On the main­land, re­defin­ing home

Hur­ri­cane Maria forced rel­a­tives of a Va. woman to leave Puerto Rico for state­side fam­ily — at least for a while

The Washington Post - - METRO - BY JUSTIN WM. MOYER

Maria Mercedes Olivieri stands in the par­lor of her home in Burke, Va., por­ing over the rough out­line of a four­gen­er­a­tion fam­ily tree she’s drawn. A dis­cus­sion of what she calls her fam­ily’s “con­tin­u­ous cir­cu­lar move­ment” be­tween Puerto Rico and the main­land United States in the past half-cen­tury de­mands a vis­ual aid.

She came to Vir­ginia “41 years ago for one year,” she said, and ended up stay­ing for gov­ern­ment jobs and to raise a fam­ily, even af­ter she di­vorced.

A cousin di­vides her time be­tween Puerto Rico and nearby Alexan­dria, where she bought a house last year to be closer to her grand­chil­dren. Over the years, other rel­a­tives came to the main­land, too — to New York, to Florida, to Cal­i­for­nia. But Puerto Rico has al­ways been home.

Olivieri’s mother lives there, as do her sis­ters, nieces and neph­ews. That may be why she de­scribes her­self as “an ac­ci­den­tal im­mi­grant.” She never planned to stay in the United States.

“I would have gone back to the is­land in a heart­beat,” she said. “That’s where fam­ily is.”

But fam­ily is now here in Vir­ginia. Hur­ri­cane Maria tore through the is­land Sept. 20, knock­ing down homes, con­tam­i­nat­ing drink­ing wa­ter and leav­ing much of the ter­ri­tory with­out elec­tric­ity. Her sis­ter packed up their 92-year-old mother, an un­cle, 95, and his 93-year-old wife and took refuge in Vir­ginia. A niece stayed but sent her 8-year-old son to live with his grand­fa­ther in Orlando, where he could en­roll in school.

Olivieri, 70, and her ex­tended fam­ily are

try­ing to ac­cli­mate to their up­ended lives. For some, that means pick­ing up a new lan­guage or a new job, mak­ing room for dis­placed rel­a­tives, or learn­ing to live apart. And it means fig­ur­ing out what home means now.

Of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that 100,000 Puerto Ri­cans left the is­land af­ter Maria, ex­tend­ing a mass mi­gra­tion that be­gan decades ago. Even be­fore the dev­as­tat­ing storm knocked out its en­tire power grid and de­stroyed its rain for­est, Puerto Rico was deeply in debt, los­ing jobs, pro­fes­sion­als, young peo­ple and hope for the fu­ture. In­deed, more Puerto Ri­cans live in the main­land United States than in Puerto Rico.

“This move­ment from Puerto Rico to here has been go­ing on since I was small,” said Enid Olivieri, Maria’s 65-year-old sis­ter. “Al­most every­one has some­one who is here.”

Un­like her sis­ter, Enid Olivieri raised her fam­ily in Puerto Rico, work­ing as a pas­tor. When her husband, a chem­i­cal en­gi­neer, lost his job in 2010, they con­tem­plated mov­ing to the main­land. Their daugh­ter had gone to school in France, then ended up in Long Is­land, where she is rais­ing a grand­child. But, ques­tions about find­ing work aside, they couldn’t quite wrap their heads around the prospect of shov­el­ing snow.

So Enid Olivieri stayed — and en­dured Hur­ri­cane Maria. It quickly be­came clear that clean drink­ing wa­ter wouldn’t last and elec­tric­ity wasn’t con­sis­tent enough to power the breath­ing ma­chine she uses to bat­tle sleep ap­nea. The fam­ily de­cided she should lead their elders on a so­journ from San Juan to Vir­ginia in what Maria Olivieri called a “pa­rade of wheel­chairs.”

The plane tick­ets were oneway, and the old­est mem­bers of the fam­ily were not happy.

“I was dragged,” said Maria Mercedes Ramos Ro­driguez, mother of the Olivieri sis­ters.

Car­los Ramos Ro­driguez, her brother, and his wife, Luz Se­le­nia Gon­za­lez, ended up stay­ing with Eris Trinidad, a 69-year-old cousin who lives in Alexan­dria.

Trinidad and her husband have been trav­el­ing be­tween Puerto Rico and the main­land for more than a year now. They bought a house in Vir­ginia in 2016 be­cause three of their chil­dren live there or nearby — two work­ing for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, one serv­ing in the Army at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. But their par­ents re­main in Puerto Rico and re­quire care.

The cou­ple was in Alexan­dria, car­ing for their grand­chil­dren, when Maria struck — a bless­ing, Trinidad said.

Enid Olivieri’s niece, 32-yearold Josely Dav­ila, has al­ways lived in Puerto Rico. Af­ter Maria’s dev­as­ta­tion, she made the dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to send her 8-year-old son, Yasel, to Florida to live with his grand­fa­ther in Orlando. She stayed be­hind in San Juan, re­turn­ing to her job as a 911 op­er­a­tor.

Dav­ila saw no other op­tion. She wanted to go to Florida her­self but couldn’t with­out a job.

“I was des­per­ate,” she said. “I wanted to get him there so he could be fine, so he could have [elec­tric­ity], so he could be in peace, so he could be safe.”

The tran­si­tion came with daily phone calls — and tears.

Gus­tavo Velez, the boy’s 67year-old grand­fa­ther, moved to Florida from Puerto Rico about five years ago af­ter re­tir­ing from a long ca­reer in the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try. He doesn’t have the en­ergy he once had to care for chil­dren, but he thinks his grand­son is bet­ter off on the main­land.

“To come to the States is not easy,” Velez said. “There is a prob­lem with the lan­guage. There is a prob­lem with the cul­ture and the phi­los­o­phy of life.” But: “The fu­ture is not in Puerto Rico.”

El­iz­a­beth Aranda, a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of South Florida and the au­thor of “Emo­tional Bridges to Puerto Rico: Mi­gra­tion, Re­turn Mi­gra­tion, and the Strug­gles of In­cor­po­ra­tion,” said the is­land was in the mid­dle of a “cul­tural trauma” as fam­i­lies leave, con­tem­plate leav­ing or deal with life on the ground af­ter oth­ers have left. Her par­ents, now in their 70s, plan to sell their home in Puerto Rico and re­lo­cate to Florida to be closer to their grand­chil­dren, Aranda said.

“So many peo­ple are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing patch­work­ing — get­ting peo­ple into safe places to cre­ate nor­malcy,” she said. “But at the end of the day, home is home.”

Maria Mercedes Olivieri said she knows there are mem­bers of her fam­ily who are ea­ger to re­turn to Puerto Rico. She is planning to host them at her home for Thanks­giv­ing.

In the past, she put out a spread that’s “not a typ­i­cal Amer­i­can Thanks­giv­ing,” she said, in­clud­ing paella, pump­kin-co­conut flan and pernil — Puerto Ri­can roasted pork shoul­der. Over the years, fam­ily be­gan re­quest­ing that most Amer­i­can of Thanks­giv­ing foods: tur­key. “We com­pro­mise,” she said. But at least one guest has al­ready sent her re­grets. Enid Olivieri re­turned to Puerto Rico on Fri­day.



TOP: Maria Mercedes Ramos Ro­driguez, left, with her daugh­ter Enid Olivieri, right, fled Puerto Rico af­ter the hur­ri­cane to be near daugh­ter Maria Mercedes Olivieri. ABOVE: The is­land, dev­as­tated.


ABOVE: Enid Olivieri, far left, stands next to her sis­ter, Maria Mercedes Olivieri, with whom she stayed in Vir­ginia, as their mother, Maria Mercedes Ramos Ro­driguez, reads the news­pa­per. Enid Olivieri re­turned to Puerto Rico on Fri­day. RIGHT: Puerto Ri­cans on the is­land cross a dried riverbed whose bridge was de­stroyed by Hur­ri­cane Maria. The storm Sept. 20 dev­as­tated the is­land.

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