One couple’s story of leaving Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria
by Hannah Wiley
Nearly a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, a young couple found themselves at a crossroads in the San Juan international airport. She was boarding a flight to Chicago, he was flying to Tampa.
Rachelis Díaz and her boyfriend of five years, Josué Colón, held each other crying, savouring the final moments before their separation.
“See you soon,” they reassured each other.
Díaz took off to stay with her brother Luis in Chicago, and Colón departed for Tampa to stay with cousins.
Arriving in Chicago in October 2017, Díaz quickly realized how much different her new city on the mainland would be from Puerto Rico.
Chicago winters come early, and fall days can feel bitter cold. Puerto Rico rarely falls below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and beaches are along the ocean, not a lake. Despite the weather shock, what Díaz felt most profoundly after landing at O’Hare International Airport was relief. She had the opportunity to financially, professionally and personally start over as a Hurricane Maria evacuee.
In two suitcases and a backpack, Díaz had packed her winter clothes she pulled from her closet every time she visited Luis, along with her computer, notepads from her studies at Interamerican University and all the children’s books she used as a first-grade teacher making $8 an hour at a private elementary school. “I was kind of surprised seeing that my new life fit in those bags,” Díaz says.
She’d resigned from her job and said goodbye to her island, leaving her home and her mother Raquel in the Cupey municipality, 30 minutes outside of Old San Juan, for the first time.
Díaz says she’s always considered herself the literal definition of Puerto Rican. Her mother is Spanish, her father from the island. She says she is a trigueño, the mix of Spanish, African and Indian apparent in her striking features: her olive-tanned skin, straight black hair, thick eyebrows and dark brown, almond-shaped eyes. At 25, she’s in the midst of self-discovery, navigating newfound independence and growing accustomed to paying her own phone bills and rent, grocery shopping and cooking for herself.
Díaz dreams of a life full of globetrotting adventure, with plans to travel through Spain and Italy to start. She and Colón, 27, didn’t expect to settle on the mainland, and certainly not as evacuees. American life, they say, is mundane, and the culture lacks colour. There is no dancing in the streets, music blaring from passing cars or warmth between friends.
“Many people think that the U.S. is the only great thing in the world,” Díaz says. But as U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans who leave their island find that the mainland offers the easiest transition to new opportunity. By March 2018, Chicago’s City Lab estimated that over 130,000 Puerto Ricans had evacuated the island after Maria. The number of Puerto Ricans expected to leave by 2020 could grow to 400,000. For decades, Puerto Ricans have left the island for better financial opportunity, their migration changing state demographics and the public school system. They have registered to vote, and, like Díaz, are growing accustomed to a country they’re technically a part of but have never truly been embraced by.
Puerto Rico faces a grim reality: the people who left might never come back and more will continue flocking to the U.S. The island is enduring an 11-year recession and a 10 percent unemployment rate. Schools are closing, pockets of the island are still without electricity and water, and the energy crisis continues. Concern over the so-called “brain drain” of educated professionals leaving continues to rise and the storm has only deepened Puerto Rico’s debt disaster.
But Díaz loves her island. She and Colón used to travel to new beaches every weekend, from Fajardo to Mayagüez, bar-hopping in search of the perfect mojito. Colón was also a student at Interamerican University, studying to become a chiropractor, and Díaz went back for another certification in teaching English as a Second Language. While Colón played basketball at the parks on Sundays, Díaz would do outdoor workouts alongside the court. They had worries about making and saving money, but looked forward to the future they planned together.
Before Maria, hurricanes were a normal part of life. To prepare for the storm, Colón moved into Díaz’s house a week before the Category 5 hurricane made landfall. With Díaz’s mom and dad going through a divorce, he wanted to provide extra support in case of emergency. Now a team of three, they followed the usual pre-hurricane routine. They got out the flashlights, stocked up on nonperishable food, took out cash, recharged portable chargers for when the power went out and filled water bottles.
The radar did not look promising. The massive rotation of clouds inched closer to the Caribbean islands, growing to twice the size of Puerto Rico. Winds were blowing at 155-mph when Maria hit the eastern end of the island.
Colón tried to capture the intensity on video when the storm barrelled into San Juan. In Snapchats on his phone, sheets of rain pour down, the wind howls against the house and a palm tree across the street bends to the ground, nearly snapping in half.
“I felt like everything was going to be turned over,” he says.
Díaz and her mom lived on a small hill in a chocolate-brown cement house constructed to endure a hurricane, but when the houses at the bottom of the hill began to flood, Colón told the women to start packing an emergency bag. Cash. Computers. Clothes. Food. Passports. They crafted an emergency plan to meet at the baseball stadium in the city in case they were caught in a flood and separated.
The rain battered the windows, the house shook, but the flooding never reached the house. Instead, they were shuttered inside for two days during the storm, playing cards and eating tuna sandwiches to pass the time.
Díaz says she’ll never forget what she saw leaving the house for the first time after the storm, comparing the island to a scene from the “Lion King” when Scar becomes King and the lush land turns to desert.
“It looked like everything caught on fire,” Díaz v.
The once-green branches were stripped bare. Lamp posts and cables littered the streets. Entire buildings wrecked, homes demolished. Trees were flattened against houses, while others lay uprooted from the ground, their trunks splintered in half.
“We didn’t recognize what we were looking at,” Díaz says. “This was something I’ve never seen in my life.”
The Pizza Hut Colón worked at delivering pizzas was destroyed.
“From one day to another, no job,” he says.
The entire island went into emergency mode, but with the island’s power grid destroyed, officials struggled to connect to the mainland. The millions of Puerto Ricans on the island were left isolated in the most desperate, life-threatening circumstances. It would be eight months before an official death count was recognized: over 4,600 people died as a direct result of Maria’s devastation on the island.
In the ensuing chaos immediately after Maria, Díaz was most worried about her brother, Augustin, who lived in Mayaguez. A week after the storm, he was able to call and said his home’s roof was torn off. He would need to come back to San Juan to temporarily move in with his sister and mom.
Díaz was the only person in the house who still had a job and her income suddenly had to support four people.
Díaz spent the next three weeks in survival mode. She was out of work most of September because of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and nearly half of October, so money was tight. Her hours were cut in half. Students arrived at 8 am, usually closer to 9 with the flow of traffic, and only stayed until noon. Making $32 a day was not enough to sustain the household with food prices skyrocketing. A 24-pack of water bottles now cost $36 and lines for gas stretched for miles. A 30-minute commute became two hours sitting in traffic. “You could do one thing per day,” Díaz says. The family had to decide if they wanted water, ice, gas or food, and then they would wait in line for the resources.
Díaz got her period in the days shortly after the storm, and even changing a tampon required careful calculation of finding an open business that would let her use the restroom. To bathe, Díaz heated water on the gas stove for a warm bath. Every decision demanded strategic planning.
Colón decided to leave the island while standing with Díaz in such a line for supplies. Growing frustrated with the relentless sun and overwhelming crowds, he called his cousins in Tampa to tell them that he couldn’t take the hours of waiting, baking in the unbearable heat anymore. He made plans to leave on October 15.
In a corner of her empty classroom one afternoon a few days later, Díaz had a sliver of cell phone service. On a whim, she checked one-way flights to Chicago and found a ticket for $125. She also booked her flight for October 15.
It was a bittersweet decision. She knew the struggle to support the family on a meager paycheque couldn’t last much longer, and she knew she could find better pay in the States. Friends on Díaz’s Facebook timeline denounced the Puerto Ricans leaving the island: “If you’re leaving, don’t come back,” they said.
Money disappeared quickly, and the $3,000 Díaz proudly saved for university payments dwindled to less than $1,000. “Everyone has to eat, everyone has things to do, and if you cannot do it because you don’t have a job or you’re not getting enough hours, who are you to judge?” she says.
The night before her flight, Díaz, Colón and her entire family went to dinner one last time at one of the only open restaurants in the area, a pizza place in San Juan. Looking around the table on that final night in Puerto Rico, Díaz felt exhausted. The year had been a tough one, starting with the passing of her grandfather, the grief compounded by her parents’ divorce and ending with Maria. “2017 was the shittiest year of my life,” Díaz says.
After arriving in Chicago, she rested for several days, sleeping into the afternoon on her brother’s couch in Lakeview. She didn’t have a job yet, no home to call her own, and for the first time since the hurricane, was away from Colón. She had $800 left to restart her life.
For a few weeks, she still struggled with a disaster-zone mindset. She rationed her food, splitting an entree in half to become both her lunch and dinner, and she wouldn’t put ice in water. She felt guilty for taking a hot shower. “I was very conscious of the actions I could do that I couldn’t do over there (in Puerto Rico),” Díaz says.
She started applying for teaching jobs and interviewed for a teacher’s aide position at Little Green Treehouse, a private preschool centre in Lincoln Park. She was hired at the end of October, and Colón moved to Chicago. Díaz now makes $17 an hour as an aide and Spanish teacher, earning over double her salary in Puerto Rico.
Colón landed a job as a sales representative at the Broadway LA Fitness location, and they signed a lease for a 16-month, one-bedroom apartment for $1,250 a month just a few blocks from Luis’s apartment in Lakeview. Luis loaned Díaz and Colón the first rent check. Family friends and coworkers in Chicago donated what they could spare: a couch, kitchen chairs, a table. They purchased a mattress, a television and a mirror. The apartment filled with mismatched furniture, donated materials that transformed the empty space into a home.
On an afternoon in mid-March, with spring quickly approaching, Díaz added another family picture to the Christmas tree still standing in the living room. “It takes up space so it doesn’t feel so empty,” she says.
They don’t know what’s next, or where they’ll go. They have time to figure that out and a Chicago summer to reflect back on through the winter. Chicago also offers what Puerto Rico could not: steady employment. “We’re making more money. We’re spending more, but we’re making more,” Colón says. “But I don’t feel like we are tied,” Díaz counters. If they want to go out, they go. Díaz feels the freedom to spend extra grocery money and they can send a small sum of their paychecks back home to their families. “It’s not much,” Díaz says, starting to cry.
In a text sharing updates, Díaz says her family’s financial situation is much better than in the months following Maria. “They have been independent for a while now,” she writes.
The couple have spent a year in Chicago. They’ve filled their social media feeds with mojitos at trendy bars throughout the city, of sunny summer days at the beach.
Eventually, they hope to return to school, but not in Chicago. Before Maria, Díaz had six classes left of her ESL certification, and Colón was a year from graduating with his bachelor’s degree. Maybe they’ll finish in Puerto Rico, or perhaps pack up for a new adventure.
But for now, the midwest city is home.
Hannah Wiley is a journalist from Chicago living in Austin, Texas. She graduated with her MSJ from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, and reports on immigrant, refugee and migrant communities.
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