Four years after Maria, a church emerges as a community’s biggest support

It’s been four years since Hurricane Maria made landfall and devastated parts of Puerto Rico, sparking the migration of thousands of people to the U.S. mainland and Florida. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano spoke with Father Jose Rodriguez whose church has been helping with services and vocational training and has become a cornerstone for a community hit hard by Maria.

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  • Michael Hill:

    Four years ago tomorrow, Maria – a category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 155 miles an hour – made landfall in Puerto Rico. The storm caused widespread devastation and sent thousands fleeing to the U.S. mainland and central Florida, already home to an expanding Latino community.

    NewsHour Weekend had been reporting on how mainland communities were assisting victims of Hurricane Irma, which struck Puerto Rico just two weeks before, and spoke with Father Jose Rodriguez who was helping coordinate shelter and supplies. Since then, his church has become a cornerstone for the community, helping with services and vocational training for those affected by Maria.

    NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano checked back in with Father Rodriguez.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Father Rodriguez, you and I met in Orlando in September of 2017 during Hurricane Irma, when many undocumented Latinx immigrants sought shelter at your church instead of government shelters because of their fears of deportation. And then just a few days later, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and thousands of people fled the island and moved to central Florida. How did that impact your congregation?

  • Father Jose Rodriguez:

    Wow, it impacted us greatly, our congregation's about 15 minutes from the airport. So when the families were first arriving to the airport, when then Governor Scott opened up that welcome center in the entrance floor to the airport, we were brought in by local elected officials, local community leaders.

    We were in the thick of it in those first few weeks after the hurricane, bringing in diapers, sanitary products and meeting families, crying with them, hugging them, welcoming them into our spaces to provide food and other assistance.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    On Wednesday, you celebrated 50 Hurricane Maria survivors in your community who graduated from a vocational rehabilitation program at your church. What have the years since Maria been like for them? And why are training programs like these so important?

  • Father Jose Rodriguez:

    Well, the years since Maria have been very difficult on them. The market can only sustain so many English language learners. Those few jobs that were suitable for language learners were taken up. And then we ended up with a surplus of workers because it wasn't only just the Puerto Ricans arriving from Puerto Rico, central Florida, Orlando in particular, has been receiving a lot of displaced Venezuelans.

    So the past four years has been a struggle for our displaced workers to find homes in the communities they work in. And it's also been a struggle for them to have the time to hone their skills, improve their skills, while they're also trying to work one to two jobs, take care of their families.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    And even before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans were moving to Orlando by the thousands due to an economic crisis on the island. How did Hurricane Maria and the pandemic change the stakes for them?

  • Father Jose Rodriguez:

    In the aftermath of Maria, there was a big push to get them back to Puerto Rico, but get them back to Puerto Rico for what? These families had never made plans to come to Orlando before, but necessity brought them here and they weren't going to go back. If they were going to rebuild somewhere, they decided to rebuild where life has taken them.

    So first, the hurricane and dwindling resources in the community and then the pandemic. Not only were they losing jobs, they were losing cars, central Florida does not have very dependable public transportation. And then many of them started losing those apartments that they worked so hard to get. So it really just reset them, took them back to the beginning.

    But our people are resilient and we were very blessed. The Career Source partnered with us to create this program because at least for 50 of them, and we were able to equip them to step back up and not only get a good job, but get jobs that they want because many of them had to take a job that was offered and they took it because they came here to work. But a program like this is allowing people to step up into the jobs that they had in Puerto Rico, the jobs they trained for, the jobs they went to school for.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Of course, Puerto Ricans born on the island are U.S. citizens. But how does their identity as Puerto Ricans and as mainly Spanish speakers impact or play a role in their ability to integrate into mainland communities in central Florida?

  • Father Jose Rodriguez:

    So in this beautiful intersection of Puerto Rican identity, American identity, they've really been trying to integrate into our local community. Luckily, there was a receiving Puerto Rican community to receive them. But sadly, we're up against facts.

    Many Americans do not know Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and many of them hear our accents and confuse an accent with an inability to speak English. And we have to remember, these are adults who are very smart. They're U.S. citizens, but for a variety of reasons and biases in our community, they're often othered and left out. And this has added to the trauma of displaced Puerto Ricans in central Florida.

    First, a federal government that wanted to push them back on the island, and then a receiving community that didn't fully understand the nature of the relationship between Puerto Rico, the United States, and also really didn't understand the connection between Puerto Rico and Orlando. Orlando is kind of like a Puerto Rico north. And after the hurricane, we were the number one destination. After all, Florida does have the largest Puerto Rican population in the United States.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Father Jose Rodriguez of the Episcopal Church of Jesus of Nazareth in Orlando, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Father Jose Rodriguez:

    Thank you for having me.

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