After Hurricane Maria, Charleston's Puerto Rican community grows closer than ever 

Un Nuevo Comienzo

click to enlarge Sasha Vargas-Fimiani, a public educator with Charleston County's 911 center, takes suggestions on how to recruit Hurricane Maria victims from attendees of a mini job fair at Rincón Dominicano in North Charleston on Jan. 17.

Adam Manno

Sasha Vargas-Fimiani, a public educator with Charleston County's 911 center, takes suggestions on how to recruit Hurricane Maria victims from attendees of a mini job fair at Rincón Dominicano in North Charleston on Jan. 17.

Anyone making the move from Puerto Rico to the mainland doesn't have much to rally about under normal circumstances.

Puerto Ricans enjoy the benefits and protections of U.S. citizenship, already clearing an impasse that affects many Latinx immigrants. Most arrive with a basic understanding of English, if they're not already fully bilingual, and many settle down in areas with family ties.

"Other Hispanic communities have always been united because of issues like visas, immigration rights, education, language..." said Tanya Altagracia, the leader of the Facebook group Puertorriqueños en Charleston SC.

As Puerto Rico's $73 billion debt continues to mount following years of mismanagement, the guagua aérea, or "aerial bus" — a term used to describe the mass exodus of Puerto Ricans into the mainland — grows with it.

"Now there's a need," Altagracia said. "There has to be a group."

That need is multiplying as hundreds of thousands flee Puerto Rico in droves on the heels of Hurricane Maria. The catastrophic storm left half of the Caribbean island's 3.4 million citizens with no power for three months. Many still remain in the dark, relying on an unsteady but life-saving stream of emergency government assistance and volunteers as they sort through the debris and figure out their next steps.

That was Jennifer Soto's reality just four short weeks ago.

The 39-year-old mother recently moved to Hanahan from Las Piedras, a 39,000 person municipality about an hour southeast of San Juan. As chance would have it, she caught Charleston at a very uncharacteristic time.

"At first, because of the cold, I almost lost my mind," Soto said, laughing as she recalled her husband teasing her for bundling up in a beanie and gloves inside of a Walmart. "That's what shocked me the most, because it's so hot [in Puerto Rico], and with no power, the heat was horrible."

click to enlarge Jennifer Soto, 39, arrived in Charleston from Puerto Rico a few days before Christmas. - ADAM MANNO
  • Adam Manno
  • Jennifer Soto, 39, arrived in Charleston from Puerto Rico a few days before Christmas.
Soto lost everything. The maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour shattered her windows, flooding her house and everything in it. The moisture and mold that accumulated for days even began to rot her clothes.

"I basically took refuge in my mom's house," she said. "I had to start buying things from scratch."

In the days after the hurricane, Soto and her family survived off food and water donated by the municipality and local churches. She grew accustomed to MREs, the self-heating meals rationed to American soldiers in combat. FEMA could only offer her a loan, so she made the move to South Carolina on her own dime.

Her husband found a job with a local landscaping company that helped them find an apartment. Their two college-aged daughters stayed behind, afraid of losing their scholarships.

A shocking 283,000 people have emigrated from Puerto Rico to Florida after the hurricane, according to numbers by the Florida Division of Emergency Management reported by the Orlando Weekly. In contrast, only one family affected by Maria has been given transitional shelter assistance, or temporary hotel lodging, in the Palmetto State.

The S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, on the other hand, has issued 421 driver's licenses to citizens of Puerto Rico since Sept. 20, the day Maria made landfall in the island. Twenty-eight of those licenses were issued in Charleston County. That's 269 more licenses than the same period from 2016 to 2017, which saw 152 Puerto Rican residents seeking South Carolina IDs.

In other words, Hurricane Maria victims are here, and they're likely to keep coming.

That's why Charleston's fledgling Puerto Rican community is reaching out to those who may find themselves lost upon arriving to The Holy City — a place not immediately associated with a vibrant Latinx community.

Altagracia says she's never seen Charleston's boricuas — a nickname for people from Puerto Rico, derived from the island's Taíno name — mobilize as much as they did right after the storm hit.

"We raised almost $10,000, but what overwhelmed us was the amount of donations," she said. "All the movement, the logistics of how we're going to send everything to Puerto Rico, all of that effort is how Sasha found us."

Salsa music drowned out the sound of people biting into crunchy empanadas on Jan. 17 at Rincón Dominicano in North Charleston.

Sasha Vargas-Fimiani, a sprightly public educator for Charleston County's 911 center, invited representatives from various county departments to a mini job fair at the restaurant specifically aimed at Puerto Rican arrivals.

click to enlarge Tanya Altagracia says she was attracted to Charleston by how much its downtown streets resemble Old San Juan. - ADAM MANNO
  • Adam Manno
  • Tanya Altagracia says she was attracted to Charleston by how much its downtown streets resemble Old San Juan.

Altagracia helped promote the event with a post on her 500-member Facebook page.

"I think the sad part is that a lot of people in Puerto Rico don’t know about Charleston, and they don’t know that we have all these opportunities, and that it’s beautiful," Vargas-Fimiani said. "In Florida, you have millions of people speaking English and Spanish, here you don't. The opportunities are better because of that."

Soto was a deputy marshal in Puerto Rico's Tribunal General de Justicia, the island's court system. She spoke to a representative from the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center about a possible job while at the restaurant.

"They're supposed to call me in three weeks," she said. "So we'll see."

Toward the end of her presentation, Vargas-Fimiani thanked Soto for sharing her story with the room.

"We're going to find you a job," she said. "I'm glad that you picked Charleston."



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