Puerto Ricans migrate to U.S. after Maria, including to Northwest Arkansas

Posted: January 29, 2018 at 1:30 a.m.

Randy Serrano and his mom, Lucesita Torres-Sanchez of Bella Vista, were reunited last fall when Serrano left Puerto Rico after hurricanes.

Randy Serrano remembers his entire house shaking as Hurricane Maria roared outside. The wind, near 150 mph, pulled and pried at all of the doors and metal window shutters, invisible thieves on all sides trying to break in.

By the storm's end, the roof was gone and Serrano slept on the floor, getting as close to ground level as possible to try to escape Puerto Rico's Caribbean, late September heat and humidity without electricity for air conditioning.

Puerto Rico

Status: A territory of the United States; its residents are U.S. citizens who can elect its own governor and other local officials but cannot vote in presidential elections and don’t get votes in Congress.

Population: More than 3 million, according to 2016 Census estimates. Many have left since Hurricane Maria struck in September.

Location: East of Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic and more than 1,000 miles southeast of Florida.

History: Indigenous people, including the Taino, lived on the island and others nearby for centuries, but they were almost driven to extinction after Spain claimed it in 1493. It was ceded to the U.S. after the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Source: CIA World Factbook

His mother, who lives in Bella Vista, didn't hear from him until more than a week later, when Serrano reached her by phone while driving on a highway on the hunt for elusive cellphone reception. By mid-October he was flying to Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport with his dog, Rocky, tucked under the seat in front of him where a carry-on would go.

"I wanted to leave right away," Serrano said in a recent interview, switching from Spanish to English with his mother, Lucy Torres-Sanchez, translating. He's staying with his mom and her husband and doesn't plan to return to Puerto Rico for anything more than a visit. Power returned to his neighborhood only a few days ago.

Serrano is among tens, or perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people who have left Puerto Rico in the more than 120 days since Maria made landfall, according to reports from news outlets in Florida, New York and other areas with sizable Puerto Rican populations. Friends of Serrano have gone to Philadelphia and Florida.

They're all U.S. citizens, though they couldn't vote for president when they lived back home because Puerto Rico isn't a state. It's a territory, a holdover from the American victory in the Spanish-American War more than a century ago.

Several families have made their way to Northwest Arkansas, where a small Puerto Rican community has been growing for years. Fayetteville and Springdale's housing authorities said earlier this month they'd accepted about a dozen families for spots in public housing or for housing vouchers. The federal emergency declaration over much of Puerto Rico means the families go to the front of the line for the housing support, which can have waiting lists months or years long.

"We're not going to make them wait a year," said Deniece Smiley, executive director of the Fayetteville Housing Authority. "It's kind of like our voucher program for our veterans; they don't have to wait."

Puerto Ricans have plenty of reasons to come. NBC News and other outlets report sections of the main island are still without water or power. The death toll from Maria could be in the hundreds. Serrano recalled eating one meal a day and waiting hours and hours in line at gas stations. The National Weather Service said Maria's eye hit about 30 miles south of his hometown, Rio Grande, where he worked as a resort security guard.

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Al Lopez, a Puerto Rican musician and community liaison with Springdale Public Schools, said his mother told him her neighborhood has water and joked she prefers living with less technology around. On the other hand, she worries more about crime.

"My mom says when it gets dark, forget it, you just go into your house," Lopez said.

These problems are only the newest among many. A recession, public debt and other issues have hamstrung the island's economy for years. Puerto Rico's governor last week said the public power company would be privatized after decades of mismanagement and corruption, according to The Associated Press.

Serrano had planned to come to Northwest Arkansas about now anyway.

"Everything was expensive for what you make," he said. "Now it's going to keep getting worse."

Serrano has come to a regional Puerto Rican community that's becoming more tight-knit, especially in response to the storm. Elizabeth Berumen in Little Rock started a Facebook page several years back for Puerto Ricans in Arkansas that now includes more than 600 people, which she said is about triple what it was before Maria.

The Facebook group recently sent tens of thousands of pounds of food and supplies and is hoping to send more, she said. People who went years without knowing other Puerto Ricans lived nearby are coming together.

"If you're Puerto Rican, you're Puerto Rican; it doesn't matter where you were born and where you were raised," said Berumen, who was born in New York City but has cousins in Puerto Rico. "Right now everyone just wants to continue helping as much as we can."

The Census in 2016 estimated almost 7,000 Puerto Ricans lived in Arkansas, including about 1,500 in Northwest Arkansas. But Lopez, who has lived in this corner of the state for two decades, guessed the community was much larger, reaching into the thousands. He said food companies like Siloam Springs-based Simmons Foods recruit employees from Puerto Rico.

Simmons spokesman Donny Epp said the company recruits from all over the country, including Puerto Rico, to meet higher demand for its products.

"They're here to stay," Lopez said of the community, and many want to bring over their family members. "The ones I know are just losing their minds."

Bringing family members here comes with other challenges. Torres-Sanchez, Serrano's mother, said her father and his wife are still on the island. He can't travel because of dementia, Torres-Sanchez said, and his wife won't leave without him. Torres-Sanchez is concerned travel on the island remains too unreliable to try to visit.

Many of those that have made it here are settling in. Serrano hopes to get a job in airport security or as a police officer, or he might join his brothers in Georgia, for instance.

Lopez said he's talked with new students and their families to help them adjust to Springdale schools. He tries to build connections between Puerto Ricans and the much larger Hispanic population from Mexico and other countries. Immigrants can't vote until they become naturalized citizens, but Puerto Ricans can participate in all elections when they move to the U.S. mainland.

"I want them to understand that they can be a voice" for the wider Hispanic community, Lopez said.

Still, Lopez and Serrano said they miss some parts of Puerto Rico. Serrano misses hiking in the El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico's largest nature preserve, is just a few minutes away from his old home. Lopez said he misses family members and his mom's cooking.

"And the beaches, bro," he added.

Randy Serrano talks with his mom, Lucy Torres-Sanchez of Bella Vista, Saturday after Serrano took a test to become a Transportation Security Administr...

NW News on 01/29/2018