In Wake of Hurricane Maria Devastation, University Welcomes Puerto Rican Scholars

 UPR Students arrive in Chicago

UPR Students arrive in Chicago

By Maria del Toro

On September 20th, the day before classes began in the fall quarter of 2017, Hurricane Maria pummeled the island of Puerto Rico. It was the second hurricane to hit the island in a month. Only a few weeks prior, Hurricane Irma had struck the small Caribbean island, leaving thousands without power or water. Before Puerto Rico could recover, Category 4 Maria made landfall, bringing with her 155 mile-per-hour-winds and 30 inches of rain. The hurricane wiped out infrastructure and left the island desperate for relief from the estimated $100 billion worth of damage. The official death toll continues to be debated as more than 1,000 “excess deaths” occurred in the months that followed as many people suffered from preventable conditions that were unable to be medically treated due to the lack of resources.

Six months later, Puerto Rico continues to struggle while it lacks basic necessities such as food, water, housing and electricity. According to figures reported by the US Department of Energy, at least 156,000 electric customers still don’t have power on the island - the longest recorded power outage in U.S. history. As of January, the Puerto Rican crisis hotline had received a total of 3,050 calls from suicide attempts, a 246 percent increase from the previous year. Puerto Rico was already entrenched in financial crisis; the long-term impact of Hurricane Maria remains to be seen.

Home to the third largest metropolitan population of Puerto Ricans, Chicago aimed to serve as a destination for Puerto Ricans fleeing the hurricane’s devastation. Mayor Rahm Emanuel expressed the city’s support of Puerto Rican hurricane refugees following the storm, and by December, the executive director of Chicago's Office of Emergency Management and Communications reported that Chicago had welcomed 1,600 hurricane refugees, a number expected to grow as a result of the ongoing exodus to the mainland. Alderman Gilbert Villegas of the 36th Ward and leader of the City Council’s Latino Caucus said he expected the city's Puerto Rican population of 100,000 people to double after Maria.

Affiliates of the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Race Politics and Culture (CSRPC) mobilized and initiated a Hurricane Irma and Maria Relief Program to support scholars and artists displaced by the devastation. This spring quarter, the University of Chicago is welcoming nine undergraduates, four graduate students, and four visiting faculty. We reached out to four of them, Daniel A. Ramos Matos, Yanitza A. Cruz Crespo, Shakyra Sánchez Milián, and Elisa María Figueroa Narváez to speak candidly about their experiences pre- and post-Maria and what they hope for during their time here at U of C. 

Where are you from on the island?

Daniel Ramos Matos (DRM): I come from a family dedicated to agriculture in the municipality of Utuado, located at the heart of the Island.

Yanitza A. Cruz Crespo (YCC): I’m from the north of the island, a small town in the coast named Dorado, which means “golden” in Spanish.

Shakyra Sánchez Milián (SSM): I am from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, which is more of the country filled with prairies, forest and beaches.

Elisa María Figueroa Narváez (EFN): I am from the center of the island, the Barrio Achiote of Naranjito.

How was the response in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, or how were you and your family affected? How have things changed since the hurricane first hit 6 months ago? What are your plans for returning?

DRM: I did not spend the onslaught of the hurricane in my hometown. Instead I stayed at my sister’s house in Bayamón because I had recently moved into my dorm room and her house was closer (Utuado is a about a one and a half hour drive from my University.) I could not communicate with my family for about eight days after the hurricane. When I could finally talk to them they explained to me that they were running out of drinking water and that the supermarkets were depleted. Things started to get worst because the main roads to Utuado were left in very bad shape and the delivery trucks could not pass. In Bayamón supplies were more abundant and accessible, but nonetheless, the lines were sometimes miles long. We decided to buy or gather as much supplies to take to my family in Utuado while things got better. We did this for about a month and half. I did stay in Utuado a couple of times to help my family and what I saw was solidarity among the neighborhoods and inaction by the government. My family in Utuado still does not have power and the water system is very inconsistent. That is the reality of thousands of people on the Island.

YCC: The response was inhumane and really slow, we were and we are still being treated like second-class Americans. At this moment, many Puerto Ricans - who are American citizens - still don’t have power or clean water in their houses. The people that have power suffer from outages.

We lost the roof of our second-floor in the first 15 minutes of Hurricane Maria. We lost power, telecommunications including phone signal and water in our houses. Imagine having to live 6 months without power or water in your home. Maria changed my mindset. I’m now looking for an affordable graduate or Ph.D. program to keep researching.

SSM: I appreciate the efforts that the people gave to help Puerto Rico stand back on its feet. In my area the help was scarce, so I had to search for supplies and help for my family. I am the eldest daughter out of three; my dad was in the States working to support the family, so he was not here when the hurricane struck and I had to be in charge of my whole family. My mother broke her foot right after the hurricane, my little sister was stung by an insect and had a bad allergic reaction, the hospitals were closed, I did the best I could. I ventured out and waited in a massive line to get medicine with just $10 dollars in my pocket, praying to God the whole time to help me find medicine and have enough money to buy it. Fortunately, everything turned out to be much cheaper than I expected and could buy more medicine and some food. In the first few days we only ate cold canned soup, we tried to heat it up with a candle because the gas line of the stove broke in the storm.

After two weeks the military and the municipal government were passing through the main street, which is not far from where I lived. I was fortunate to get to them in time. They were giving out water and other supplies. Both told me to go wait in front of my house— that they would get to where I lived to give us the water. I did, but they never came. When the military passed I saw a soldier delivering water to houses on the main road; I asked him if he could give me water for my family to drink, and he said that they would come by my house to deliver water and supplies. I didn’t believe him and asked for his word. He gave me his word and swore he would come by my house to give me the supplies and water. We waited for three hours in front of my house. They never came. That is when I realized that help was never going to come where I lived, I had to look for it and work for it.

The devastation lead to people unite even more, citizens as pillars to one another. There was a strong sense of unity. Yes, there were negative aspects: a few people went on rampage, some of the corrupt government stole or wasted aid, but the unity of the people outweighed these costs. Neighbors helped each other, the local church did a major part in helping the community. We went to the areas that were most affected and little by little picked up the pieces and are standing strong. It isn’t the same as before, I believe that it will never be but can be even better. We have to keep fighting, to keep being humble and keep on helping one another putting differences aside. I will keep on studying, I want to graduate, I want to enter law school—hopefully in a great university so I can keep helping my family.

EFN: The experience in my hometown, Naranjito, was and continues to be very sad, even depressing. After Hurricane Irma, we lost the electric service and still to this day we do not have it back—it has been more than six months without this essential need. We did not receive help from any entity until after more than two months, and after those two months we only received some bags and cans of food. During those first months after the hurricane my family and I managed to survive by getting water from the rivers and by cooking what we have grown in our land, specifically plantains. Six months after the hurricane I can say that in my case things changed a lot, for example the obligation to survive without basic needs such as water or electric service. 

Can you share a little more about your field of study or coursework you will be continuing now that you are at U of C?

DRM: At the University of Puerto Rico I study history of the Americas focusing particularly on Puerto Rico. I am interested mostly in 19th century history. At the University of Chicago I am taking a Sociological Theory course because I believe that it could nurture my knowledge in my field. I am also taking two language courses - Catalan and Portuguese. I had studied French at the University of Puerto Rico and wish to continue learning many new languages.

YCC: I’m a fourth-year student of Information and Journalism in the University of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras campus. UChicago doesn’t have a Journalism or Communications program so I decided to focus on other things like research, specifically about Hurricane Maria. I’m not taking research courses either, but I’m working on my own using the knowledge I gathered in my bachelors and putting it into practice. I’m also looking for extracurricular activities like collaborating with a newspaper in Chicago or helping others with my knowledge like being a Spanish tutor. I’m really thankful to UChicago and I want to pay it forward in any way I can. It means a lot for me and my family, in a moment in which people with power ignored us, UChicago decided to support us and in the recuperation of the island and its people. Thanks to UChicago my family and I will see Hurricane Maria not just as a disaster but an opportunity that helped us grow.

SSM: I take cognitive psychology, developmental psychology and human rights, I love working with people especially children. I also have an interest in learning law, thus why I chose those three classes.

EFN: Since I already completed the credits to obtain my Political Science bachelor’s degree at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras, I am using this experience to expand my knowledge in foreign languages, specifically in Italian and Portuguese.

Many schools - including Brown and Columbia - opened their doors to students of the University of Puerto Rico. Why select the U of C?  

DRM: After the hurricane struck the Island, it became very difficult to keep in touch with what was happening inside and outside of Puerto Rico due to the lack of access to media. By the time other universities were offering chances to study outside while things got better in the Island, my attention was directed to actually surviving the precarious situation in which we were in, while at the same time trying to know how family members were to help them in any way possible. When things started to normalize and classes began again at the University of Puerto Rico, I found out about the program at the University of Chicago and decided not to miss the opportunity, now that I was focusing again on my academic life. What the University of Chicago offered seemed more suitable for me. I admire the solidarity that this and other universities offered to the students of the University of Puerto Rico.

YCC: Honestly, the timing was the reason I’m at UChicago. In my case, I heard about the opportunities that other institutions opened to us but I wasn’t ready to go because I was helping my family to look for water, food and gasoline, which were more than 12 hours away under the sun, and also help them to communicate with the federal aids because I am the only one that speaks English in my family. When the opportunity of UChicago arrived we were more established and I was able to end my first semester at my university. I’m grateful to any other institution that opened their doors to my colleagues. That’s the solidarity that the world needs. 

What can we as a community do to help you adjust during your time here? How would you recommend we support efforts for Puerto Rico's recovery as a whole?

YCC: That question is more complicated that it looks. People around the world donated to different organizations and some of them used the money for other ends. Research the organization first to see if Puerto Ricans are really receiving the aid. The suministres are important, but right now if you want to help Puerto Ricans you need to be involved in the conversation. Do some research about what the Fiscal Control Board and what it wants to implement on our island, look for our minimum wage and the cost of a gallon of milk, see how the suicides rates have risen since Hurricane Maria and how many people are leaving the island because it’s impossible to live there. Social networks are great, you can use them to contact Puerto Ricans on the island and find out first hand what’s happening. But most of all, be our voice. Puerto Ricans don’t have vote in Congress but its decisions significantly impact our lives.

SSM: The University of Chicago has done so much, I can’t describe in words how thankful I am for everything it is doing for us, I personally thank the University as well as my ambassador, Cameron, for such a wonderful and easy transition to this University. I implore the University of Chicago to keep investing in the education of Puerto Rico.

EFN: I believe that the best help that the community can give to the Puerto Ricans that are visiting this quarter is the continuous support since it is the first time that we went from the modality of semester to quarter, as well as continue providing a welcoming atmosphere, especially for those who still have difficulties in English. Finally, I think that the best support that can be given for the recovery of Puerto Rico is to give a push to approve public policies that are to our benefit, although the preferable support would be towards a final solution to the colonial situation, which sadly has delayed the recovery processes.

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Throughout the spring and summer, there will be opportunities to engage with our guests and support them in acclimating. CSRPC and the Center for Identity + Inclusion will be hosting a welcome dinner for the new students, their peer ambassadors and faculty members. The Institute of Politics will be hosting “Puerto Rico’s Financial Future” featuring Natalie A. Jaresko, Executive Director of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico. Stay tuned for more programming and please join U of C in welcoming our visitors.