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In hurricane's wake, Puerto Ricans find safe harbor in Minnesota

Many are rebuilding their lives here, though they face barriers. Some aren’t sure if they’ll stay.

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A man in a red and white shirt holds a young girl.
Juan L. Vega Rojas holds his 2-year-old daughter Juanlee as Sharon M. Rojas Roig looks on in the driveway of their Eagan, Minn., home.
Evan Frost | MPR News

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.

Victor Rivera Garcia, his wife Alejandra and their 1- and 3-year-old daughters fled their home in La Perla, Puerto Rico just as Hurricane Maria came crashing down on the island.

They escaped to his mother’s house but when they returned to La Perla they found most of their belongings — from their fridge to laptops to the girls’ clothes — destroyed.

“Everything was flooded inside the house,” Rivera said as he recalled the 2017 storm that crippled Puerto Rico.

With the island in ruins, they began looking elsewhere in the United States for a place to rebuild their lives. A friend had mentioned Minneapolis. Rivera said they didn’t know exactly where Minneapolis was at that point, but after researching job prospects and quality of life, they saw a chance to start again in the Twin Cities.

The Riveras are a chapter in what’s been a quiet but growing story of Puerto Ricans migrating to Minnesota the past two years. Local support groups estimate more than 300 families have arrived in the months since the hurricane, and they continue to come. While many families are settling in the Twin Cities area some are moving to places like Long Prairie and Alexandria that promise high paying jobs.

Many are rebuilding their lives here, although they face barriers. Some here now are trying to decide whether to stay or return to Puerto Rico as it struggles to rebuild.

‘They had a suitcase for me’

The future was looking bright in Puerto Rico for Sharon, 26, and Juan Roja, 27. They launched a food cooking and delivery service in Mayaguez in 2015 near the University of Puerto Rico as a way to help her brother afford his tuition and apartment.

The Rojas were in the process of fixing up a food truck when the hurricane hit in September 2017. Their plans wrecked by the storm, Juan left a few months later for a job in Minnesota. Sharon and her 2-month-old daughter followed weeks later.

They came with little, but still had support waiting for them when they arrived.

Through Facebook, Sharon Roja found Marisol Chiclana, a Puerto Rican native who’s lived in Minnesota for 25 years and volunteers her free time to help families who recently arrived from Puerto Rico.

That includes pointing families toward areas with affordable housing, informing them what government resources available to them, and even getting them winter coats.

“One day we decided to go to the airport to meet up with some families that were arriving from Puerto Rico,” Chiclana said of a winter day when the temperature ran 5 below zero. “We realized that people arrived without coats, without scarves, with nothing.”

Chiclana and the volunteer crew were waiting for Roja when she arrived. “They had a suitcase for me and a backpack for my daughter. The suitcase was full of coats, clothes, shampoo, deodorant, all sorts of things,” she recalled. “And the backpack was full of things for my baby.”

Managing life in a new space is never easy, despite the support. It can be especially daunting for Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens but sometimes end up being treated like unauthorized immigrants.

Even something as basic as trying to cash a check can be complicated.

“We would go to Walmart to exchange our checks because we still didn’t have a bank account here. And the Walmart employees would say. ‘No. For you to exchange a check here you have to be from the U.S. You have to be a citizen,’” Juan Roja recalled.

“To these people, Puerto Ricans aren’t Americans,” he added. “You show them an I.D. that says Puerto Rico and they say, ‘No, we can’t do anything because it has to be an American address.’”

The irony, he said, is that Walmart promotes itself as a place where people can send money to Puerto Rico.

Governmental barriers also stand in the way for recent arrivals from Puerto Rico. For instance, to receive government assistance in Minnesota a person needs to establish residency for 30 days.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services does allow for exceptions in cases “where unusual hardship would result from denial of assistance.” But even that requires people to know about the exception and then submit a written statement.

Chiclana and other members of Minnesota’s Puerto Rican community have called on state Sen. Melisa Franzen to request a waiver on the 30-day wait period. Franzen, DFL-Edina, was born in Puerto Rico.

“I’m not asking anything unreasonable that we wouldn’t do for our neighbors next door in Wisconsin,” Franzen said. “Just a gesture, that if someone has to move because of a crisis in their state, or in this case a territory, we’d be as welcoming and understanding and helpful as a government to welcome them and make sure that transition goes as smoothly as possible.”

A family of three stands for a portrait.
Sharon M. Rojas Roig, Juan L. Vega Rojas and their daughter, Juanlee, stand for a portrait outside of their Eagan, Minn. home.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Stay or go?

It’s still not clear how many of those who were forced from their homes by the hurricane will stay in Minnesota. Some say they want to return. Others see their children liking life here and rethinking their plans.

Edgardo Hernandez remembered lying in a hospital bed as his wife and four kids waited out the Hurricane Maria in their home in Moca, Puerto Rico, in 2017. The storm ripped the roof from their house.

He came to Minnesota because he had a sister here. He’s received help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for a hotel to stay in.

“Sure, my sons miss Puerto Rico,” Hernandez said. “But they said that if I’m going back that I should go back alone. They like it here.”

The Rojas are trying to open a restaurant in Minnesota. But the end goal is to open one in Puerto Rico.

“I want to go back to Puerto Rico,” Juan Roja said. “But I want to take something back with me that can help many people. And for us, that’s always been cooking.”

Rivera and his family have settled into a home in north Minneapolis. He and his wife are job searching, and the girls love all the space. As of right now, they’re in no rush to leave.

“A year from now I’ll have to see what Puerto Rico is like and then I can honestly say if I’ll go back anytime soon,” Rivera said. “At the moment I’m seeing the opportunity for a better childhood for my daughters here.”