Chicago’s Puerto Rican community overcomes adversity
by Ari Levin
The Monday after her family arrived in Chicago from Puerto Rico, 19-year-old Liliana Losada stood in the middle of the Humboldt Park Field House holding a large, clear plastic bag full of clothes and coats for her entire family. Losada, her mother, grandmother, and cousins, are staying with her aunt, but it’s uncomfortable with six people in one bedroom.
On Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria barreled through Puerto Rico as the strongest storm in 80 years. Winds of over 140 miles per hour caused catastrophic damage across the island, and the hurricane destroyed Losada’s house in eastern Puerto Rico, leaving them without lights, water, food, or money.
Glenda Guzman of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center had to take in members of her family, who arrived on Oct. 26, when their home was ruined by Hurricane Maria. Separately, another cousin, Osbel Ruiz, left his home on the Caribbean coast of Puerto Rico in early November and moved to Chicago with his baby daughter.
But those fleeing Puerto Rico aren’t traditional hurricane evacuees. Almost nobody that Ruiz or Losada knows left in the days leading up to the storm. And most people plan on staying in Chicago now that they’re here. Ruiz guesses that “2 percent” will go back to Puerto Rico. In Chicago, newly arrived Puerto Ricans say, life is easier, and opportunities are greater than in the Puerto Rico they knew before or after the storm.
“I know that here, I’m going to see another future,” Ruiz said.
Of course, rebuilding their lives from scratch isn’t easy. They must find new homes, jobs and schools and can’t do it alone. They rely on support from family, institutions and a bevy of relief efforts that have sprung up across the city.
According to U.S. Census data, over 100,000 Puerto Ricans live in Chicago. When tragedy struck the island, almost every Puerto Rican family in Chicago was impacted, said Jose Lopez, the executive director of Chicago’s Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Humboldt Park, a largely Puerto Rican neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. The first flight into Puerto Rico after Maria’s landfall came from Chicago, bringing back 300 people who had been stranded in the San Juan airport, he said.
Relief efforts began sprouting up at parks and churches, including Grace and Peace Community Church in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. “As a church we’re always looking for opportunities to serve,” said John Zayas. Zayas’ church started its relief efforts after Hurricane Harvey, and helped after the Mexico City earthquakes. But after Hurricane Maria, the efforts exploded.
“All of a sudden we were just getting help from everywhere,” he said. His church received a massive influx of goods from water and food to baby diapers and wipes from members and people all around Chicago. “It started as something small,” Zayas said, “and just blew up and became something large.”
But many of the refugees are staying in Illinois. Many have family in Chicago, and have moved in with them.
“Part of our culture is that people take care of their family,” Lopez explained.
Unemployment in Puerto Rico is more than double the national average. Like many Puerto Ricans (see Figure 1), Ruiz, who worked as a biomedical technician, had planned on moving. The storm only accelerated his decision. He hopes to find a similar job here. Losada, having completed one year of college in Puerto Rico, will enroll at Wright College in January to study photography, and possibly journalism.
Much of the relief effort has been led by the Puerto Rican Agenda, a group that formed in 1995 to advance Puerto Ricans in Chicago. Two days before Maria struck, the Puerto Rican Agenda decided to help, beginning with a large fundraiser that included live performances and a silent auction. The event raised nearly $70,000, said Cristina Pacione-Zayas, (no relation to the pastor) the organization’s co-chair. Later, the Agenda began purchasing goods directly from Puerto Rico to stimulate the local economy, she said.
But the efforts needed more organization. Which is why in November, the City of Chicago opened the Hurricane Resource Center at the Humboldt Park Field House, a one stop shop for people who have been impacted by Hurricane Maria. Anyone who needs support is welcome.
“Not only Puerto Ricans, but if we have some people from other hurricanes or earthquakes, you know, we will help them too,” said Jesus Perez, the park supervisor. According to Joel Mitchell, the deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, about 100 people have come per day.
At the field house, people are guided through all the supplies and information they need from organizations from all around Chicago, including City Colleges of Chicago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the cultural center, and dozens more.
One of the volunteers at the Field House is Sam Matias, who has lived in Humboldt Park since 1954. After volunteering, Matias will leave to spend two weeks on the island with his brother distributing water filtration kits. His reason for assisting in the wake of the storm is personal. “I’m Puerto Rican,” he said, “they’re my people.”