The Fifty-First Star: A Story of the Puerto Rican Exodus

By Carolina Moreno

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Photo by Tatiana Rodriguez on Unsplash

As my family felt the violent winds blowing against the glass doors of my aunt's living room, the ceiling of my house, along with the rest of Puerto Rico, crumbled to the ground. Meanwhile, I sat in my dorm room anxiously watching the news, hoping that Category 5 Hurricane Maria would pass and praying for my family's safety. I watched as Puerto Rico became the headline of all the news sources worldwide. Every newscaster in the nation transmitted images of the havoc caused by the hurricane. In the meantime, I hopelessly tried to get in touch with my family. A couple of days passed after that unforgettable 20th of September and I still hadn't heard a word from anyone on the island. Those days were spent worrying over my family's safety, as well as my island's uncertain future.

As I was sneaking my phone underneath the table to read the news during my Theology class, I received a call from my mom. I quickly stood up and, with a beaming smile, left the classroom to pick up the call I had been anxiously awaiting for days. I couldn't understand what she was saying because of the damaged telecommunication system, but hearing her voice was reassuring. The next day, she found a gas station with decent cellular reception and called me while she was waiting in the line to buy water. She told me how hard life in Puerto Rico became after the hurricane. I could feel the pain in her voice as she started to sob when explaining her new daily routine, which included four-hour lines to buy one gallon of water and staying all day in the house to avoid the criminal activity that significantly increased due to the power outage. After having that conversation with my mom, all I could think about was how I wanted them to move with my sister to Chicago, where they could have a safe haven until things settled down in Puerto Rico.

With a similar train of thought, thousands of Puerto Ricans migrated to the mainland US in the hopes of rebuilding their lives. Hundreds of families were left with no other choice than to flee the island. This decision was fueled by the massive power outages, the scarcity of supplies, the loss of jobs, the closing of schools, and the demolition of the island's infrastructure (Sutter). Moreover, the status of Puerto Ricans as US citizen facilitates the move to the mainland. As my uncle, a US Immigration judge, explained to me in an interview, "We [Puerto Ricans] experience an almost flawless migration in comparison to the difficulties many other immigrants face in trying to enter the country" (Moreno). Puerto Ricans who wish to settle down in another state do not need to get a visa or even go through the process of filling out the extensive paperwork, but rather only need to simply send a few forms to the government. Also, many governmental agencies and independent institutions in the United States have facilitated the transition by offering their aid to those displaced by the hurricane. For example, some schools in Florida decided to "adapt their curriculum to incorporate children who speak little English" (Pérez) in an effort to help the migrant families. These conditions gave way to the exodus experienced after Hurricane Maria.

Puerto Rican migrants do not cross international borders to move to the mainland US. Nevertheless, they struggle with the geographical, linguistic, and cultural barriers common to most immigrants. These new challenges often lead to the formation of a new personal and national identity. Sarah J. Kohler, in her study on the impact of migration on the cultural identity of Puerto Ricans, specifies that "as immigrants are immersed in a new host culture, a vast array of values, behaviors, and beliefs must be evaluated and either rejected or incorporated into a new way of life and a new cultural identity." In other words, migrants have to go through a process of acculturation, where they try to find the balance between the customs and values of two different cultures. In the case of Puerto Ricans, the complexity of adapting to a new lifestyle in the mainland while retaining the primary aspects of the heritage culture has an extraordinary impact on the development of a new identity.

It is too early to detect the socioeconomic patterns or study the changing identity of the post-Maria migrants since people are still moving between the island and the mainland, undecided where home is. As Mario Marazzi, director of the Statistics Institute of Puerto Rico, said, "[I]t will be necessary to wait, at least one year, for surveys and censuses to confirm all these trends" (Pérez). Thus, we now rely on the migration history between P.R. and mainland U.S. to give us insight into the possible future of the post-Maria migrants. This allows us to make predictions about how people will shape their identity to adapt to their new life.

Puerto Rican migration flowed in two directions through the most recent decade, with a back and forth movement, increasing the economic ties between the colony and the mainland (Duany). This circular movement, called transnational migration, strengthens the national identity of Puerto Rican migrants by allowing them to remain in tune with their homeland and embrace cultural nationalism. Cultural nationalism focuses on reviving the culture and history of the Island through religion, language, and folklore (Duany). The Puerto Rican identity is further validated through the participation of international displays as a distinct nation. The participation in events such as the Olympics, professional sports teams, and beauty pageants such as Miss Universe allows for the unity of Puerto Ricans under a single flag and a single anthem. Furthermore, Jorge Duany, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, makes the point that "symbolic expressions of Puerto Rican identity are no longer circumscribed to the Island and may well have intensified in the US mainland" in reference to the representation of the pava, a straw hat that symbolizes the agrarian history of the Island, throughout New York and Chicago. The Puerto Rican nation, culturally speaking, is then constituted by two separate yet connected groups, the Island and the diasporic communities established in mainland US.

Puerto Rico has been a U.S. colony for more than 100 years, yet the island has not fully assimilated to American culture, seeing as how "[it] remains a Spanish-speaking Afro-Hispanic-Caribbean nation" (Duany 425). Puerto Rican migrants experience the contrast between the two nations through culture, language, and geography/climate. This is the case for many Puerto Ricans who often migrate to metropolises with colder climates such as New York, Chicago, and Boston. In terms of language, Puerto Ricans' "use of Spanglish or "good" English plays into the racial formation process" (Aranda 108). By "good" English, many immigrants refer to the enhancement of the English language through the addition of some Spanish words. The migrants that come in, learn the language in order to be able to interact with monolingual English speakers (the people from the United States that only know English) and avoid racial discrimination. Hence, Puerto Ricans are able to adapt to the American culture by overcoming the language barrier, which becomes even more evident in the next generations of Puerto Ricans who are born in mainland US.

To get a deeper insight into the lives of Puerto Rican migrants, I interviewed my Uncle Roberto Moreno. He worked as a Federal Judge in Puerto Rico and was later transferred to the criminal division of the US Justice Department in Orlando. Furthermore, he was appointed US Immigration judge, a position that gave him a unique perspective on immigration. In the interview, he talked about how Puerto Rican migrants depend on the establishment of Latino communities for support in the transition, as well as for further socializing. As he explains, "Puerto Ricans are much warmer and festive, even in the workplace…when I started working in Florida I soon realized that I had to respect co-worker's personal space and privacy." He states a common feeling of many migrants who go through a cultural shock in their interactions with Americans and later seek warmer relationships with members of the Latino communities. Normally, they adapt their identities to conform with their new situations, while retaining the most salient aspects of their national identity.

Puerto Rican migration has a unique character due to the geopolitical status the Island holds as a territory that is part of the United States yet is not completely assimilated to the mainland. Migrants' choices of keeping Puerto Rican roots while understanding the intricacies of the bigger nation (mainland US) defies common wisdom and dictates peculiar challenges. Understanding how past generations adapted their identities to conform to the social norms of the mainland gives us valuable information about the new migrants coming in to the mainland after Hurricane Maria.

The migration pattern observed due to the recent natural disasters is one of chain migration, where migrants move into states with large Puerto Rican communities that had previously migrated to the mainland. Thus, the data collected from FEMA and other governmental organizations show that the majority of Puerto Ricans have migrated to the following states after the hurricane: "Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Texas and Connecticut, all of which already had sizable Puerto Rican populations" (Sutter). This was the case for Lourdes and David Rodríguez, a couple interviewed by a local Puerto Rican newspaper, who "are staying in a two-bedroom apartment that was rented by one of their daughters in Tampa" (The Associated Press). Having other family members to rely on in the mainland is important for most migrants because they offer important information and provide guidance throughout the move. Moreover, it helps them overcome the cultural shock by having people rooted in the Puerto Rican tradition that help them adapt to the American lifestyle.

There is a much broader variety of people, in comparison to those that came in during the 1940s, who are moving to the mainland after the Hurricane. Unlike past migrations that have been prompted by incentives to a specific population, Hurricane Maria affected the entirety of Puerto Ricans, thus one cannot pinpoint the economic status of those who moved to the mainland. Past migrations from Puerto Rico to the United States in the 20th century showed a pattern of being uneducated, poor people. They moved to the mainland in search of jobs that did not require an extensive educational background, such as manual labor. However, post-Maria migration changed this pattern because the Hurricane affected the lives of everybody in the island. Thus, migration is no longer circumscribed to the poor, but has become an outlet for the middle and upper class as well. Following that train of thought, Jorge Duany reported to El Nuevo Día (ENDI), a Puerto Rican newspaper, that "the impression is that the profile of the Puerto Rican migrant has changed post Maria" (Pérez). Nevertheless, I argue that the past research done on Puerto Rican migrants gives a general understanding of the struggles that will shape the new wave of migrants. These struggles include cultural, social, and economic aspects, which are elements that are common to all immigration stories, even those escaping from a natural disaster.

Despite the euphemized title "commonwealth of the United States," Puerto Rico is completely subrogated to the powers of the Congress of the United States and has not surpassed its status as a colony for over 500 years. This became evident last year when the US Congress completely disregarded the ninety seven percent of Puerto Ricans who voted for statehood in the referendum. The plebiscite, held on June 11, aimed to pinpoint the percent of Puerto Rican population in favor of statehood (Newkirk). Nevertheless, Congress overlooked this plebiscite under the rationale that Puerto Rico's democratic majority and increasing debt would offset the political balance in the U.S. government. Thus, the political status of Puerto Rico provoked an ongoing and never-ending crisis that has led my beautiful island to economic disaster and unbearable debt.

Before Maria, the island had experienced a massive outflow of citizens due to the financial crisis. The majority of the islanders live in poverty, with an average household income of $18,000 a year, which is less than half that of the United States' poorest state (Hernández). The answer to the economic recession often became to move to the US in search of the American Dream. According to the data from the Federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, "between October 2016 and September 2017, about 93,000 people left Puerto Rico for the United States" (Pérez). After a year of record-scale migration to the US due to the economic crisis, Hurricane Maria is on track to become the catastrophe that finally empties the island. According to Arelis Hernández of The Washington Post, "The difference between the past decade's migration and that of previous generations is the character, size and speed with which it threatens to change Puerto Rico's economic and social future." The economic instability the island is currently facing stands as a result of the gap created by the movement of the working class along with their families.

Furthermore, the new movement created by Hurricane Maria shed light on Puerto Rico's colonial reality. The United States controls the Island's politics through the newly imposed Fiscal Control Board and its commerce through a centennial law known as the "Jones Act" which allows only US built ships and US crews to dock at the port (Moreno). While Puerto Rico's economy is highly dependent upon imports, this situation increases the price of every product that enters the Island. The evidence stands to prove that even though Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship over a hundred years ago, we are still regarded and treated as an infamous colony. For the United States, a nation that prides itself worldwide as the beacon of democracy, this non-democratic status with Puerto Rico needs to be resolved and it is a challenge that my generation needs to address.

Those who move to the US mainland notice the huge disparity between the US citizens of Puerto Rico and the ones from the continent. As a Puerto Rican that recently moved to the United States to continue my higher education, I have noticed that those disparities are mostly linked to economic benefits for those who live on the mainland. For example, I have noticed how many of my friends received an advanced and holistic education in public school, a reality that is not widespread in the island. Moreover, I have seen how prices in stores are much more accessible to the public because simply they do not have the exceedingly high freight and taxes placed on imported goods in the island. These disparities are created in part by the Congressional representation Puerto Ricans lack. A non-voting Resident Commissioner that sits in the House of Representatives is not only weak, but the only representation we have as a territory. Consequently, whenever there is any disruption to Puerto Rico's fragile economy, be it an economic depression or a weather disaster such as Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans opt to move in order to flee from an economy that simply cannot provide opportunities to sustain a reasonable quality of life. Category 5 Hurricane Maria has lifted the rug and shown what's underneath it, showcasing to the world, not only the physical destruction of the worst kind, but the helpless and fragile situation that Congress has imparted to Puerto Rico for more than a century. Maria has not only provoked the latest wave of migration, but also sparked the sentiments of inequality that are associated with the most anti-democratic system of governance, a colony.

After almost a year after the Hurricane, the island is still in recovery. My mom still calls me once in a while, informing me that there has been yet another power outage. Nevertheless, I noticed that my family has become stronger through their resilience. My father, who is an artist, took the initiative of starting a project that featured a positive outlook on the situation. The project, "Paint a Brighter Puerto Rico," aims to bring help to the most affected municipalities in the island by donating the profits of his artwork. This stands to prove that in the face of chaos and necessity, the Puerto Rican community can come together in order to rebuild a brighter future. I am glad my family did not end up moving to Chicago with my sister because they have become part of a new and inspiring group dedicated to improving and renovating the island's infrastructure and spirit. With focus and hard work, they plan to rebuild our lovely Puerto Rico.