This Is What It's Like To Be Forced From Home

Today marks one month since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, devastating the island and changing its future forever.

In the weeks that have followed, the magnitude of the disaster has slowly become clear: As of today, about 82% of the island still doesn't have electricity, 31% remains without water (and those that have access to water, don't know whether it's potable), and 48% of telecommunications systems are still down.

It will take a long time for Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory that was already in a deep economic crisis before the storm, to recover from the devastation. As a result, people are fleeing the island in droves. (Puerto Ricans have been natural-born U.S. citizens since 1917, so they can just move stateside.)

Refinery29 spoke with seven Puerto Rican women about their decision to leave the island. In many ways, they're luckier than most: They had the financial resources to leave and a support system waiting for them stateside. Many Puerto Ricans who want to leave, or have already left the territory, don't have the same advantages.

Still, leaving suddenly means these women are starting anew without knowing what the next day will bring. Ahead, they tell us their experiences in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria, what their hopes are for their new lives stateside, and whether they would ever go back home.

Photo Courtesy of Isamar Acevedo Torres.
Isamar Acevedo Torres, 26
Relocated to Florida

In her own words, Isamar Acevedo Torres and her husband Pau Cortés were at the best point in their young marriage: Their daughter Laila had grown into a beautiful 11-month-old baby, they were about to purchase their first home, and both had stable jobs. But then Hurricane Maria happened.

The house they were about to purchase was flooded. With communications services down, Acevedo Torres couldn't do her job as a social media manager. It was difficult to find basic necessities — a couple of times, her husband lined up for nine hours, only to learn there was no gas left or that he could only purchase less than $30-worth of gas. Then, it became harder to find food for Laila, to the point were Acevedo Torres went to buy baby formula and found just one can left in the store. The baby was also getting rashes due to the insufferable heat and the water they were using to bathe — which no one knew whether it was contaminated or not.

Brokenhearted, the couple decided it was time to leave Puerto Rico because they couldn't guarantee Laila would stay healthy. They packed two small suitcases and hopped on a plane en route to Florida two weeks after Maria made landfall. Acevedo Torres said she wasn't able to sell anything before leaving.

"We’ve talked of leaving at some point, either to the U.S. mainland or Spain, because the economy in Puerto Rico wasn't in the best state," she said. (Her husband is Spanish.) "But we had decided to stay because we were doing well. And then, from one day to another, everything changed — our situation with housing, jobs, the baby. We never imagined we would leave under these circumstances or so suddenly."

Her sister lives in Florida, and the couple is staying at a nearby house owned by her parents. Cortés was able to find work quickly, and Acevedo Torres is back in contact with her clients.

But she feels torn. On one hand, now she and her husband can team up with organizations in the diaspora and help Puerto Rico in a way that they weren't able to back on the island. On the other, Puerto Rico is home and Acevedo Torres feels powerless being in Florida.

"Leaving, especially so suddenly, breaks your heart," she said. "And taking things day-by-day, the uncertainty, is hard. But we had to do what was best for our baby."
Photo Courtesy of Jeshuan García.
Jeshuan García, 23
Relocated to Florida

"Mami, would you mind if I left and I don't come back?" Jeshuan García asked in the days after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. For a long time, she had considered moving stateside. However, doing it now wasn't part of her plan: She wanted to have at least two years of work experience on the island and then leave. But the storm changed everything.

"It was depressing. From one day to the other, everything you knew was gone," she said. "And everything you were sure you were going to have access to — electricity, water, food — was no longer there and you don't know where that was going to come from anymore. I was not going to be able to deal with it."

García was working as a contractor in a media outlet, so she knew that she was likely to lose her job. She had a trip planned for the weekend after Maria made landfall, and decided that once the airport was operational, she would leave for good. In Florida, she could get a job to help her family financially — something that she wouldn't be able to do if she stayed in Puerto Rico. She left September 28, just eight days after the storm made landfall.

Her father just moved to Florida, so García had a place to stay in temporarily. Her mom and aunt, with whom she lived in Puerto Rico, will visit her in late November. The women already told her that if the situation doesn't get better for them by then, they will stay with her on the mainland. But despite knowing it was the right call, García still struggles with her decision.

"I cry almost every day and I don't know for sure what's next," she said. "But I'm not ruling out the possibility of going back home in the future. In the end, I'm going to ask myself what I can learn here that I can take back home to help build it back up."
Photo Courtesy of Ana Morales Nazario.
Ana Morales Nazario, 28
Relocated to Florida

Ana Morales Nazario's trip to Florida to celebrate the third birthday of her son Tiago was planned long before Hurricane Maria came into the picture. But during the week of October 3, as her son was excitedly running around Disney World, Morales Nazario was weighing whether she should just stay. "I was anxious the entire trip, asking myself what I should do," she said.

The house in Puerto Rico where she lived with her parents wasn't badly damaged during the hurricane, but she knew her two jobs, one in a clothing store and another in an accounting firm, would likely reduce the company's staff or her hours — both of which would make her financial circumstances uncertain. Additionally, the health situation in Puerto Rico is only getting worse, which could impact her toddler son.

She had previously been unable to see the extent of the damage to the island due to the lack of communications on Puerto Rico after the storm. But after seeing the news on the mainland, she decided it was best for Tiago if they remained in Florida.

"If I was alone, I would have stayed home. I want to help, I want to support the Puerto Rico se levanta ("Puerto Rico will rise up") movement," she said. "But I have a son, and I have to give him the best future I can."

Morales Nazario's family — including her parents and five siblings — and most of her friends are staying on the island. In the meantime, she is living with her aunt in the Sunshine State. She's scared of the uncertainty, but has been submitting resumes in the hopes of finding a good job.

The move has definitely been a shift for her: Before Maria, Morales Nazario used to be that person who said she would never leave the territory. "I always said I was not going to move away, that I would build my life in Puerto Rico. But now, if I'm honest, I think that if things go well for me and my son, I'll stay here," she said. "But naturally, as a boricua, my heart remains at home."
Photo Courtesy of Maried Arroyo Soltero.
Maried Arroyo Soltero, 23
Relocating to New York

Maried Arroyo Soltero's trip to New York City in early November was supposed to be a weekend birthday affair. But after Hurricane Maria, her best friend, who also lives in Puerto Rico, posed a question: "Maried, what if we stayed?"

Arroyo Soltero weathered the storm alone in her apartment in the town Guaynabo. "It was horrible. I had like three feet of water inside the house. My furniture, TV, and bed were damaged. I lost half of my closet," she said. "And I can't even begin to imagine how it was for those who truly lost everything."

Witnessing the destruction on the island shook her, but she said that it made her hopeful to see communities helping each other. But the one thing that left a bad taste in her mouth was the response from both the local and federal government.

"The situation could have been managed better by the local government, and the federal government could have done more," she said. "Trump shouldn't have come to Guaynabo. Even though the town suffered, there's many other places that have it truly worse. Guaynabo is a town with a lot of wealthy people. Our needs are not the same needs as places like Utuado or Jayuya. Hell, if they couldn't take him to the mountains, he should have gone to Loíza or Carolina, which are right next door. People there are hungry, communities are devastated, and he didn't see any of that."

Prior to Maria, things at the marketing firm where Arroyo Soltero worked were already unstable. Due to Puerto Rico's economic situation, she had already considered leaving. But after the storm, her office closed and she didn't know whether she would have a job anytime soon.

"Maria was the catalyst for me to decide to leave. It will take a long time for the economy and job market to stabilize, and that's time I can't afford to lose," she said. "The next couple of months will be challenging, but I'm sure it will be worth it."
Photo Courtesy of Carol Ruiz.
Carol Ruiz, 30
Relocated to Florida

About seven years ago, Carol Ruiz lived stateside for a year and she hated their experience. "I couldn't get used to it," she said. "Puerto Rico is home, and that was not my tribe."

But once Hurricane Maria hit the island, Ruiz and her husband David Cruz started considering whether it was better for their family to leave. After all, they're the parents of Ian Marcos, 8, and Luciana, 2.

"If it was only the two of us, it's likely we would have been able to deal with the situation," she said. "But that's not the case. We have two little humans who totally depend on us, and we had to do what was best for them."

The first couple of days after the storm were okay for the family — they had a generator and a water tank. But once they didn't have enough gas or water, it was a reality check. Ruiz said it was incredibly difficult to get a hold of basic necessities, and, when they checked out Ian Marcos' school, they found that it was totally destroyed by the storm. He requires speech and other therapies, and it was unclear what would happen with his education if they stayed.

Cruz's brother told the family they should come and stay with him in Florida for a few days. Ruiz packed only five outfits for each member of the family and one laptop for work, and hopped on a plane with her husband and kids on October 2.

But as the impact of the storm became clearer, the couple realized they might stay stateside permanently. They found a school for Ian Marcos, who's excited about "living close to Disney World" but still talks about Puerto Rico, and both Ruiz and her husband are interviewing for jobs. As of now, the most important thing to Ruiz is stability for her family — either in Florida or another state. But, she said she wants to go back to the island, only if things get better.

"We don't want this to be our 'forever,'" she said. "Puerto Ricans that live in the diaspora always have the dream of going back home."
Photo Courtesy of Natalia Rodríguez Medina.
Natalia Rodríguez Medina, 23
Relocated to Indiana

Moving to Indiana after Hurricane Maria wasn't exactly in Natalia Rodríguez Medina's agenda. In fact, she will tell you that her mom pulled a move from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and decided Rodríguez Medina was going to live with her aunt. The first days were difficult, but now she believes that leaving was her best option.

"The decision was hard. However, before Maria my future was already looking bleak," she said. "Afterwards, it was nonexistent."

Rodríguez Medina graduated from college in December 2016 and was juggling some odd jobs while she went through the process of applying to graduate school. She said that it had crossed her mind to start school stateside, or abroad, in August 2018, but Maria pushed her timeline forward.

She didn't leave the island alone, however. Rodríguez Medina's grandparents also relocated with her, since her grandmother suffers from dementia. "My grandparents are better now," she said. "But it's been difficult for abuelo. He's very patriotic, he says he wants to die in Puerto Rico. But I don't know if it's the best option for him to go back, since it will be difficult to provide care for abuela under those conditions."

Adjusting to her life in Indiana has proved a bit difficult for Rodríguez Medina, even though she said she grew up "watching American TV shows" and is fully bilingual. But despite this, she's optimistic about her future stateside. She wants to get a job so she doesn't become a burden for her aunt, who opened the doors of her house to welcome her and supports her graduate school plans.

But Rodríguez Medina knows she's been lucky: "As someone who is fairly privileged, even I had it hard during the hurricane and afterwards ... I want other people to know that others on the island are in a desperate situation right now, and they need help."
Photo Courtesy of Astery Molina.
Astery Molina, 24
Relocated to North Carolina

Astery Molina was visiting Spain when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. She was traveling alone, a gift to herself to celebrate finishing graduate school. After the storm passed, she spent days desperate to contact her family, scrolling through social media and seeing all kinds of images about the devastation at home. When Molina was finally able to reach her parents, they told her, "Find someplace to stay and don't come back to the island."

It might have sounded harsh, but under the circumstances, she believes it was the most realistic option for her. Molina works in the arts, and even though she's aware it might come across as cynical, she said arts and culture is one of the first areas for budget cuts in times of crisis. Her family knew that it would be difficult for her to have any type of job security back home, and Molina didn't want to be a burden for them either.

"I didn't know that the last time I saw my friends and family before traveling would be the last time I saw my friends and family [for a while]," she said. "It was frustrating, and it made me feel guilty, that I was traveling abroad while they were struggling at home."

Compared to others in Puerto Rico, her family was okay: They didn't suffer loses, and Molina thinks she can be more helpful stateside.

For the first couple of days after she returned from Spain, she crashed with some friends in Boston. She is now at her sister's place in North Carolina, but preparing to return to the city. Molina is still trying to figure out what's next in her career, and how being away from Puerto Rico can help her grow professionally.

But the fact that everything happened so suddenly, and that the circumstances were well beyond her control, still weighs her down. "I love Puerto Rico. I've traveled a lot, but there's no place like home," she said. "I feel like someone pulled the rug from under me. This was more Maria's decision than my own."
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