Puerto Ricans Forced Out by the Hurricane Find Refuge in a Central Massachusetts City

Krysthia Gauthier and her daughter Krysthina Ortiz outside her new school in Worcester, Massachusetts Photo: Amaris Castillo

Krysthina Ortiz refused to get up from a chair outside her school’s main office. Tears streamed down the 9-year-old’s face as she looked up at her mother, Krysthia Gauthier.

No quiero ir (I don’t want to go)! No quiero ir!,” cried Krysthina in Spanish, begging her mother not to make her go to class. It was only her second day of school, but she met it with dread.

Gauthier, 29, leaned forward and wiped her daughter’s face with her right hand. “I’ll accompany you to class,” she told Krysthina in a gentle voice. “I’m going to pick you up later.”

It was early Friday morning at Woodland Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts, and while most students knew their way around the school, the large brick building was new terrain for Krysthina.  She and her mother had arrived in the city just three days earlier to stay with Gauthier’s sister, after fleeing hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Krysthina clutched the straps of her colorful backpack and, in a trembling voice, told her mother that she doesn’t have as many friends here as she did on the island.

Gauthier’s brows furrowed with concern, but then her face softened. “That’s not so bad,” she said in Spanish, trying to convince her daughter. “You will make new friends.”

A Puerto Rican influx

Like many U.S. cities with long-established Puerto Rican populations, Worcester is seeing an uptick in the number of Puerto Ricans migrating from the island following the hurricane.  According to a 2011-2015 survey by the U.S. Census, there were an estimated 22,588 Puerto Ricans living in Worcester.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, between 114,000 and 213,000 Puerto Rico residents are expected to leave the island annually, according to a new report from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.

Read more of our coverage After María, A Desperate Search to Locate and Help Family in Puerto Rico.

Gauthier is among the thousands who felt forced to leave their homes for the U.S. mainland due to extremely difficult living conditions on the island. Though her home in Canóvanas, a municipality in the northeastern region of Puerto Rico, withstood the storm, others weren’t so lucky.

After calming her daughter and escorting her to her class, Gauthier sat outside Woodland Academy’s main office and recalled vividly the catastrophic impact Hurricane Maria had on her home.

“The first few days after the hurricane, you manage and think things will get back to normal quickly, but no… eventually, with every day passing, it becomes a little more difficult,” she said. “But you have this hope – you have your home, your car, everything there, and you say ‘Everything will get fixed’ and you’ll push forward. But, when things start getting increasingly difficult, then something needs to be done. It’s time to move.”

Island-wide power outages affected schools, Gauthier said, and it was hard for her to get to her job as a tire shop manager. The roads in Canóvanas suffered extensive damage, and food and clean water were becoming scarce.

“It’s driving people to leave for survival, and I don’t blame them,” said Richard Gonzalez, a Puerto Rico native and director of Net of Compassion, a Worcester-based organization that provides support for the city’s most vulnerable populations. During a recent trip to Puerto Rico to assess the needs there, Gonzalez recalled seeing hundreds of people at San Juan airport, waiting to leave the island.

“Just from there I started crying. The desperation in their faces…there were a lot of elderly people,” he said. “There were people in wheelchairs in the airport, sitting in the hallway and waiting to be able to get out.”

The move to the U.S. mainland has been a big adjustment for Gauthier, whose husband stayed behind to save money and watch over their home. She said she’s walked around her new neighborhood in Worcester to familiarize herself with it, and her face lit up with excitement over an upcoming job interview she was able to secure.

Gauthier said she draws strength from her love for her daughter.  “She’s all I have,” Gauthier said, her eyes moist with tears.

The local government’s response

On the U.S. mainland, cities and states with large Puerto Rican populations began preparing for the influx of Puerto Ricans from the island by trying to help those arriving find housing, work, and schools. In Worcester, officials and community organizations have been bracing themselves for this new migration since the hurricane first hit the island.

During a recent meeting of the Worcester School Committee, member Brian A. O’Connell proposed asking the commonwealth to extend the October 1 enrollment cutoff to include students arriving from Puerto Rico and other hurricane-ravaged areas. The enrollment figure impacts the amount of aid the district receives annually from the commonwealth.

Worcester has the third largest school district in Massachusetts, and 41.8 percent of its students are Hispanic.

“People should know, we are preparing for this,” said Worcester Mayor Joseph M. Petty during the School Committee meeting, adding that a committee of city leaders has been formed to address the hurricane-related influx.

According to Petty, housing appears to be the greatest issue facing newly arrived Puerto Ricans.

The Worcester City Council has asked the city administration to identify affordable housing that might exist for people migrating from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as reported in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

There’s also pressure within Worcester public schools to support a greater number of students.  In the past two weeks some 90 new students have enrolled in the city’s public schools, most from Puerto Rico, with a few from the U.S. Virgin Islands which also suffered hurricane damage.

At a recent School Committee meeting, Worcester School Superintendent Maureen Binienda said that upon enrollment, new students undergo an evaluation and receive services depending upon their level of proficiency in English.

Krysthina Ortiz on her second day of school; photo: Amaris Castillo

At Woodland Academy, Krysthia’s daughter Krysthina has had to confront a significant challenge because the 9-year-old does not speak English.

“The school isn’t bilingual but the teacher helps her translate everything with a tablet [device],” Krysthia said. “It comforts me to know that, even though the teacher doesn’t speak Spanish, she has the genuine desire to help her. And, up until this moment, the school has shown me that there are no language barriers and they’re prepared to receive and help the children from other countries.”

‘Worcester Loves Puerto Rico’

After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 20th, it took several days for Worcester native Jason DeStratis, 39, to reach his mother, Juanita Ramirez, 66, who lives on the west coast of the island. Meanwhile, Ramirez was concerned about not being able to let her family on the U.S. mainland know that she and her partner, Eligio Velez, had made it to a shelter and were safe.

“That was the most difficult part of all – the communication,” Ramirez recalled.

Worried sick, DeStratis decided to launch Worcester Loves Puerto Rico, a community fundraising effort aimed at supporting rebuilding efforts on the island.  The goal was to raise $10,000.

“What’s great is that, honestly, we’re just this tiny sliver of the total effort that Worcester is putting into supporting Puerto Rico,” DeStratis said during a sit-down interview at a Worcester restaurant, with his mother, Velez, and Worcester Loves Puerto Rico’s brand manager, Jessica Salcedo. “It’s [the Puerto Rican community] very strong here and it’s got a long history.”

Ramirez and Velez flew to Worcester in early October for a trip they had planned prior to the hurricane. Ramirez said she expected to return to the island soon.

The challenge has been to provide relief for those affected on the island while at the same time supporting those who have recently arrived on the mainland.

CENTRO, a multi-service nonprofit organization, formerly known as Centro Las America, says that in the short-term it will focus on being a local human-services provider and serve the families who come to central Massachusetts. Their long-term work in the hurricane-affected areas will concentrate on sustainable economic and community development.

A new home

Shortly after 2 p.m. Friday – dismissal time for Woodland Academy students –Krysthia Gauthier entered the school to look for her daughter.

By this time, Krysthina’s mood was drastically different from the morning. She happily ate a snack as her mother tried to get her to talk to a reporter.

“She said her day went well,” Gauthier said in Spanish, looking down at her daughter with an amused look. “You didn’t cry anymore? Are you sure?”

Shyly, Krysthina shrugged. Gauthier appeared relieved.

Mother and daughter then held hands and stepped onto the sidewalk – on the way to their new home.

This story is part of Fi2W’s new series on migration from Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, The J.M. Kaplan Fund, an anonymous donor and readers like you.

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AboutAmaris Castillo
Amaris Castillo is a reporter for The Lowell Sun in Lowell, Massachusetts. Her work has been featured in the Bradenton Herald, Tampa Bay Times, Fusion, Latina Magazine, the Huffington Post, Vivala, and La Galería Magazine. She is also the creator of Bodega Stories, a multimedia project featuring human stories from convenience stores known in NYC as bodegas.