources as well as volunteers support the work of the welcome centers. The children of Perez and Rivera are enrolled in the Springfield schools.

On any given weekday, the New North Welcome Center bustles with new arrivals who want to register for FEMA and access health care, public schools, career services, and English classes. On the day in November, the boiler at New North was not working. Like everyone else, Perez and Rivera kept their coats on.

Like many evacuees, the two women chose Massachusetts because they have relatives here. Rivera and her two sons came up from Moca, a town in the northwest corner of Puerto Rico, in October and stayed at her cousin’s house for a week before getting approved for transitional assistance at a nearby hotel contracted by FEMA. Last month, more than 700 families were approved for transitional assistance in Massachusetts.

Perez and her three children came up a few weeks later. Her home in Dorado had been without power for 50 days. Schools were closed. Grocery shoppers were limited to 15 minutes inside the store to curb lines that snaked out the door. People waited up to 12 hours to get propane for home generators.  In late October, her twin girls got sick from breathing generator fumes and were hospitalized for 10 days.  “After that, my husband said, ‘You can’t stay here no more, you’ve got to take the kids and get out,’” Perez says. He stayed behind because he isn’t bilingual and was concerned the language barrier would keep him from finding work in Massachusetts.

Perez was immediately approved for transitional assistance and moved into a hotel room near Rivera’s. They quickly struck up a friendship, helping each other navigate the complex web of available services and benefits. Rivera has access to a car but speaks no English. Perez, who is bilingual, translates for Rivera.

While every evacuee’s story is different, the obstacles Perez and Rivera face each day to find some semblance of stability since the storm upended their lives mirrors those facing many others in the same boat.

“We’re very thankful we have a home, but right now it’s very difficult in the hotels. We don’t have kitchens,” says Perez. “We have a refrigerator, but it’s real small. We can only buy juices and milk, so we don’t really have food. My kids, they are used to my food—rice, beans, and stuff like that. They’re not eating a lot. My kids and her kids, we’re having that same struggle.”

Many displaced Puerto Ricans are eligible for food stamps. But Rosa Espinosa, the welcome center program director, says “you can only buy cold food with food stamps. You can’t go out to a restaurant and buy hot food.”  Those not eligible for food stamps are draining their limited resources to dine out.

The lack of nutritious food has taken a toll on Rivera’s health. “Right now, she’s having some problems with sugar with her liver so she needs to have a better diet and right now that’s hard,” Perez says. The perilousness of their situation also takes a psychological toll. “She is real depressed,” says Perez of Rivera, as both women start crying. “I could say the same thing, right? It’s not easy leaving your home, everything, so we are struggling with that.  You have to be strong for your kids, but sometimes it’s hard to just stay strong.”

“I thank God every single day my kids sleep warm,” Perez says. But FEMA’s emergency shelter program is temporary. It is scheduled to expire in mid-January, although it could be extended another month or so. Either way, time is running short for Perez and Rivera to find more permanent housing, which is no easy task.

“The shelters are full. And Section 8 vouchers are a rare bird. The last voucher we gave out was to someone who had been on the list since 2003,” says Lauren Voyer, senior vice president of housing support services at Way Finders in Springfield.

Both women see employment as the key to rebuilding their lives. “From the beginning” says Perez, “I always say, I just want a job, I don’t want to live like just give me, give me. I want to work. The access to do that is just hard. Where do we go? How do we just do it? Every day, we ask the same questions.”

Barriers to employment include the lack of reciprocity with Puerto Rico on professional licensures, limited bus schedules, and a lack of affordable child care. Perez, who taught English in an elementary school, has interviewed for some positions in local schools, but so far has received no job offers.

Rivera owns a nail salon back home.  “She does beautiful work,” Perez says. Rivera smiles as she scrolls through some photos on her phone. She holds up a shot of her handiwork, elaborately decorated, super-long nails.

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Language is a barrier for Rivera in both getting a job or relocating her business here. Espinosa says the welcome center offers English classes at 6 p.m. “How is she going to get here at 6 p.m.?” Perez asks. “Who is going to take care of her children. You solve one problem, and it just opens a box to another one.”

CommonWealth plans to follow the progress of Perez and Rivera and possibly others from Puerto Rico. Watch for future stories online.