These Puerto Ricans who fled Hurricane María's destruction built a community at a Super 8 in Kissimmee. Now, they have to leave it.
For a few hours each day, the doors in this cobbled-together community are flung wide open.
The younger kids wander in and out of their neighbors’ rooms and play with donated toys. The mothers and grandmothers oversee the chaos from balconies that overlook the parking lot, waving as their neighbors leave for work or come back from the graveyard shift.
The bigger kids ask the women for their blessing when they walk into the room, observing tradition usually meant for families even though these are titís — aunties — in name only.
For dozens of families who left their lives behind in Puerto Rico after Hurricane María, this motel is their home address: the Super 8 on West Vine Street, at the end of a stretch of gift and food shops, next to a 24-hour coin laundromat and a cellphone repair store.
The motel has in a matter of months become home to the tastes, scents and scenes of a displaced Puerto Rican neighborhood.
But the families, inextricably linked by devastation from which the island is still struggling to recover, won’t be here much longer.
On Saturday, FEMA housing aid for 610 Boricua families will run out, forcing most to move on from their informal motel communities, where they have beenunited by a sense of loss and have put down unexpected roots.
‘María was speaking to us’
The Super 8 sign, with a lighted board below that’s been broken since Hurricane Irma, marks the entrance to the neighborhood. There are 120 suites, spread out in two-story beige buildings marked by letters that resemble walk-up apartments.
Lizbeth Cruz leans over the iron railing in front of her room, watching as scattered rainwater collected into shallow puddles on the motel’s parking lot below.
“I’m going to tell you something,” Cruz, 49, said recently as she recalled Sept. 20, 2017 — the unforgettable morning Hurricane María barreled through Puerto Rico, prompting her to flee with her father and two of her three adult children.
“María was speaking to us,” she said. “I swear to you that she was enraged.”
Since the storm, Cruz and her post-María neighbors have become a new community, united by a tragedy.
Like many, Cruz is not going back to the island. They don’t trust the Puerto Rican government to handle the next emergency. They don’t trust the federal government to help with the aftermath. And faced with the possibility of another hurricane this year, they’re unwilling to risk returning home.
Fleeing a disaster, they came to an area already starved for well-paying jobs and affordable housing. Many have little more than they arrived with nine months ago. Some have less.
“I spent all my savings,” Cruz said. “When I first got here, I paid for a hotel because I didn’t know about the aid.”
Cruz’s trauma didn’t begin with the storm.
One morning on July 2017, Cruz sat on the front porch of her home, which stands on a hill in Humacao. One of her sons had a small kiosk where he sold meat kebabs and sandwiches from the house. A masked man got in line with thecustomers buying lunch.
No one noticed he was carrying a gun until he pointed it at another man in line. “This is not with you,” he told all the other customers at the house, Cruz recalled. “This is with him,” he said.
Everyone took off running, including the gunman’s target. The gunman shot the victim eight times, killing him.
Cruz recalls the details vividly. The victim’s bloody flip flops. His body lying right outside her bedroom. How her home was quickly crawling with police, followed shortly by reporters. “The [shooter] ran behind the house and we never found him,” Cruz said.
By the time María struck, she was battling anxiety attacks and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
At the Super 8, Cruz carries around a small spiral-bound notebook, filled with pages of hand-written addresses in Orange and Osceola counties, with leasing office phone numbers, price ranges and annotations: Call back. Visit in person. Not available.
In mid-May, there were up to 33 families staying at the motel — one of over 20 in the area housing nearly 400 evacuees — with aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, under the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, also referred to as “hotel vouchers.”
In more ways than one, Cruz is her neighbors’ advocate and caretaker.
Making her calls on this recent morning, Cruz stood next to 53-year-old María Baez, whose room connects directly to Cruz’s suite.
Bonding at the Super 8
Báez lives with her 5-year-old grandson, Christian Dariel. She has custody of the boy, who has severe brain damage after suffering from shaken baby syndrome.
“He’s my mission,” she said, rushing to get the boy ready for school. “I made the decision to come here because of him. I came here with the mentality that I would stay.”
Back in Puerto Rico, she lived in the biggest public housing projects on the island, the Luis Lloréns Torres complex in San Juan. She’s a licensed nurse in Puerto Rico, but since arriving in Central Florida she has not been able to transfer her license and find a job she can accommodate around her grandson’s special needs.
Báez’s story — one of personal tragedy, made worse by a lack of opportunities and bureaucratic red tape — has become the human face of the Puerto Rican influx after Hurricane María.
She’s been repeatedly featured in national and local news reports. She’s flown to Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s office in Washington, D.C., to talk about her story. U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, has insisted time and time again on giving Christian Dariel one of his office’s scholarships for school.
Teachers at Christian Dariel’s school in Kissimmee overwhelm Baez with donated food and boxes of diapers.
At the Super 8, her voice carries a lot of weight.
Once, Báez said she complained about cockroaches she’d spotted in her room. Because her grandson crawls on the floor, she went to the hotel’s front desk to ask for a room change. Without hesitation, the manager immediately arranged to move her to a different room.
“I don’t want any problems with you,” Baez said he told her. “You give my motel promotion.”
Cruz first met Baez at the airport when she arrived in November.
“I saw her alone in the airport with her kid. My sister started talking with her,” Cruz said. Some weeks later, they both found themselves living at the motel next to each other. They bonded quickly. Cruz has gone to Christian Dariel’s school in Kissimmee more than once to help translate for Baez, in case she doesn’t understand what she’s being told about his progress.
Cruz feels protective of the little boy.
“We’ve gone out with him twice and people look at the boy like, ‘Why doesn’t this kid shut up?’ or ‘Why is this kid making so much noise?’ If they don’t like it, I resolve it with these simple words: Go to hell.”
‘This is my hero’
Cruz is one of the few at the motel who could afford to buy a car.
On most days, she takes her two sons to work on their rotating shifts working retail at a store on International Drive and at the kitchen of the Walt Disney World Swan Resort, then picks them up before dawn. She drives her neighbors to look at apartments, get groceries — and attend community events with local politicians.
Displaced Puerto Ricans have become the face of a voting bloc politicians are lusting over. This year’s high-stakes political races have made the Super 8 ground-zero for Democrats seeking to court their support.
The chair of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, traveled to a Kissimmee motel to talk to evacuees. State Reps. John Cortes, Victor Torres and Stephanie Murphy have also visited in the past nine months. U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-New York, is expected to speak to displaced families next month.
On the Republican side, Gov. Rick Scott has made appearances with local Puerto Rican businesspeople. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has pushed for extensions of the TSA program, working with Nelson. But of all the politicians, none seems to have garnered popular adoration among evacuees quite like Soto.
“This is my guy. This is my hero,” Baez said, pointing to a post on Soto’s Facebook account.
At his recent appearance at the Baymont Inn & Suites hotel in Kissimmee, where many displaced people are also staying, Perez sat next to Soto as families took turns explaining their challenges on the mainland – not enough high-paying jobs or affordable homes, too many medical needs.
Soto fielded all the questions, giving specifics on average home prices and explaining the affordable housing shortage in the state.
“Have you been in touch with my office yet?” he said. He put a stack of business cards on a table. Most were gone within seconds.
The media and political spotlight the evacuees at the Motel 8 have received since arriving has become a draining responsibility at times — never more so than the morning of May 4. Soto’s campaign team had scheduled the filming of a political ad that day, which would feature a number of guests.
The night before, María “Betzy” Santiago was shot and killed in front of her mother and two children. Police identified the killer as Leumas Moraza, 38, whom Santiago’s relatives described as a family friend who had a long-standing obsession with her. Most of the guests were evacuated from their rooms until the crime scene was cleared in the middle of night. Many were too shaken to fall back asleep.
The campaign knew about the shooting, spokesman Harry Kruglik said. He said they offered to cancel filming the next day, but the evacuees who had agreed to be part of it decided to still participate.
Trying to move on
The attention heaped on evacuees at the Super 8 never appealed to Evelyn Colón, 43, who lived at the motel from November through January.
“Boricuas here are treated like a product. I’m not a raffle. Help me find alternatives, help me find options,” she said.
In February, a few weeks before her voucher was set to expire, she attended an event in Central Florida hosted by Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. Also present was Bobby Lance, a candidate for the Orange County Board of County Commissioners.
Lance, who said he was moved by Rosselló’s passionate call for Puerto Ricans in Central Florida to unify, offered an empty garage room he had in his Belle Isle home.
A local pastor approached Colón, a beautician, to offer her and her family the space on Lance’s property. Within weeks, she had packed up and left the Super 8, the place where she had befriended Cruz and Baez and often styled their hair as a favor.
“The image people have of the persons who came here after Hurricane María is that we are leeches, that we came here to depend on government assistance,” said Colón, who has found an apartment to live in when she’s set to leave the Lances’ residence this November.
Colón was already a survivor before María.
She escaped her abusive marriage in Puerto Rico seven years ago. She spent that time recovering from the visible wounds on her skin, cycling through shelters and attending support programs.
In Central Florida, she has already held two jobs, where she said she was discriminated against for being Puerto Rican.
“Boricuas are hard-working. I wake up every day, I walk out that door, I go to agencies, I keep knocking on doors … when the opportunity arises, it will be the right one,” she said.
‘Desperate’ to find housing
Back at the Super 8, Cruz is still making calls when Christine González, 26, arrives with her 1-year-old son Kahil. Her husband, David Olmeda, got back to their room a few hours earlier from working the overnight shift at a nearby Home Depot.
“Christine, I had an apartment for you guys and now I can’t find it,” said Cruz, flipping through the pages of her notebook.
González and her husband are from Cayey, a town on the southeastern corner of the central mountain range in Puerto Rico. “We lost everything … the baby’s crib, the beds, the drawers, our TV… everything,” she said.
Olmeda, 26, used to be a truck driver for Coca-Cola in Puerto Rico. In the first critical days after the hurricane, as hundreds of shipping containers remained unmoved at the docks in San Juan, the company’s capacity to produce and distribute on the island dropped dramatically. He lost his job.
Using the little gas they had left in their car, they traveled to a town about 15 miles north to get cellphone signal. Olmeda got a text message from a friend in Central Florida. The friend’s mother had been scheduled to have surgery on the day of the hurricane. He pleaded with Olmeda to check on her.
The friend repaid the favor by letting Olmeda stay at his Poinciana home for a few months in November while he looked for a job. González and Kahil followed in February, and they’ve stayed at the Super 8 since.
They quickly became involved with Vamos4PR, a local union-affiliated organization that has led the fight for affordable housing for Puerto Rican evacuees in Central Florida. That’s how she met Cruz and Baez. González, a licensed beautician, later took a job with another advocacy organization.
But the ongoing search for apartments on their salaries has yielded little results for the young couple. They know they’re especially susceptible to price-gouging.
“Many apartments that were affordable got more expensive because of our situation. Because we’re, in a way, desperate,” González said.
They live in the room next to the one where Santiago was killed. In the days after the shooting, González couldn’t leave her room because reporters kept knocking on her door. She dreads being alone when Olmeda’s at work.
Olmeda, who was not initially fluent in English, has fully embraced his role in the media. He often speaks at protests. As he struggles to regain his truck driver’s license, which was destroyed at the Orlando airport by mistake when he arrived, González said he has sought the help of Nelson, Scott, the mayor of Kissimmee and the governor of Puerto Rico.
His English is improving, and he’s finding his voice to battle misconceptions.
“Many people say that we’re here to live off of food stamps … even Puerto Ricans who are already here,” González said. “Now, David can defend himself in English … everything’s in English. He’s kept going.”
A faraway opportunity
The Super 8 stories have drawn attention from across the country, including from business owners who see a potential workforce in this displaced community.
On a recent Thursday at a small conference room at La Quinta Inn near the Orlando airport, a group of Ohio job recruiters set up a presentation hoping to fill dozens of factory jobs that pay $11 to $14 an hour — in Upper Sandusky, a small town southwest of Cleveland.
Kasai North America, a Japanese auto-parts manufacturing factory, was hiring for about 50 floor jobs making door panels and other plastic parts for Subaru.
“In the past, I’ve used the ability to employ Puerto Rican folks. They’re great workers, and they’re still doing today what I hired them to do,” said Jennie Dranschak, a recruiter with Kasai. “We need their help and we are empathetic about their situation.”
The company has struggled to hire locally in the small city of just over 6,500 people, where Dranschak said unemployment is low and there’s stiff competition for workers. Kasai’s pitch to displaced Boricuas is simple: steady work for those willing to relocate.
“I think it’s a perfect set-up,” Dranschak said.
It was an appealing enough prospect for Liza Hernández and her husband Antonio Cerezo, an 81-year-old mechanical engineer who is currently working at the airport. The couple plans to move to Ohio on the day the aid is set to end.
Before the storm, Hernández, 52, lived with her husband in Bayamón, just a few miles outside of San Juan. She said she and her husband, who lived in New York for nine years and have traveled to other northern states, are open to a new adventure — but not without trepidation.
“I’m afraid. I’m a little afraid,” said Hernández of moving outside of Florida. “The fear of us Puerto Ricans is speaking in English.”
Hernández, Cruz, González and Baez share a Facebook messaging chat, where they talk when they can’t sleep, sharing videos and audio messages when they need the comic relief. They send apartment and job postings to each other.
Recently, Hernández shared a posting for a home rental in Aguadilla, on the northwestern side of Puerto Rico, listed for $350.
They all laughed. “Aren’t you looking for a house?!” Hernández said.
“Yeah, and is the power included?” Cruz joked.
‘Takes a lot of courage’
Running the Super 8, general manager Prerak Patel has witnessed it all from his office. He tries to maintain normalcy under exceptional circumstances and to treat his long-term clients as he would any other guest.
On June 30, most of them will have moved, leaving behind dozens of rooms that were lived in for months — that, for many, have come to feel like home. And while Cruz, Hernández and González have found their next homes, Baez is still in limbo over where she’ll settle with her grandson after Saturday.
“These guys are a special segment for us,” said Patel, whom the guests referred to as Pat. “It takes a lot of courage to rebuild your lives. I salute that.”
Patel is still skeptical of Saturday’s deadline. He was usually the one who delivered the news to his guests each of the four prior times the TSA program had been extended. He keeps up with the news from Puerto Rico and understands why many of them have decided not to go back.
“They’re just trying to rebuild their lives,” he said. “These are not tourists. … They need help.”
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