Post Hurricanes: Holyoke, Mass., Prepares For Influx Of Puerto Ricans

Oct 3, 2017

Holyoke was once a robust industrial city, like others along major U.S. rivers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Paper manufacturing was king here, and like other industrial cities Holyoke attracted waves of Irish, French Canadian, German, Polish and Italians immigrants to work in the mills.

In the 1960s, Puerto Ricans began leaving the island in large numbers. Many came to the Connecticut River Valley to work on farms. Holyoke has become home to the largest population of Puerto Ricans per capita, in the continental U.S.

Many residents in the city are anxiously awaiting the arrival of an unknown number of Puerto Ricans fleeing their devastated island.  

Last week more than 60 local and state officials, community activists, and health care providers gathered at Enlace de Familias on Main Street to work on a plan for resettling the Puerto Ricans who will be arriving here soon.

No one here, not the mayor, the head of the major community health center or any other official can say how many people will leave Puerto Rico and come to Holyoke. Even families expecting loved ones don't yet know.

But they all agree that many are planning to come and this city needs to be prepared to help them access health health care, housing and social services.

Their kids will be enrolling in Holyoke's schools. Eighty percent of Holyoke Public School students are of Puerto Rican descent. School Superintendent Stephen Zrike said they have a lot of room at the middle school level, but less at the high school and in the elementary grades.

Most of the news student will be classified as homeless, he said. Under federal guidelines, that means the district must provide them money for school uniforms, free school lunches and food to take home. Zrike has a feeling many students will come without any of their school records.

“Whether it's their IEP records, or their immunizations. That's one thing we're in active discussion about -- how do we get them enrolled as quickly as possible?” Zrike said.

Schools will have to be ready to play a supporting role in a variety of ways. Some families will move here temporarily. Some permanently. Parents may send their kids here to  live with relatives while they rebuild homes in Puerto Rico.

While the island's deepening economic crisis has spurred migration for the past decade, this disaster will likely speed that up.

Even before the hurricanes, 75 new students from Puerto Rico enrolled in Holyoke Public Schools at the start of this school year.

Community organizer Betty Medina Lichtenstein is Puerto Rican. She runs Enlace de Familias. She grew up in New York City, raised her own family in Holyoke and has been in the area for 30 years. The island's economic crisis coupled with the two hurricanes’ impact will bring even more Puerto Ricans to New England, she said.

“For Puerto Ricans to come here out of the devastation that is going on financially,” Lichtenstein said, "that was a choice but it was also a survival mechanism. Maria -- that's very different. That's total displacement.”

But she said their migration is circular.

"We miss our island so much,” Lichtenstein said. “We miss or palm trees and our food and our land. And so we are here for a while and then we go back, and then we come back."

And sometimes that’s to get college degrees, or seek better opportunities for families.

Naomi Robeles Rodigruez is a millennial who came to Holyoke with her parents when she was 12. She works as a student liaison at Enlace de Familias.

Most of her family -- aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents -- are still in Puerto Rico, and she's very worried.

“Where my uncle is, he's on a steep mountain," she said. "He says a lot of roads are destroyed. We've only be able to speak to him on and off.”

Last she heard, her uncle’s family had enough water and food. But her aunt, a nurse with two young children, saw her home completely destroyed. Rodriguez said they all may come to Holyoke for a while. But she expects they won't stay long. While seeking refuge here, their lives are in Puerto Rico.