‘If not us, then who?’

How community-based organizations and UnidosUS Affiliates have welcomed victims of Hurricane Maria

Nearly a year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the island is still rebuilding. Many residents have relocated to the United States mainland, concentrated in Florida but also settling in communities across the country.

As displaced families build a new life on the continent, local groups are lending assistance wherever they can. At the 2018 UnidosUS Annual Conference, we convened Affiliates who have worked with survivors of the hurricane, and want to make sure their stories aren’t forgotten.

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Puerto Ricans try to get to their homes in a flooded area after Hurricane Maria. (Photo by Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos/PRNG-PAO)

The post-Maria displacement is a continuation of a diaspora that’s been years in the making. Edwin Meléndez, a professor of urban affairs and planning and the City University of New York, says that more than half a million Puerto Ricans have moved to the continent since 2006, and another half million may come in the next few years alone.

Meléndez worries about the long-term effects of a more spread-out population. “It’s hard to build power without concentration,” he says. Some recent arrivals have lost almost everything after the storm, and while the federal government has failed to aid the people of Puerto Rico, small community groups—some of them UnidosUS Affiliates—are doing everything they can to accommodate arrivals from the island, including completely changing their daily operations.

Before the storms, Latino Leadership was Central Florida’s destination for integrating Hispanics into mainstream America. The Orlando-based Affiliate focuses on developing leadership skills, advancing children’s education, and housing counseling.

Ongoing case management for relocating citizens from Puerto Rico.

Latino Leadership provides services unlike anything else in the area. “We have one of the only culturally appropriate autism centers in the country,” says Executive Director Marucci Guzmán. “But we became an emergency relief organization overnight.”

Seeing how incoming residents were being greeted, Guzmán stepped in to fill a much-needed gap, eventually expanding the whole organization to serve them.

Guzmán and other Latino Leadership staff joined Florida Governor Rick Scott in a disaster center at Orlando International Airport. Latino-serving organizations weren’t originally included in the response plan, but Guzmán saw the need and stepped in. “If you don’t have a service that can welcome families in Spanish, how can they be welcomed?” she asks rhetorically.

Latino Leadership in partnership with Turin Aviation taking provisions to La Perla in Puerto Rico.

Latino Leadership then collaborated with the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to establish a response center inside the airport.

“We did a lot of crying, a lot of hugging, letting them know it was okay,” Guzmán says.

The need from incoming Puerto Ricans began exceeding what the temporary space could accommodate, so Latino Leadership adjusted its daily operations. What was originally a thrift store became a relief center.

There, Guzmán saw firsthand the effects the storm had on people. “Seeing the desperation in eating cold Chef Boyardee straight from the can,” she says. “It’s not something you can put in a grant report, but it shows you how much small things like that are needed.”

Latino Leadership eventually received a grant that led to eight new employees who can specialize in aiding those displaced by Hurricane Maria, as both case managers and grant writers.

Guzmán isn’t sure how long these services will be necessary. “You can’t put a deadline on this kind of relief,” she says. Latino Leadership may transition from emergency relief to something more long-term. She mentions possibly opening a mental health center, available to the whole community but specialized in dealing with trauma from the hurricane.

Latino Leadership is just one example of Latinos making room for those in need. There are communities around the country welcoming new neighbors. Centro Hispano Daniel Torres has opened its doors to those in the Reading, Pennsylvania, area who came to stay with family.

With Trump so quick to cut off aid to Puerto Rico, and insult the island on Twitter, Centro Hispano Daniel Torres Executive Director Michael Toledo had a simple rationale for rearranging entire operations to accommodate new arrivals: “If not us, then who?”

By John Marth, Senior Content Specialist, UnidosUS

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