Migrants rebuild their lives in Puerto Rico despite challenges

Recovering from Hurricane Maria in 2017 was not easy for Adrian Guillén, a Mexican immigrant living in San Juan who owns a tortilla shop called Creaciones Mexicanas LLC that he likes to describe as a little piece of Mexico in Puerto Rico. “It was horrible. This is still an experience that my family and I haven’t overcome,” he said.

Guillen, 55, emigrated from Veracruz in 1989 seeking the American Dream. His wife followed in 2014. “The American Dream is a sacrifice, that is what we do as migrants,” he said. “We come here looking for a better life sacrificing everything.”

After Hurricane Maria, he closed his business for four months. “We are still carrying the consequences of that hurricane. We had a lot of losses and that just generated more debt,” Guillen said. He started cleaning the streets, picking up trees that fell after the hurricane, and working in construction to get money to fix the damage to his business. But he never lost hope of opening his shop again.

Adrian Guillén and his wife’s tortilla shop, Creaciones Mexicanas LLC, is popular among the Mexican and Puerto Rican communities. Since he arrived to Puerto Rico in 1989, he has never felt like a foreigner. “Since the first day I arrived here I felt at home,” Guillén said.

The Center for Puerto Rican Studies found that Hurricane Maria caused billions of dollars in damages and left 3.4 million residents without power, potable water and telecommunications. Six months after the storm, the George Washington University estimated the hurricane caused 2,975 deaths.

Puerto Rico’s recovery from the worst storm to hit the island was due in great part to the contributions of immigrants that stayed after the hurricane, said Rolando Acosta, director of Attention to Migrants in San Juan. “If it wasn’t for the immigrants, Puerto Rico would be in worse conditions. Immigrants are important for the economic support,” he said.

The island’s population is comprised of diverse migrant communities. “Many migrants living in Puerto Rico come from the Dominican Republic, Cuba and recently with the political situation, we have received migrants from Venezuela,” said Luz León, a professor from the University of Puerto Rico who specializes in migration and demographics.

About 15% of Puerto Rico’s population are migrants, according to official counts by the office of Attention to Migrants in San Juan. The Dominican Republic and Cuba are the main counties where migrants come from at 10% and 2%, respectively. They are followed by Colombia with 1.7%, Venezuela with 1.4% and Mexico with 1.3%.

“Us Latinos, we don’t give up, we always look out for solutions,” Guillen said. His routine of making tortillas has changed since Hurricane Maria. Due to the power shortages after the hurricane, his tortilla machine stopped working. Now he and his wife wake up early to open the business and start making tortillas by hand. There aren’t many Mexicans in Puerto Rico, but Guillen attributes the recovery of his business to their support.

While migrants continue to come to Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017, the island registered one of the highest relocation rates of Puerto Ricans to the mainland. “Approximately 160,000 Puerto Ricans moved to the United States,” said Jennifer Hinojosa, research associate and data center coordinator at City University of New York’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies.

This population drop-off is due to a series of social and demographic factors, such as higher housing costs and school closures throughout the island because there are fewer children, according to a study by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. “Recovery is estimated to take years,” said Hinojosa.

The number of migrants coming to the island with and without documents has fluctuated over time, but mostly declined over the past five years, according to a study by the University of Puerto Rico. Two years ago, 23,153 migrants entered Puerto Rico compared to 24,652 in 2013, a 6% drop. “It is sad that migrants have stopped entering the island as they did in the past,” León said. This decline is attributed to the economic crisis Puerto Rico is going through and the lack of employment opportunities.

“I believe migrants think that if I they are going to have difficulties in Puerto Rico, they prefer to stay in their home countries,” Leon said.

While many Puerto Ricans left after Hurricane Maria, some migrants came to reimagine their lives in a new country they have embraced as their own.

Bienvenido García, 60, sells ice-cream on the popular street of Fortaleza in Old San Juan. While many tourists and locals take pictures with colorful umbrellas hanging overhead, he rings the bells of his cart. “I have been selling ice-cream since I arrived in Puerto Rico,” he said, adding that he left his hometown of Nagua in the Dominican Republic in 1989 to seek better opportunities in Puerto Rico.

Garcia worked as a waiter back in his home country. Even though he enjoyed working in a restaurant, staying in the Dominican Republic was not an option. “The economic situation back then was tough. Everything was very expensive, that pushed me to leave my hometown.”

Garcia traveled with nothing but the clothes he was wearing on a yola, a boat made of wood that is used to transport migrants from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico. “I was sad when I left the Dominican Republic that day because that is my home country, a little piece of my heart,” he said. After traveling for more than 23 hours, he arrived during the evening in Yauco.

Bienvenido Garcia doesn’t regret his decision of migrating to Puerto Rico from the Dominican Republic and risking his life on that journey. “Puerto Rico is a land of opportunities,” Garcia said, adding that he can’t imagine how different his life would be if he had stayed in his home country.

“People seek a better life, jobs, income—those are the main motives for these individuals to migrate here,” Acosta said.

Garcia lived undocumented for 10 years in Puerto Rico. “Every migrant has dreams. You come here with goals, but once you arrive to the island, we work to live, pay bills, rent and send some money to our families,” he said. He later got married to a Puerto Rican and got his citizenship, and now visits the Dominican Republic whenever he has a chance.

In August 2017, Garcia spent some days in his hometown. After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, he returned to Puerto Rico and couldn’t believe what he saw. “I felt it on my soul, I lost everything,” he said.

Now separated from his wife, he lives in a rented room on Barrio Obrero in San Juan. “My room was devastated, I couldn’t live there,” Garcia said. He moved in with his sister for a few days until he saved some money to rent a room again.

Garcia didn’t receive any help after the hurricane. “I trusted God and when I had the chance to sell ice-cream again, I grabbed my cart and started working. I didn’t wait for help,” he said. Many migrants didn’t receive any money from insurance or help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They can’t qualify because they don’t own the houses where they live, said Acosta.

“The hurricane highly affected the migrant communities. Many people still live with no ceiling,” Acosta said. A study by the University of Puerto Rico found that 50% of migrants live in poverty. “Migrants usually live in unsafe places where rent is cheap, but floods are common, and these are the areas that are devastated the most when a natural disaster happens.”

Despite the challenges, some persevere. Garcia said, “There is something about migrants. We always progress. I believe in the dream of working and prospering despite everything.”