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Los De María: Four Years After The Hurricane, Still Making A Home

Bianca Noroñas’ hope for her future in Puerto Rico radically changed after Hurricane Maria devastated the island back in 2017. Determined to find better opportunities for her daughter, she eventually moved to Connecticut, and four years later, she still feels the pain of leaving.

“I still remember looking out of the window of the airplane when I was leaving Puerto Rico and all of the houses and the disaster that was staying behind on the island,” she said in Spanish. “I’ve had opportunities that unfortunately I couldn’t find in Puerto Rico. Before the hurricane, I made $7.25 [an] hour. My dad tells me to go back, but go back to what? We are still migrating because we do not have a quality life in Puerto Rico.”

Now Noroñas lives in an apartment in Meriden. Her life has moved forward -- she’s a recent graduate of Goodwin University, where she received a master’s in public health, and she has a new son, Patricio. Still, the island calls to her, and as she speaks, she’s packing her luggage to go visit Puerto Rico so her newborn son can meet his grandfather for the first time.

“I’m taking Patricio, who everyone is excited to meet,” she said. “But at the same time, I go with so much desire to do something for Puerto Rico, I want to be part of the change. And contribute in any way I can.”

Los De María
Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Bianca Noroñas shows her 2-month-old son, Patricio Arevalo, for the first time to her father, Felix Camacho, who is with her mother, Nereida Ledron, and her 6-year-old daughter, Isabella Breira, at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in Carolina, Puerto Rico, July 13, 2021.

The Category 4 hurricane destroyed homes, power lines and roads, leaving many without access to food, medicine, electricity and clean water. Noroñas is one of an estimated 13,000 puertorriqueños who came to Connecticut shortly after Maria, according to data from the University of Connecticut and the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York. A Harvard University study says Maria claimed the lives of more than 4,600 people.

So this is a time to remember. But as the four-year mark approaches, former San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz says remembering is a commitment. And it’s painful.

“It just evokes things in me and in people in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where a lot of Puerto Ricans came after the hurricane,” said Cruz, who is now a distinguished fellow in leadership at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. “You know the clothes you were wearing that you have to wear for weeks. You know, the person that died when the generator didn’t work anymore. And silence became my enemy, our enemy.”

Because, for her, the hurricane still weighs heavily.

Los De María
Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Former San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz is interviewed by Brenda León at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, on June 24, 2021.

“How simple can that be to not have people die in your watch to not have people die in your watch?” she said. “And as painful as that still is, it is a love of the people of the United States de los latinos, de los boricuas, that keeps me company in that silence.”

The former mayor also recalled the day she was given the key to the city of Holyoke as puertorriqueños arrived.

“As grateful as I was for that, what I remember about that day the most was a little kid that came over and pulled on my pants and said, ‘I am from Maria. Yo soy de los de Maria,’” Cruz said.

She says that phrase was etched in her soul that day.

“Because that phrase, ‘Yo soy de los de Maria, I am those from Maria,’ meant I had to leave what I know to come here.”

Starting Again For A Third Time

Ashlyn Gonzalez and Emanuel Rivera spent that night four years ago in a closet under their house as the winds swirled outside. What came next, Rivera said, was chaos -- no power, no water, no medicine, no papayas, plantains or bananas from the garden. Gonzalez says it’s as if the mountains were burned down. Eventually, they, too, left the island.

“[I left] my mom. She was all alone,” Rivera said. “But we didn’t know what we were going to do. But she was all alone ... that hurt a lot.”

Los De María
Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Emanuel Rivera shows the crawl space where he and his wife, Ashlyn Gonzalez, and his mother, Eucebia Mulero (not pictured), hid during the storm as flash flood water cascaded over them and around them, washing away much of the upper floor during Hurricane Maria in Barrio Buena Vista, Bayamón, Puerto Rico.

The couple eventually arrived in Boston and made their way to Hartford. With the help of people living in the Puerto Rican diaspora, they stayed in temporary hotel rooms and in a local church before finally settling in Portland, Conn. But, like many newcomers, they faced challenges as they tried to find jobs and housing.

In the years after Hurricane Maria, Gonzalez and Rivera lived between Connecticut and Puerto Rico. They had hoped to rebuild their home on the island while remaining on the mainland for as long as possible.

“We planned to reconstruct our house here in Puerto Rico and then turn back, but I never thought I’d lose my Social Security benefits,” Rivera said.

And language barriers were a constant problem. So, one year ago, they decided to return to the island.

Gonzalez recently got a part-time job in a nail product distribution center. The couple say it’s like starting from zero, and they’re just getting by with little income.

And this, all of this, in the midst of yet another hurricane season. Gonzalez says she’s afraid.

"We're not prepared,” she said. “And if, after Maria, it took us a long time to recover, another disaster of that magnitude would take us an even longer time to get back on our feet.”

Back Home

Back on the island, Noroñas says she enjoys the simple things, sharing with her friends and family, the rivers and the beaches. She spent time with her family reconnecting with her roots. Her stay was brief, and she said it was bittersweet.

Los De María
Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Bianca Noroñas is interviewed with her daughter by her side at her family’s home in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on July 16, 2021.

“When the plane landed we clapped and cheered!” Noroñas said. “And when you arrive that first night you have a long, heavy sleep; it’s as if your body knows that you are finally home.”

Noroñas says it’s almost as if she’s finally resting after being away from her island for so many months -- even though her life is in Connecticut.

“My home will always, always be Puerto Rico,” she said.

This is an excerpt from the CPTV Cutline - Los de María: Four Years After the Hurricane

Brenda León is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Brenda covers the Latino/a, Latinx community with an emphasis on wealth-based disparities in health, education and criminal justice.

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