Puerto Ri­cans flee is­land for Val­ley

Many are still without food, wa­ter, elec­tric­ity

The Arizona Republic - - Front Page - Daniel González

Puerto Ri­cans still without elec­tric­ity more than five weeks after a mas­sive hur­ri­cane dev­as­tated the is­land are flee­ing to the U.S. main­land by the thou­sands.

Some, such as 36-year-old Grace Cas­tro and her fam­ily, are set­tling in with rel­a­tives in Ari­zona, far from cen­tral Florida, where a mas­sive wave of nearly 75,000 Puerto Ri­cans has ar­rived since Hur­ri­cane Maria slammed the U.S. ter­ri­tory on Sept. 20.

Haul­ing two large bags stuffed with cloth­ing, Cas­tro, 36, ar­rived in Phoenix a lit-

Still without elec­tric­ity after Hur­ri­cane Maria dev­as­tated the U.S. ter­ri­tory more than five weeks ago, thou­sands of Puerto Ri­cans are headed to the main­land, in­clud­ing Phoenix

tle over a week ago with her 4-year-old son, Yet­zael Bar­rios, her 63-year-old mother, Maria Ar­royo, and her 91-year-old grand­mother, En­gra­cia Mo­rales.

The four moved in with Cas­tro’s sis­ter, El­iz­a­beth Reyes, 33, who has lived in Phoenix for the past two years since mov­ing here her­self from Puerto Rico with her twin 13-year-old sons.

Now that she is in Ari­zona, Cas­tro said she has no plans to re­turn to Puerto Rico, ex­cept to sell her house and col­lect the rest of her be­long­ings and bring them to Phoenix.

“The plan is to stay here per­ma­nently,” said Cas­tro, seated at a din­ing-room ta­ble in­side her sis­ter’s small but com­fort­able two-bed­room apart­ment near Mary­land and 18th av­enues in north­cen­tral Phoenix.

In the liv­ing room, her grand­mother sat on the sofa watch­ing tele­vi­sion un­der a Puerto Ri­can flag that hung on the wall.

Her grand­mother suf­fers from Alzheimer’s and de­men­tia, Cas­tro said. Her mother also has sev­eral health prob­lems, in­clud­ing heart dis­ease, di­a­betes and high blood pres­sure, and it had be­come too hard to care for them both in Puerto Rico, Cas­tro said.

Cas­tro and her fam­ily rode out Hur­ri­cane Maria in their ce­ment house in Toa Alta, a mu­nic­i­pal­ity west of San Juan, the cap­i­tal.

Their house with­stood Hur­ri­cane Maria, which bar­reled through the is­land as a Cat­e­gory 4 storm pack­ing 140 mph winds, caus­ing cat­a­strophic dam­age and an on­go­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis. But Cas­tro said she and her fam­ily sur­vived for weeks without elec­tric­ity, run­ning wa­ter, cell­phone ser­vice, the in­ter­net, tele­vi­sion and re­frig­er­a­tion.

For drink­ing wa­ter, they re­sorted to col­lect­ing rain in buck­ets from their roof and lived on canned food they stock­piled be­fore the storm hit.

Dur­ing the day, they stood in line up to six hours to buy ice to keep cold drinks cool.

At night, afraid to go out­side be­cause of a rise in crime, they burned can­dles for light. They swel­tered through the trop­i­cal heat un­able to sleep without air-con­di­tion­ing, un­til Reyes in Phoenix mailed them a small bat­tery-op­er­ated light and fan.

“We were liv­ing just day to day,” Cas­tro said. More Puerto Ri­cans com­ing to main­land

Puerto Ri­cans were granted U.S. cit­i­zen­ship in 1917, nearly 20 years after the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War, which ended with the U.S. tak­ing pos­ses­sion of the is­land, con­vert­ing it into a U.S. ter­ri­tory. As U.S. cit­i­zens, Puerto Ri­cans are free to move at will to the U.S. main­land.

Be­tween 114,000 and 213,000 Puerto Ri­cans are ex­pected to soon leave the is­land due to Hur­ri­cane Maria, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Puerto Ri­can Stud­ies at Hunter Col­lege.

Over the next two years, Puerto Rico may lose up to 470,335 peo­ple, or 14 per­cent of the is­land’s 3.4 mil­lion peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the cen­ter.

The new ex­o­dus is on top of the 500,000 Puerto Ri­cans who al­ready left Puerto Rico over the past decade seek­ing bet­ter eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties be­cause of the is­land’s on­go­ing fi­nan­cial cri­sis, the cen­ter said. Even be­fore the hur­ri­cane, the is­land was al­ready over $70 bil­lion in pub­lic debt.

More than 40 per­cent of the is­land’s pop­u­la­tion lives in poverty, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus Bu­reau. The is­land has an un­em­ploy­ment rate of 10 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. De­part­ment of La­bor Bu­reau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics.

Puerto Ri­cans have been mov­ing to the main­land in large num­bers since the 1950s, when a quar­ter mil­lion Puerto Ri­cans left and set­tled largely in New York City and the sur­round­ing area as well as in Chicago.

But the lat­est wave has been set­tling largely in Florida, which, with over 1 mil­lion Puerto Ri­cans, has the sec­ond­high­est Puerto Ri­can pop­u­la­tion in the U.S. Florida is ex­pected to soon sur­pass New York as the state with the largest num­ber of Puerto Ri­cans.

In 2015, nearly 89,000 Puerto Ri­cans set­tled in Florida, mostly around the Or­lando and Kis­sim­mee ar­eas in the cen­tral part of the state, more than any other year, said Cristalis Capielo, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Ari­zona State Univer­sity who stud­ies Puerto Ri­can mi­gra­tion.

By com­par­i­son, nearly that many Puerto Ri­cans have ar­rived in Florida just since the hur­ri­cane hit, she said.

There are now far more Puerto Ri­cans liv­ing in the United States, 5.5 mil­lion, than in Puerto Rico, 3.4 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Puerto Ri­can Stud­ies.

As the state­side pop­u­la­tion has swelled, in­creas­ing num­bers of Puerto Ri­cans are find­ing their way to states other than New York, New Jersey and Florida, set­tling in Texas, Ge­or­gia and Ari­zona, drawn by warm weather, cheaper hous­ing and bet­ter eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties, Capielo said.

Among those leav­ing are many pro­fes­sion­als who can’t find jobs in Puerto Rico but are forced to take jobs in the U.S. be­low their ed­u­ca­tion lev­els be­cause they of­ten don’t speak English, she said.

The Puerto Ri­can pop­u­la­tion in Ari­zona is grow­ing fast, Capielo said. It grew 27 per­cent to 44,257 from 2010 to 2014. About 19,102 Puerto Ri­cans live in the Phoenix area, she said, cit­ing U.S. cen­sus data from the Amer­i­can Com­mu­nity Sur­vey.

She said she ex­pects the Puerto Ri­can pop­u­la­tion in Ari­zona to swell even more as more fam­i­lies flee­ing the dev­as­ta­tion caused by Hur­ri­cane Maria move here to live with rel­a­tives.

“I wouldn’t think it would be as sig­nif­i­cant as Florida, Ge­or­gia or Texas, but we will def­i­nitely see an in­crease,” she said.

She also ex­pects most of those who move to Ari­zona from Puerto Rico to set­tle here per­ma­nently be­cause it will take years for the is­land to re­cover from the hur­ri­cane, and there is no end in sight to the is­land’s fi­nan­cial cri­sis, which has trig­gered cuts in gov­ern­ment ser­vices. Schools also re­main closed and may not re­open un­til the new year, she said.

“Our hy­poth­e­sis is that it’s go­ing to be a per­ma­nent re­lo­ca­tion,” she said. Move is ear­lier than ex­pected

Cas­tro’s sis­ter, El­iz­a­beth Reyes, moved to Phoenix in 2015 with her two sons, seek­ing bet­ter em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties. She shared an apart­ment with her step­daugh­ter, who moved to Phoenix from Puerto Rico eight years ago, un­til she found her own place.

Reyes now works as a cashier at a restau­rant, the Puerto Rico Latin Bar and Grill, on Thomas Street in west Phoenix.

Cas­tro said she was al­ready con­sid­er­ing mov­ing to Phoenix be­fore the hur­ri­cane hit be­cause the eco­nomic cri­sis had made it dif­fi­cult to find a good-pay­ing job and had also spurred an in­crease in crime.

She had been work­ing at a call cen­ter do­ing tech­no­log­i­cal sup­port in Puerto Rico, but in Phoenix she hoped to land a job in hu­man re­sources or cus­tomer ser­vice us­ing a de­gree in busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion she re­cently com­pleted.

“What hap­pened with the hur­ri­cane just speeded up” her move to Phoenix, Cas­tro said.


Phoenix res­i­dent El­iz­a­beth Reyes cares for her fam­ily. They are among thou­sands of Puerto Ri­cans who fled hur­ri­cane dev­as­ta­tion to live with fam­ily in U.S. main­land.

Grace Cas­tro, 36, and 4-year-old son Yet­zael ar­rived in Phoenix a lit­tle more than a week ago to live with her sis­ter El­iz­a­beth Reyes after sur­viv­ing for weeks in the de­struc­tion left by Hur­ri­cane Maria.


Many Puerto Ri­cans have fled to live with fam­ily in the Val­ley.

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