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Puerto Rican evacuees in central Florida seek stability

October 6, 2018

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Frances Torres plops down atop a pair of twin mattresses on the floor, wraps her arms around her 9-year-old son, Diego, and plants kisses on the boy’s head. In an east Orange County apartment where the family has lived, the only furnishings are the mattresses, a small console table and two stools they pull up to a kitchen counter at mealtime.

A bedsheet hangs over the window as a curtain.

“I know I am blessed,” said Torres, 37, a preschool teacher whose older child has a rare, potentially life-threatening condition that makes it difficult to digest food. “I know I am here for a reason. I am here because I have to save my son.”

One of an estimated 56,000 Puerto Ricans who relocated to Florida in the first six months after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, Torres marked the storm’s one year anniversary with the delivery of furniture from IKEA, courtesy of a housing program by the Heart of Florida United Way. The agency also helped her cover the deposits she needed for the apartment.

They were two more steps forward in rebuilding a life that changed forever with Maria’s 155 mph winds and epic flooding.

“Up and down. Up and down,” the divorced mother of two said of the journey. “We used to have everything in Puerto Rico. But I had to leave with only my clothes. And now we are starting again from zero.”

For perhaps all but the wealthiest and best-connected of the displaced Puerto Ricans, starting over has been a struggle. There is unfamiliar bureaucracy, school transfers, job and career reboots, and a jarring shift from a culture that was vibrant and embracing to one that, at times, feels cold and resentful. There is a loss of family, friends, community, continuity.

“Here . they have treated us badly,” said Benjamín Muñoz, 70, who fled the island with his wife, Carmen, in mid-November of last year. “Sometimes I say, ‘Do we have something contagious? ’ (People) have abused us. They have discriminated against us.”

They searched for a place to live in Orlando, Kissimmee, St. Petersburg and even Ocala with no luck, he said. Some places refused to give the couple an application. Others were rude. In Ocala, a real estate charged them $250 to apply for a rental and then never offered the couple anything.

The oppressors have included fellow Puerto Ricans, he said — people who have tried to take advantage of their desperation, despite the fact that the couple both speak English and lived in the states for several decades earlier in their lives.

He worked then as a police officer in Massachusetts before moving to Orlando, where he was a store manager and pastor. Carmen was a cafeteria worker for Orange County Public Schools and local hotels.

They had moved back to Puerto Rico when Benjamín was diagnosed with colon cancer. Thinking he would die of the disease, he wanted to spend his last days with family on the island.

That was 17 years ago.

“In Humacao, we lived in peace, we had our properties, and although the house was rented, we lived very happily . until Hurricane Maria arrived,” he said.

The couple lost everything. It took nearly two months to get a flight out.

Now, they are renting a small room in a home near the Florida mall with no air-conditioning, but the owner wants them to leave.

“We do not want anything for free,” said Carmen Muñoz, 67. ”(But) we do want help.”

The younger and more able-bodied have it easier, Juan Miguel Cotto knows. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

The 43-year-old father of two arrived Nov. 3 from the island in need of medication for his adopted daughter, who has severe autism and epilepsy. He, his girlfriend of 15 years and the kids stayed with a cousin in Orlando at first; then they moved into a hotel room for three months, paid for by FEMA. A deli worker in Puerto Rico, Cotto enrolled in a culinary school offered through Second Harvest Food Bank, where he attended free full-time classes for three and a half months while also working full time.

A social worker with the program helped him find English classes and apply for jobs.

His brother helped him with the bills as the family rented a nicely furnished home in a suburb of retirees near the Rosen Shingle Creek resort, where Cotto was hired as a line cook. But the home’s owner, a snowbird, returns in December.

With a $12.50-an-hour salary, he is not sure where he’ll be able to afford to go.

The stress sometimes leaves him with headaches.

“I am living a different life. I liked the one I had in Puerto Rico better,” he said through an interpreter. “But I’m on my way now, and there is a lot more that I want to accomplish.”

He no longer thinks wistfully of returning to the island, as perhaps a third or more of the initial evacuees have done. Nor is he tempted by promises from companies hiring displaced Puerto Ricans for factory jobs in the Midwest.

Kasai North America, an automotive parts manufacturer, recruited at least 24 of the hurricane evacuees in Central Florida to take positions at an assembly plant in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, a town of about 8,000.

“They’re loving it,” said the company’s human resources manager, Jennifer Dranschak. “They love that there’s so much space. They like the quiet and the slow pace.”

Frances Torres, the preschool teacher, already has a job at an Oviedo child-care center with a boss she likes. She has doctors who are helping her son Diego and an “angel” of a teacher for her 7-year-old, Gabriel, a child who is now trying to learn to read English just as he was struggling to learn to read Spanish. A second cousin, who shared her apartment with Torres and the boys for their first 10 months here, is now like a sister.

She was the one who gave Torres a pep talk when things looked bleak.

“I would start to cry (and say) ‘I can’t do this .’” Torres said. “She would tell me, ‘No, you didn’t come here to cry. So just cry right now, and tomorrow morning you are going to sit down and write down all the things you need to do, and then you will do them. And it will be all right.’”

Torres has come to believe her.

In July, Diego underwent surgery to have a feeding port inserted in his belly, and he has started growing stronger. The healthier he is, the more Torres can work, and the more money she can earn.

Someday soon, if she can save enough, she wants to take the boys to Disney World, a place she has wanted to go herself since she was a child.

“I may not be a little girl anymore,” she said, “but I don’t care. When I go, I will dress like a princess.”

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Information from: Orlando Sentinel, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/

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