Some Puerto Ricans displaced after Maria make new start in Arkansas

Posted: January 29, 2018 at 4:30 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 house shaking as Hurricane Maria roared outside. The wind, near 150 mph, pulled and pried at all of the doors and metal window shutters, like 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 late September Caribbean heat and humidity without electricity for air conditioning.

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.

"I wanted to leave right away," Serrano said in a recent interview, switching from Spanish to English with his mother, Lucy Torres-Sanchez, translating.

Serrano is 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 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 are 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. Housing authorities in Fayetteville and Springdale said earlier this month they had 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. Media 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 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.

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 said last week the public power company would be privatized after decades of mismanagement and corruption, according to The Associated Press.

Serrano had already planned to move to Northwest Arkansas.

"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 ago 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.

"They're here to stay," Lopez said of the community, noting that 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 who 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.

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.

State Desk on 01/29/2018