Eighteen and freshly married, my grandmother left la isla del encanto, with its endless palm trees and sunsets that dip the world in rose gold, for the graffitied brick of Newark. Race riots engulfed the city, and without any English or standard education, she was on her own to make a better life for her and her budding family.
Life in a factory awaited her.
Hurricane Maria twisted its way through Puerto Rico in late September of last year, leaving a wake of wind-scarred lands, ravaged businesses, and broken families in its wake. Months later, the hurricane still has a pulse on the island, breathing and beating in Puerto Rico’s continued difficulties to return power, provide consistent sources of clean water and food, and repair the infrastructural damage sustained by the disaster. A surge in homicide rates has researchers predicting that January will be the most murderous month on the island in two years. Along with an economy rolling in a $70 billion grave with little tax or humanitarian help from the United States or FEMA, the island’s situation is not looking too pretty.
And because of this—because the effects of the hurricane are taking up so much space—Puerto Ricans are deciding that there isn’t enough space left for them.
Waves of these boricuas have left the island. Over 239,000 have moved to Florida since early October. High levels of migration have also been seen in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and New York. Although only 29 percent of Puerto Ricans are born and live on the island, research forecasts that 14 percent more of the island’s population will migrate to the US by 2020 as a result of this hurricane.
The road to my grandmother’s house in Puerto Rico wraps around a hill, bends itself backwards under plantain trees and around casitas until the cracked asphalt drops you at her white doorstep. The house started off as just one room: Her father built it out of riverstone for his family of 15 when their first house was destroyed in an earlier fire. Now, there’s two bedrooms and the door in the kitchen overlooks the rolling greens where the family farm lies, nestled. It’s quiet, remote—serene, even.
In Newark, home was a paycheck. The family bounced around from neighborhood to neighborhood, coming and going with the ebb and flow of work. Like most immigrant families, they thought of home the way you flip through books of baby photos—slowingly and sparingly, with a hint of a smile grazing your eyes as you remember the distance between then and now with something like nostalgia or love. It was never a feeling you could tuck into your pocket and save for tomorrow. It was here and now, a pocket of warmth before the next shift started.
In Finding Mañana, Mirta Ojito paints a picture of the 1980 Miami coastline: 125,000 Cubans flooded southern Florida in a span of merely six months, seeking political asylum during the Mariel Boatlift. Massive changes were made to the Floridian communities at the price of widespread discrimination of the Marielitos—and a similarsituation might be happening to Puerto Ricans today.
There are important differences between the two to consider: Puerto Ricans aren’t fleeing from a dictator, the means of travel they are using to come to the states are much safer, and boricuas have the title of being American “citizens” (despite having little to no voting voice against bills in Congress that affect them). However, in being thrusted headfirst into a new culture, language, and way of life, both the Marielitos and the Puerto Rican migrants of today face similar issues that stem from the broader issue of Latinx immigrant prejudice.
The Latinx community has for decades been attributed this trope of the “bad hombre” immigrant. Marielitos were called “criminals, homosexuals, and mentally defected persons” as a shallow excuse for horrible treatment in the 1980s. Puerto Ricans today (and for decades past) are being racially and socioeconomically discriminated against, and their “half-citizenship” has been used as a shallow excuse for wrongful treatment. As an increasing number of Puerto Ricans decide to call the United States their new home, America must be careful to prevent the treatment of this mass exodus from transmogrifying into the second coming of the Marielitos.
My grandmother’s hands, like metal murcielagos, still fly over knobs and buttons at the screw factory, decades later. Like many other boricuas and Latinos that come to the states, she’s been stagnant at a blue-collar job since she came to this country.
At the end of her shift, she takes off her apron. Though tomorrow she will go back to work, for now, she goes home.
Jessenia N. Class ’20, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology concentrator in Quincy House.
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