The Ledger: Displaced Puerto Rican who now lives in Polk will join Soto for State of the Union Address

February 3, 2020
In The News

Until recently, Jessica Carrillo worked in the mayor’s office in Guánica, Puerto Rico, a city roughly the size of Bartow.

Tuesday night, she will sit among members of the United States Congress in the House of Representatives chamber, a witness to one of the government’s most formal rituals. Carrillo, 37, will be in Washington, D.C., for the State of the Union Address as the guest of Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, and as a symbol of Puerto Rico’s ongoing suffering.

Carrillo and her mother, Norma Almodovar, fled their home in southwest Puerto Rico on Jan. 14 and now reside in Winter Haven with Carrillo’s father, Jose Carrillo. Jessica Carrillo said she doesn’t know when or even if they will return to Guánica.

Sitting in Soto’s Kissimmee office Friday afternoon, Carrillo spoke mostly in English with some forays into Spanish as she described her experiences. She remained composed until asked when she might return home.

“It’s so hard because you can live in Puerto Rico since —” she began to cry and switched to Spanish, translated by Sheyla A. Asencios, Soto’s district director. “You have your friends, your work, your home from all your life.”

Resuming in English, Carrillo added: “And I see on Facebook friends of mine are screaming every time the earthquake passed.”

President Donald Trump will deliver his fourth State of the Union Address on Tuesday. While many members of Congress bring spouses to sit with them, others sometimes invite a constituent or someone whose presence illustrates a political cause.

For example, last year Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., invited a refugee from the political turmoil in Venezuela.

Soto, who has Puerto Rican ancestry, has championed efforts to secure relief for Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in September 2017 and, more recently, a series of earthquakes that throttled the southwest section of the island starting Dec. 28.

“Jessica’s voice will be important because we need to talk about not just the numbers and statistics but the people involved and the stories,” Soto said. “There’s a strong connection between Central Florida and Puerto Rico. It’s one that many of us are finding out more and more over the years.”

Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory about 1,000 miles southeast of Miami with a population of roughly 3.1 million. An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Puerto Ricans relocated to Florida after Hurricane Maria lashed the island, causing widespread destruction.

Soto said he expects the House of Representatives to vote this week on a $4.67 billion emergency spending package proposed by the Democratic leadership that includes $3.26 billion in community development block grants and Disaster Recovery funds and $1.25 billion for road repairs.

Other provisions would yield $100 million for educational needs in Puerto Rico; $40 million for disaster nutrition assistance; $6.75 million for technical assistance to conduct earthquake risk analysis and other support; and $15 million for technical assistance and continued recovery of the electric grid.

Jessica Carrillo said she and her mother shared a modest, cinderblock house built by her grandfather, a Korean War veteran. Carrillo said the house did not sustain significant damage from Hurricane Maria, which entered Puerto Rico from the east. She said the storm caused some leaking in the roof, but the effect never made her consider leaving.

A tectonic fault line runs near Puerto Rico, making it susceptible to earthquakes, but Carrillo said she had never experienced a tremor before a 4.7-magnitude earthquake emerged on the morning of Dec. 28. A series of shocks followed over the next two weeks, including a 6.4-magnitude quake on Jan. 7.

Carrillo struggled to convey the violence of the quakes and the terror they induced.

“The first one – oh, my God, I never felt that shaking in my whole life,” she said. “It’s — como un monstruo...”

Soto translated, “It’s like a monster.”

“Like in the ‘Jurassic Park’ movie when the dinosaur arrived and then hit the wall,” she continued.

Carrillo said she and her mother, like many in Puerto Rico, took to sleeping on chairs in their yard or in their car for fear the house would collapse if another earthquake struck during the night. She said the fear of aftershocks intensified after dark.

“You have to think, ‘Oh my God, what will be next? At what time will be the hit, at the night, early in the morning or the next day, and how will be the biggest?’ ” she said. “But when the earthquake hits, you only think, when will that stop? — because they shake hard, hard, constantly, then stop, and then you have to say, ‘What can I do?’ ”

Carrillo said she and her mother slept with their clothes and shoes on beside a small, packed bag with some clothes and food, their legal papers and some cash. She said hospitals and banks were closed amid the earthquakes, as were most stores and restaurants.

After one of the aftershocks, Carrillo and her mother made plans to take refuge with a cousin. They stopped for breakfast at a Burger King along the way, and while there they felt the earth begin to rumble again. She said everyone in the restaurant screamed and rushed for the doors.

At this point, Carrillo said she fears her house is unstable. Employees with FEMA and other U.S. agencies have been conducting inspections of structures in the earthquake zone, and Carrillo showed a photo of a green notice placed by FEMA declaring her house safe.

But she and Soto said the agency had made only cursory inspections of the exteriors.

Soto traveled to Puerto Rico on Jan. 13 to survey damage from the earthquakes. He toured the cities of Ponce, Peñuelas and Guayanilla, he said, but was unable to visit Guánica because a bridge had been displaced.

Carrillo said her father moved to Florida a few years ago to receive needed treatment for a heart condition. He encouraged his daughter and ex-wife to come to Winter Haven and lodge with him and his partner, Ines Gonzalez.


essica Carrillo said Gonzalez follows Soto on Facebook and Twitter and noticed his call for information about people from Puerto Rico affected by the earthquakes. Gonzalez got in touch with Soto’s staff, leading to the meeting between the Congressman and Carrillo and Almodovar.

Carrillo seemed surprised that a congressman would be interested in hearing her story, let alone invite her to attend the State of the Union Address.

“I am honored and very excited to be a guest, to hear all of those people in that important place in the world and express how the Puerto Ricans are passing this,” she said.

Almodovar, 69, a retired junior high teacher, said she is also uncertain about returning to Puerto Rico.

“If I go back to Puerto Rico, I have to stay at a family member’s house,” she said in Spanish. “I have to check and fix my house, and my house is in Guánica, therefore I have to go back to Guánica and it’s still shaking and that’s why I’m terrified. And even though they’re helping in terms of setting up tents, everything keeps shaking.”

The women gave indications of enduring trauma. Carrillo said that whenever she hears a loud sound, such as a door slamming, she fears another earthquake before remembering she is now in Florida.

Carrillo is now pursuing a job in retail, she said.

Soto said he will seek funds for emergency housing for displaced Puerto Ricans and would like to see refugees offered in-state tuition rates at Florida colleges.

“She was an assistant to the mayor back home, so she’s doing what she has to do but the transition is not easy,” Soto said. “She has a college degree, and we’ve talked about some other jobs, like teaching. This disaster relief will be critical in Central Florida, also. We’ll need to get some of those resources to be able to handle the evacuees who end up staying here, either temporarily or permanently.”