WRITTEN & PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOHN KAZAKLIS
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Lakeland has become a new home to many Puerto Ricans wanting to start a new life.
In late September 2017, Hurricane Maria swept through the Eastern Caribbean leaving a path of destruction in its wake. The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico was devastated, and millions of Puerto Ricans were left without basic resources. Large parts of the island were without electricity or running water for several months following the storm leaving much of the working population unemployed and many children out of school.
“The kids were out of school for three months because there was no water there. That was one of the main problems,” explains Eric Cuevos, a Puerto Rican who recently moved to Lakeland to build a new life.
What took place in subsequent months after Hurricane Maria was what some have termed to be an “exodus” from Puerto Rico to the mainland United States. According to a recent post from The Washington Post, this is possibly the largest exodus out of the island in its history as a U.S. territory. Being a natural haven and destination for Latin Americans moving to the U.S. due to its geographical location, Florida ended up receiving the highest number of Puerto Ricans fleeing the territory as a result of the storm’s devastating effects on the island.
According to FEMA data, Florida received the highest number of FEMA applications as a result of Hurricane Maria, numbering at 5,500. With a total of 1,003, New York received the second-highest number of FEMA applications. The top six counties for these claims included Orange, Osceola, Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, and Polk counties. As of March 2018, Polk County received the fourth highest number of newly enrolled students from Puerto Rico in the state of Florida.
The Puerto Rican community has become one of the two largest Hispanic ancestral groups in Lakeland.
The Orlando Metropolitan Area was already home to the second-largest Puerto Rican community outside of Puerto Rico prior to Maria. Historically Puerto Ricans have migrated to the Northeast region of the U.S. with the New York City area being famously known as a primary destination for the community. But in the last 10 to 20 years, Orlando has become the newly crowned mecca for Puerto Rican migration to the mainland, so much that Puerto Ricans constitute the largest ancestral group in neighboring Osceola County. Polk County’s proximity to the Orlando area has helped establish a significant community in the northeastern parts of the county as well as in Lakeland. The Puerto Rican community has become one of the two largest Hispanic ancestral groups in Lakeland, the other being Mexicans, making Lakeland and Central Florida a destination for Puerto Ricans leaving their island after Maria.
Many Americans also forget or do not realize that Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States. The island became a U.S. territory in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War, and in 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act was passed which made anyone born on the island a U.S. citizen. Since then, Puerto Ricans have been able to travel freely between the island and the mainland, in essence being able to freely move throughout the American homeland just as any other citizen can.
All these factors have played an important role in making Lakeland and Central Florida a destination for Puerto Ricans leaving their island after Maria. While many decided to stay on the island after Maria, many made the decision to pick up and move to the mainland in order to build a new life. Leaving your land can be full of emotions and pain, leaving behind generations of family history, land, homes, communities, and parents.
Some had family members or friends already established in Lakeland prior to Maria, while others did not but wanted to build a new life around the familiarity of an already established Puerto Rican community. Either way, those migrating to the mainland were in search of hope after experiencing such destruction and loss.
We sat down with three individuals who chose to leave their homeland of Puerto Rico and journey to Lakeland, Florida for a new life after Hurricane Maria. They left their homes and their livelihood in the pursuit of hope and opportunity. They packed up their lives into suitcases containing only the essentials that were needed to begin again. We listened to their stories and learned about why they decided to make Lakeland their home.
Arrival Date to Lakeland: April 6
PR Hometown: Carolina
Huddled closely together while fixated on a cartoon TV show, Eric Cuevos’ four children were spending the afternoon at their grandmother’s small apartment in North Lakeland while he shared about his journey leaving Puerto Rico for Florida. There was a combination of gratitude and loss mixed together in his voice, but overall, he was eager to share his story.
With their whole lives packed into suitcases, Cuevos and his family arrived from Puerto Rico on April 6, almost six months after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island. He was eager to begin his new life in Lakeland with his children. Life was not that easy for him in Puerto Rico prior to Maria, being a single father of four children who had learning disabilities, two of whom were autistic. Cuevos lived in different cities around Puerto Rico, but decided that Carolina was the best fit for his family’s needs. “We moved to Carolina in order to have my two children with autism attend a school that had programs to meet their needs,” says Cuevos. His children were in the best school in Carolina for autistic children, but that wasn’t a good enough reason to keep them from weathering post-Maria conditions.
When Maria hit his hometown, Cuevos and his family were living on the third floor of a Section 8 apartment building. “The windows were blown out during the storm and it was like waterfalls of water coming through the windows. We had water damage everywhere,” he says. According to Cuevos, the Section 8 communities of Puerto Rico were at the mercy of the electric companies. There was unstable electricity up until the day they left for Florida. “The power would still go out for two to three days at a time. It seemed like electricity was given to those with money all around the Section 8 communities,” he says. His children were out of school for three months in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria destroyed the school’s water supply. They eventually returned to school in January, four months after the storm.
With six months passing after the storm, Cuevos gave it all he had to make things work in Puerto Rico but looked to Florida as an answer to his family’s long-term needs.
The already struggling economy of Puerto Rico took an even bigger hit with the storm. “Because of the damages from Maria, no one would hire because they could not support hiring employees. There was no work to provide food for the family,” says Cuevos. The lack of job opportunities forced Cuevos to find chibos, or small side jobs for cash. With a vocation in construction and a specialization in drywalling, Cuevos could not make ends meet with small chibos to provide for his four children. This was what eventually pushed him to consider leaving Puerto Rico for Florida. With six months passing after the storm, Cuevos gave it all he had to make things work in Puerto Rico but looked to Florida as an answer to his family’s long-term needs.
Cuevos’ mother was already living in mainland United States for 28 years and was able to educate him about Lakeland’s opportunities and culture prior to his move here. “I heard that the city was good and calm compared to Orlando and Kissimmee. I wanted to make a safe move for my kids,” Cuevos says. He also did his research and heard great things about the police and sheriff’s departments in Lakeland and Polk County. “I heard that there are laws that people listen to and follow here. At bus stops, I see how the policemen say hi instead of looking at you weird like they do in Puerto Rico.”
Looking ahead, Cuevos has the desire to settle permanently in Lakeland and lay down roots. With his children already enrolled in local schools and programs that meet their needs, Cuevos’ face lights up as he conveys the ease in the process he has undergone to get their lives integrated into Lakeland.
REY AYALA RIVERA
Lakeland Arrival Date: November 12
PR Hometown: Vega Baja
Lakeland Arrival Date: November 12
PR Hometown: Ciales
Hurricane Maria proved to make life very difficult all over the island of Puerto Rico, but especially for those who lived in mountainous areas where many roads and power lines were completely destroyed. Inaccessibility was a norm in these hard-to-reach areas for several weeks following Maria.
Evelyn Rivera’s home on the eve of the storm’s arrival was Ciales, Puerto Rico, a town located in the Central Mountains range of the island. Winding roads that entered and exited the town were cut off, leaving locals out of touch from the rest of the world for weeks after the storm. Evelyn’s sister back in Lakeland didn’t receive word from her family until one month after Maria. “They were losing their minds not knowing what happened or if we were OK after the hurricane,” says Evelyn.
“We have gained so much here in Lakeland within six months, but it came with great sacrifice.”
– Evelyn Rivera
While roads began to be cleared and rebuilt, Evelyn and her boyfriend, Rey Rivera, faced difficulties with their employment. Rey was a native of Vega Baja, located on the northern coast of the island, and employed as a chef at a country club. Evelyn worked as an administrative assistant at a medical clinic but was left out of work for over a month after the storm. As Maria left the island in disarray, businesses suffered greatly. The Puerto Rican people were primarily focused on spending their money and resources on basic needs to survive and rebuild. This, combined with inconsistent electricity, meant little or no work. “My work week at the country club went from 40 hours to 10 hours. That was not enough income to support a life, and no one else was hiring,” says Rey.
Once Evelyn was able to finally connect with family in Lakeland after the storm, the thought of seeking a better life on the mainland arose. Both she and Rey were forced to evaluate the current state of their lives as Maria left them with a fraction of the income they once made and still without electricity at home. Within a matter of time, Evelyn’s sister in Lakeland was able to find a job opportunity for her at a health clinic, and Rey was given a lead from his nephew for a chef position in Zephyrhills.
As these new opportunities inched closer to reality, on November 12 Evelyn and Rey packed up and left their lives in Puerto Rico for Lakeland. Almost immediately after their move, they both were able to begin working full-time at their new jobs — Evelyn as an administrative assistant at Advanced Internal Medicine Care in Lakeland, and Rey as head chef at Restaurante Corozal in Zephyrhills.
“My decision to move to Florida meant that I would be missing my son’s high school graduation.”
– Rey Ayala Rivera
But, leaving their lives behind in Puerto Rico came with its difficulties as well. “My decision to move to Florida meant that I would be missing my son’s high school graduation,” says Rey.
Evelyn adds, “We have gained so much here in Lakeland within six months, but it came with great sacrifice.”
In order to start all over again in Florida, Rey and Evelyn sold everything they had, including a car, two of their three dogs, and left behind plenty of family and loved ones. Looking back, they are grateful and at peace that they made the best decision despite what they lost. “My mom said it was 194 days until the power came back on at their house,” says Evelyn. That was more than four months after Evelyn and Rey left for Florida.
What made Lakeland a viable option was Evelyn’s sister, Minnie, who was already a resident. Minnie was able to pave the way and receive Evelyn and Rey with open arms. The high possibility of finding sustainable employment in Lakeland made the decision even more enticing. But family and work weren’t the only reasons that carried weight for them. Like Eric Cuevos, Rey and Evelyn had heard of the tranquility and calm lifestyle that Lakeland offered in comparison to the bustling Puerto Rican communities of Orlando and Kissimmee. “The criminal activity in Puerto Rico was increasing after Maria, and we wanted to find a place that was calm,” says Rey.
Since their move to Lakeland in early November, they have been able to settle in comfortably. They were able to live with family upon their arrival, but moved into their own place in January and purchased their own car. “My long-term vision is to open my own restaurant in Lakeland that serves delicious and traditional Puerto Rican food,” Rey says with excitement. Both he and Evelyn were speechless and grateful at how quickly they were able to get integrated into Lakeland. From finding jobs in fields that they previously worked in, to getting acclimated to the local culture, it looks like Lakeland will be their home for the long haul.