After Hurricane Maria left much of Puerto Rico flooded and without power in late September, Yaira Rios and her family survived for nearly a month on tuna, corned beef, and Chef Boyardee.
With no end to the devastation in sight, Rios left her home in Aguadilla and decided to move to Chicago. She now lives with her cousin on the Southwest Side, but it’s the large Puerto Rican community six miles to the north in Humboldt Park that has provided Rios and other hurricane transplants with a taste of home.
Rios and her cousin recently ate breakfast at Nellie’s Restaurant in Humboldt Park, where they shared traditional Puerto Rican foods like plantains, pastelon, and arroz con gandules. And it’s not just food: The community has opened its doors to new arrivals.
Puerto Ricans have had a strong presence in the neighborhood since the 1940s. A large sculpture depicting Puerto Rico’s blue and red flag crosses Division Street, signaling the entrance to the “paseo boricua,” or Puerto Rican promenade. The neighborhood hosts an annual Puerto Rican People’s Parade, and this year it featured controversial Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera, who is seen as a hero by some in the community.
Chicago’s large Puerto Rican community is likely a key reason why many have chosen to relocate to Chicago. About 1,600 came to Chicago on humanitarian flights and countless others have self-evacuated or had family fly them in, said Melissa Stratton, a spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
Many of the new arrivals have passed through the Humboldt Park Field House, which was set up as a welcome center with agencies and services like the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, the Chicago Housing Authority, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
“Just going to Humboldt Park, you already feel the vibes that you feel when you go to Puerto Rico,” said 16-year-old Jose Sanchez, who left Puerto Rico in early October. “The people, all the laughing, the joking around, all the food. And you feel the culture in Chicago.”
But adjusting has still been tough for the transplants. There are the the challenges of of starting at a new school and buying winter clothes for the first time. And many of the new arrivals have dealt with unexpected cultural differences, ranging from how to get medication here to confronting different types of Spanish spoken.
Moving to Humboldt Park
Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm, hit Puerto Rico the morning of Sept. 20 and battered the island for more than 30 hours. The storm knocked out power to the entire island and left most residents without cellphone service or potable water. Some towns saw 90 percent of their structures damaged.
Zenaida Quinones, 33, lived with her husband and two children in a first-floor apartment in Utuado. The hurricane left their home flooded and her family without access to food, water, and electricity.
The family arrived in Chicago on Oct. 11 and have been staying in a Humboldt Park sublet. Quinones said she likes the neighborhood because everything she needs is close by — a supermarket, a Dollar Tree, and a pharmacy across the street. She said she wants to stay in Humboldt Park, but needs to find a new place to live by Dec. 1.
“The biggest stress I have right now is finding an apartment,” Quinones said in Spanish. “I need an apartment.”
Finding a permanent home isn’t the only struggle for the new arrivals. About 140 Puerto Rican students have enrolled in Chicago public schools throughout the city since the hurricane hit, said Emily Bolton, a spokeswoman with Chicago Public Schools.
One of those students, 17-year-old Christian Cartagena, said interacting with people from other Latin American countries has been an adjustment. For example, he said he rarely saw Mexicans in Puerto Rico. He only knows about their culture from watching Mexican soap operas on television.
Christian, a senior at ASPIRA Early College High School on the Northwest Side, said bilingual programs have helped ease the transition, but there’s a new mix of dialects and slang to pick up.
“Here, many people speak Spanish. But when they speak Spanish, sometimes they use words that mean different things,” he said.
Many hurricane transplants now must decide if they want to stay in Chicago permanently or return to Puerto Rico.
Quinones said she doesn’t want to pull her 7-year-old daughter out of Frederic Chopin Elementary School, but she also missed “the climate and the people” in her hometown.
For Yaira Rios, the decision could come down to whether she can transfer credits to a new university in the U.S. so she can complete medical school.
“I’m actually looking to finish my medical degree, and also to have a job to continue providing for my family that’s back in Puerto Rico,” she said.
But many want to go home.
Christian Cartagena said he wants to go back to Puerto Rico to attend college next year.
“I would never trade Puerto Rico for anything,” he said. “Maybe it’s just because I grew up there, but for me, Puerto Rico is the best island.”