November 15, 2017
After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans Find Refuge in a Central Massachusetts City
By Amaris Castillo
Krysthina Ortiz refused to get up from a chair outside her school’s main office. Tears streamed down the 9-year-old’s face as she looked up at her mother, Krysthia Gauthier.
“No quiero ir (I don’t want to go)! No quiero ir!” the girl cried. Gauthier leaned forward and wiped her daughter’s face with her right hand. “I’ll accompany you to class,” she told Krysthina in a gentle voice. “I’m going to pick you up later.”
Krysthia Gauthier and her daughter Krysthina Ortiz inside her new school in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Krysthina clutched the straps of her colorful backpack and, in a trembling voice, told her mother that she doesn’t have as many friends here as she did back home in Puerto Rico. Gauthier’s brows furrowed with concern, but then her face softened. “That’s not so bad,” she said in Spanish. “You will make new friends.”
It was an early Friday morning in October at Woodland Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the large brick building was new terrain for Krysthina. She and her mother had arrived in the city just three days earlier to stay with Gauthier’s sister, who is part of the city’s sizable Puerto Rican community, after fleeing their Hurricane Maria-ravaged island.
Like many cities with long-established Puerto Rican populations, Worcester is seeing an uptick in Puerto Ricans migrants, Gauthier and her daughter among them, following Maria, which struck the island with devastating force on Sept. 20th. With a long and slow recovery from Maria’s massive damage in the forecast, that migration is likely to persist. Because of Maria, between 114,000 and 213,000 Puerto Rico residents are expected to leave the island annually, according to a new report from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.
Worchester’s schools are feeling this influx; during the final two weeks of October alone, some 90 new students enrolled in them. Most were from Puerto Rico, with a few from the U.S. Virgin Islands, which Maria also left in ruins.
For Gauthier, the decision to leave was a hard one. Though her home in Canóvanas, a municipality in the northeastern region of Puerto Rico, withstood the storm, she explained, island-wide power outages affected schools, and it was hard for her to get to her job as a tire shop manager. The roads in Canóvanas suffered extensive damage, and food and clean water were becoming scarce.
The move to the U.S. mainland has been a big adjustment for Gauthier, whose husband stayed behind to save money and watch over their home. She said she’s walked around her new neighborhood in Worcester to familiarize herself with it, and her face lit up with excitement over an upcoming job interview she was able to secure. She also draws strength from her love for her daughter. “She’s all I have,” Gauthier said, her eyes moist with tears.
In Worcester, officials and community organizations have been bracing for this new migration since Maria hit the island. At a recent School Committee meeting, School Superintendent Maureen Binienda said that upon enrollment, new students undergo an evaluation and receive services depending upon their level of proficiency in English.
“People should know, we are preparing for this,” said Worcester Mayor Joseph M. Petty during the meeting, adding that a committee of city leaders has been formed to address the hurricane-related influx and such immediate needs as locating affordable housing for Maria-related migrants.
“It’s driving people to leave for survival, and I don’t blame them,” said Richard Gonzalez, a Puerto Rico native and director of Net of Compassion, a Worcester-based social services organization. During a recent trip to Puerto Rico to assess the needs there, Gonzalez recalled seeing hundreds of people at the San Juan airport, waiting to leave the island. “Just from there I started crying. The desperation in their faces…there were a lot of elderly people,” he said. “There were people in wheelchairs in the airport, sitting in the hallway and waiting to be able to get out.”
At Woodland Academy, Krysthia’s daughter Krysthina has had to confront a significant challenge because the 9-year-old does not speak English. “The school isn’t bilingual but the teacher helps her translate everything with a tablet [device],” Krysthia said. “It comforts me to know that, even though the teacher doesn’t speak Spanish, she has the genuine desire to help her.”
Shortly after 2 p.m. Friday – dismissal time for Woodland Academy students –Krysthia Gauthier entered the school to look for her daughter. By this time, Krysthina’s mood was drastically different from the morning. “She said her day went well,” Gauthier said in Spanish, looking down at her daughter with an amused look. “You didn’t cry anymore? Are you sure?”
Shyly, Krysthina shrugged. Gauthier appeared relieved. Mother and daughter then held hands and stepped onto the sidewalk – on the way to their new home.