‘You can take me out of the island, but you can’t take out the island out of me”: interviewing displaced Puerto Rican students.’ — Benitez Zayas
By Daniel Santiago
Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico making landfall at Yabucoa Harbor at 6:15 p.m. on September 20. Officials there have said that the Category 5 storm set the island back nearly 30 years.
More than 200,000 people migrated to Florida in the wake of the devastating hurricane. Seminole State College was among Florida
colleges that allowed newly arrived Puerto Rican students to pay in-state tuition. The disruption caused by the storm will be felt for years. The Seminole Scribe talked with three students who moved to Central Florida and are now enrolled at Seminole State: Benitez Zayas and brother and sister, Sofia Acosta and Ricardo Acosta.
Scribe: How was it being in a Category 5 hurricane?
Benitez: First I would like to say that I would never wish this kind of experience to anybody, it was horrible. A total nightmare.
Ricardo: It was quite the experience as many can tell you. I wasn’t as much scared; I was more amazed at such force.
Sofia: It was crazy, you don’t feel like you’re going through it.
Benitez: I had this horrible moment when my aunt who lives in front of me, her windows broke down and water was getting inside her house. She has a 1- and a 2-year-old girl, so she had to flee from her house with shattered glass on the floor barefoot with little clothes on. My dad had to go during the hurricane across the street to aid them.
What were your first thoughts after the hurricane?
Ricardo: Well I’m going to be missing school for a while.
Sofia: I was thinking where do we go from here? How are we going to manage the water? How are we going to manage food? How do we help out? Are we going to be OK? My dad is diabetic, so how are we going to get medication? It put things in perspective.
Benitez: Even though it was a nightmare, I try to be as positive and optimistic as possible because life doesn’t end after a disaster. We didn’t get gloomy and cry about what just happened, we pushed forward.
Could you describe the damage around your area?
Sofia: The devastation comparatively with the other parts of the island wasn’t as much but it was bad. We live next to the mountains that were usually green and seeing them brown was crazy.
Ricardo: The main road to our community was impossible to get into because these giant arches, trees, and light posts have all fallen down to the main road.
Benitez: My two floor house was on a corner so the wind and rain hit it directly. The second floor lost its ceiling, there were cracks on the first floor ceiling and on the second floor house, and water was getting inside the house. Emotionally I was damaged, especially my dad, but I could say my spirit was unbroken.
How did the people react?
Benitez: It was a big movement within our neighbors. We decided to get on our feet and start working. We would help each other like for example if somebody was getting gasoline, bread or milk he would bring enough for some of the neighbors.
Sofia: People were tense and tired but they were this mutual understanding. We heard they were chaos but we never saw it
What were some of the daily challenges?
Sofia: We were unable to get clean water so we had to go to Aguas Buenas to get water. Gas was another thing, our dad would wake up in two morning to go get some gas even though there was curfew because they were already a line of fifteen people at the gas station. The other one was food, Costco was the only one providing food reliably, and there were supermarkets that raised the prices from 15 cents to a dollar or even two dollars, which was illegal by the way.
What is one thing that you commonly saw that the people outside of Puerto Rico never got to see?
Benitez: The first is that a lot of people died. The count of death’s the media put was incorrect. I’m pretty sure there are 500 or even more people died during and after the hurricane. The management of the money and the charities that were sent to Puerto Rico aren’t getting the management it needs to get. The money weren’t taken to the places that were deeply affected.
Sofia: We left on a flight at night in the airport of San Juan. I saw that it was full of supplies and that’s where it stayed. The airport was full but we never saw any distribution. That was the hardest part. I cried out of anger.
What was an unexpected positive moment?
Ricardo: There was this one funny thing. When I and my friends went out, we were in our casual clothes but when we saw the high school kids they went fully decked out like if they were going out to a party. Really expensive skinny jeans, Jordan’s, expensive necklaces and watches, their hair was done despite having no power. We were all just like “Why the f*** would you do that?”
Benitez: It front of my house there’s a really big tree that was like a barricade to our house so the hurricane didn’t impacted as badly at the house, it was amazing. Always say that that tree is my life saver.
Sofia: There was this one game of monopoly that was so funny, I’ll never forget it.
How did you end up leaving Puerto Rico?
Benitez: The husband of my aunt is an agent for Homeland Security. He reached my house when we were at the verge of being without hope. He came over and said, “I have an option. I keep coming and try to supply you as with much stuff as I got or I can take your kids to Florida or North Carolina in a military plane and take them out of Puerto Rico because the situation is too dangerous for them. I’m telling you that this is the best option you have for now” and the rest is history.
Ricardo: Our parents were trying to keep contact with our relatives that live outside of Puerto Rico. During that limited communication they managed that our aunt buy us tickets so we could leave. We really didn’t want to leave but the plans were already made so we decided to do it.
Sofia: I was with my mom at my aunt’s house. One of her neighbors was one of the directors of the emergency room in the medical center. He came to us because he had just lost his father. The reason why he lost his father was because he fell and had a head injury but they couldn’t treat him since there was so many patients and there was no power. “So basically everybody that went there, went there to die.” That’s when I thought that we should leave.
How was it when you first arrived in Florida?
Sofia: It was our dad’s birthday so we went to the Outback steakhouse. He ate his steak with a reverence.
Benitez: It’s actually not all behind me because I thought about Puerto Rico a lot. I thought about my parents a lot. I thought why everyone can’t have this type of opportunity to jump over to the United States and get a fresh new start like I did.
Ricardo: I felt as if there was a weight off my shoulder.
How did you find about Seminole State College?
Ricardo: We chose Seminole because our aunt works here. She explained to us that Seminole College offered to students who were coming here after Maria that you can start taking classes without having the full transcript unlike other places.
Benitez: It was my aunt. She was set on finding for me a college, and a school for my sister. Because I didn’t come here to be on vacation, I came here to get a fresh new start and continue my studies.
Do you feel that they’ve been helpful with the process?
Benitez: My only issues is that they expected too much from us who lost everything. They did try to be as understanding and as helpful as possible. They provided me with a puertorrican counselor which makes it more comfortable to me to share my experience and get advice.
Sofia: My counselor’s Rosa Alvarez and Gavin Alexander have been amazing and really helpful. I have more of a system problem. A lot of problems with the transcript in general.
How far has been your experience with the college?
Benitez: It has been great, the faculty is amazing. The biggest shift was from going to Spanish only classes to English only classes and be a good honor student in the states. I’m showing them that after a hurricane I can still be as good as any other student here in America and all over the world.
Do you believe that the Puerto Rican and U.S. governments reacted well? If not, what did they do wrong?
Ricardo: The immediate reaction was good; the follow up is terrible by both parties.
Benitez: A big ass no. The money and supply management was terrible and even more by (President Donald) Trump. Why would you throw paper towels! Go to the places that were most affected and see with your own eyes who needs help, not go and throw paper towels like a basketball player. Go to the real people who need help.
Ricardo: I was really surprised with FEMA’s (Federal Emergency Management Agency) action. You would think they would communicate better. They didn’t ask basic questions. The thing that killed me was when they said, “If you want to help us email or call us if you needed help” when there wasn’t a system in Puerto Rico.
Sofia: People would volunteer to FEMA and FEMA told them to give them their number and they would call them.
Benitez: FEMA!! What did FEMA do, what did the government of Puerto Rico do with FEMA, oh yeah let’s fire the director and let the supply rot in a hangar. There are people dying because the supplies are not getting through.
After all that time how do you feel about that time in Puerto Rico?
Ricardo: We can survive more than we thought. We’re more comfortable being independent and living on our own. The experience really helped us.
Benitez: It sure made me realize losing it all doesn’t mean is the end because life is about gaining new opportunities and experiences. I only lasted a week but there are people have spent the four months in Puerto Rico, I’m nothing compared to them.
In what way did the experience change you?
Benitez: It gave me more perspective in life after the hurricane. I’m now aware of what I have and how blessed I am for having those things because they’re people who don’t even have anything compared to what I have.
Ricardo: It allowed us that we can take action and following them up which what life is all about. Maria helped us with that.
Sofia: Made me learn no too much pressure on myself, with stuff like grades and bills.
If you could say one thing to the people of Puerto Rico what would you say?
Sofia: Us Puerto Ricans, we’re ungrateful for a lot of things. We had it good for a long time. This is a lesson that we can’t take things for granted. I hope we learn from it.
Ricardo: We’ve been strong and we’re going through it the best we can and that is better than most.
Benitez: To the people in Puerto Rico, being a born and raised Puerto Rican, don’t lose hope. Puerto Rico continues to live on and it is going to stand. We should be proud anywhere of our island and how it got up even after such a horrible situation.