New year, fresh start: Puerto Ricans moving to Tampa Bay Area

Hundreds of Puerto Ricans are rebuilding their lives in the Tampa Bay Area post-Hurricane Maria. Meet a few who now call Tampa, St. Petersburg, Lakeland, and other local communities home.

Kevin Estrada elected to stay behind in Puerto Rico with his grandmother when his family moved to Tampa’s Westchase community two years ago. But after Hurricane Maria hit the island last Sept. 20, Estrada wasn’t able to refill his prescription for heart medication. So he left on a humanitarian flight.

“It was not a relocation by choice,” the 20-year-old student concedes. “Due to the situation in Puerto Rico, I had to.”

Roads were closed. Estrada’s doctor wasn’t available and -- even with an emergency, five-day prescription obtained through the military -- Estrada ran out of medicine. When he learned about a humanitarian flight, he headed for the mainland, arriving in Miami the next day, October 1.

Diane Cortes with her step-son Kevin Estrada who left Puerto Rico for Tampa due to Hurricane Maria. “He looked so tired, so sad, so thin,” says his mom, Diane Cortes, VP of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Tampa Bay. “For us, it was a really difficult time.”

Like many other Puerto Ricans uprooted by Maria, Estrada is transitioning to a new life in the Tampa Bay Area. “I am still learning a lot. Also learning English and making new friends,” Estrada says. “I miss my friends, family and Puerto Rican beaches.”

Though English is taught in elementary school, not everyone in Puerto Rico has a good command of the language. The ones that speak it have parents who speak it, or they are college educated. Perhaps they work for American companies, like Cortes, an office manager born in New York who moved to Puerto Rico at a young age.

Having his parents here, and having attended Ana G. Mendez del Este at Carolina in Puerto Rico, is making the transition easier for Estrada. He transferred to the Tampa campus on Waters Avenue, where he is studying business. 

Some classes are in Spanish and some are in English at the school noted for its bilingual curriculum.

Estrada even accepted a temporary job in Temple Terrace, but plans to be a full-time student this year. 

A new job through Facebook

Luis Perez landed a job in December with help from his wife Ibelisse, Ana Rivera, founder of the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Polk County; and Facebook. His wife connected with Rivera on Facebook and learned about a job opening for a librarian at Southern Technical College’s Auburndale campus.

Perez, a 39-year-old with a master’s degree in Library Science, had been working as head librarian at Dewey University - Carolina in Puerto Rico. 

“My library was destroyed,” he says. “We lost everything.”

Damage to his house in Toa Baja was also significant, although he incurred less damage than his neighbors. After a back window in one of the bedrooms ruptured, and he and Ibelisse held the bedroom door closed for at least two hours.

“We lost everything in my daughter’s room, but we saved the house,” Perez says.

He and his family are staying in Lakeland with his wife’s parents, Iris and Wilfredo Lopez, until they find their own home. “Before summer we want our own place. That’s our goal,” he says.

Perez also is continuing his studies for a doctorate degree in Distance Education and Technology through the Fort Lauderdale-based Nova Southeastern University. Though he started in Puerto Rico, he is able to complete his thesis here. “I need to finish this year,” he says.

For the time being, Perez acknowledges his life is in “transition.” “I’m getting used to all the changes. It’s going to take time,” he says.

Ibelisse is working on her English while Perez, who learned English through reading and listening to others, is practicing his pronunciation. “I know English. I understand it,” he says. “Sometimes the words don’t come very fast.”

At work, the transition is primarily switching from Spanish to English. “It’s the same science. Library Science is the same,” he explains. “I studied in Puerto Rico, but we have a model based on the U.S. It’s not very difficult to get used to.”

Help from a friend

Marco Lopez, an automatic door salesman, was laid off in Puerto Rico after his office was destroyed by floodwaters. The divorced father of two started looking for work before he left the island, then relocated to Tampa in mid-December. The main reason he was hired was because of his Spanish.

Kevin Estrada looks on as Diane Cortes hugs Marco Lopez, also a Puerto Rican refugee.“I know the Latino people. I know how they work. I also speak English,” he says.

He decided to move to Tampa because of his long-term friendship with Cortes’ husband, Leroy Estrada, founder of Lein Corp., who convinced him Tampa Bay was right for him.

“I love my island. Puerto Rico is unique,” Lopez says. “It’s just the economy. ... For me hurricane Maria was the frosting on the cake.”

He’s pleased with his decision and determined to make things work. “So far, so good. I love it here,” the 46-year-old says. “I like the lifestyle.”

Lopez, who was born in New York and raised in Puerto Rico, quickly settled into an apartment about 10 minutes from his friend and is working a sales territory in Plant City-Lakeland.

“Thank you for the opportunity of being here,” he says. “The decision I made is not easy. It’s like dropping everything you have to start over.”

Hard to get away

Like Kevin Estrada, Paola Nesmith had trouble just getting off the island. She was living in Old San Juan and planning to eventually relocate to St. Petersburg, where her daughter lives. Then Maria changed her timeline. 

Her daughter Caryn tried to fly to Puerto Rico, only to have the plane turn around before it got there. Caryn bought her mother plane tickets, but the flights were canceled. Nesmith finally hitched a ride to New York on a private plane from a doctor who was the “friend of a friend,” she says.

“The doctor came from New York on a private jet ... to deliver medicines for Vieques, where this doctor owns a house,” she explains.

An Italian who lived in Puerto Rico for 21 years, the 73-year-old had lots of wind and water damage after the terrace doors of her condominium blew away. “I could never had put up with the conditions of my home,” she says. “I couldn’t cook. I couldn’t buy groceries.”

Still, she’s quick to point out others suffered even more. “It’s embarrassing to talk about what I lost. People truly lost their lives and their homes,” she adds. Paola Nesmith relocated from Puerto Rico to St. Petersburg after Hurricane Maria.

Nesmith, who built up a following for her unique handcrafted jewelry in Old San Juan, is grateful for the new life she is building here. She’s set up a studio at the Arts XChange, where she is able to sell her unique necklaces made out of leather, beads, or whatever she can find. (Learn more about the XChange in this earlier story in 83 Degrees.

“It’s not a business. I probably will work full-time because I like to do it,” says Nesmith, who worked in the prison system for many years. 

Her philosophy, she says, is Wabi-sabi. “It’s a Japanese thing,” she explains. “There is beauty in imperfect things. There is beauty in unfinished things. There is beauty in anything you see around.”

Her goal is to make things because she enjoys making them, and because they are pleasing to the eye. “They don’t have to be perfect,” she says. “We as human beings are not perfect.”

Says her daughter, a board member of the Warehouse Arts District Association overseeing the Arts XChange, “I’m really glad I was able to get my mom here. ... I’m glad we have a place here and a welcoming community to help her integrate.”

Helping to rebuild

The exodus has been massive. As of Jan. 12, 4,316 were receiving emergency shelter through the Federal Emergency Management Agency at hotels in 42 states. Some 1,784 were checked in at Florida locations, compared to 940 in Puerto Rico.

More than 318,000 came to Florida from Puerto Rico since Oct. 3, entering through Miami International Airport, Orlando International Airport and Port Everglades, according to state sources.

Gov. Rick Scott has committed $1 million to 12 local workforce development boards to help displaced Puerto Rican families find jobs in Florida.

Damaris Sanchez, director of I AM The Group Foundation, Inc.Throughout Tampa Bay, many like Cortes have been working behind the scenes to help relocating Puerto Ricans adjust and rebuild. One such group is the charity I AM The Group Foundation, Inc., directed by Damaris (Dammy) Sanchez. The nonprofit serves the homeless aged 18 to 24 under the umbrella of another charitable organization, Tampa Underground.
I AM helped more than 300 Puerto Rican families in a six-week period, and is gearing up to help even more people this year.

“In general terms, we act as the first, and in most cases, the only direct resource to all of the services and assistance they need, after they land in the mainland,” Sanchez says. “We listen to their stories, their hardships, their gripes and their hopes and dreams. We try to give them a sense of belonging and try to ensure that they have a fair chance at making a successful transition into their new lives.”

The organization has helped with food, clothing, toiletries and other necessities, as well as with resume writing and job placement. To handle greater numbers, they’ll be offering services in group settings this year. Among the programs are workshops for parents with special needs, computer training, English classes, and emotional and spiritual support.

Those who need more information, or help, can reach out to her at 813-999-5253 from 8:30 a.m. to noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

In Polk County, Rivera and the 10-year-old chamber have been assisting those on the island and here. “I get people calling me constantly about housing,” she says.

She’s online posting under tags like Bandaid for Puerto Rico or Puerto Rico Matters.

Stephanie Morales, a real estate agent with JY Properties at La Rosa Realty, is helping some to line up zero-interest loans available for disaster relief.  The Federal Housing Administration 203H loan program was reopened to assist the Puerto Ricans, she says.

The FHA program provides 100 percent financing for homeowners displaced in a presidentially declared disaster – and even accepts gift funds from friends and family.

Morales, who works out of Lakeland and Celebration, says she’s had “quite a few inquiries” about the loans. “At first they didn’t know they could qualify,” she says.

She says there is a large population of Puerto Ricans in Polk because new homes are priced in the 180,000s, rather than in the $215,000 range in Osceola County.

The end is not in sight

While Puerto Ricans are recovering, the crisis is far from over. The island’s economy already was in trouble, and it only got worse, Cortes points out.

“They’re still moving. You’re going to see a greater exodus,” opines Cortes. “People are losing their jobs. They have no more resources. They are being offered transfers.”

For some, it was a bitter lesson. “This is a moment that makes you think ‘how safe am I here [in Puerto Rico]?’ ” Cortes continues. “We don’t own Mother Nature. How are we going to survive? We just can’t handle another impact like the U.S. [can].”

They are grateful for a second chance. “They’re embracing this whole learning process with a lot of heart,” she says.

So the chamber’s liaison to the newcomers will continue to help for the unforseeable future. She says it doesn’t matter whether the people are Puerto Ricans, or Californians, or Texans, or from somewhere else in the U.S.

“We need to help each other,” she says. “We don’t need ... a catastrophe.”

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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. 
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