Elgin’s Puerto Rican community: Maria left island like a ‘war zone’

There are staggering differences between Elgin resident Jeanette Miranda’s trip to Puerto Rico in June and her current trip.

Primarily, her trip this week is to bury her grandmother who recently died, Miranda said.

In June, the island’s vegetation and infrastructure were still standing. This week, the island is unrecognizable, resembling a “war zone,” Miranda said. A before-and-after pair of pictures she took from the same spot in Aguada — a municipality on the island’s west side — show green fields and sunny skies replaced with battered trees and gloomy skies.

“I’m looking at some homes right now, up on a hilltop, and they look like they’re about to come down,” Miranda said in a phone interview Tuesday from Aguada that continuously lost reception.

“The spirit is there, everyone is trying,” said Miranda, who has worked in marketing, public relations, and more recently substitute teaches in School District U46. “But everyone’s exhausted, everyone is hunting for the next item,” whether it be food or water or something else.

Most schools are still closed, and practically everything has to be purchased using only cash. Generators are the primary source of electricity for residents, Miranda said, and most people use them at night to have some light. How long homes can run on simply generators she does not know, but it is not a long-term solution.

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Jose Ares, an Elgin accountant who grew up in Las Piedras on the island’s east side, said his family was spared destruction to their homes. However, they too were affected. Food and water are rationed; one bottled water can only do so much, he said.

“The only problem for my family is the food,” Ares said. “It’s just not getting to the supermarkets.”

He has heard reports 80 percent of Puerto Rico is still without power, and another 25 percent without potable water.

His 97-year-old father still lives in Las Piedras, Ares said. Surprisingly, he’s in an upbeat mood, he’s told his son he’s calm, Ares said. It pains Ares to not be with his dad, but as others have pointed out to him, it is better he stay in the U.S. than travel. “‘Why go? You go, it’s another mouth to feed,'” Ares’ father told him during a recent conversation.

Ares said Maria is the worst disaster Puerto Rico has witnessed, more so than Hurricane Hugo’s strike on the island in 1989. Ares moved to the U.S. in the early 1990s. However, his dad told him otherwise, arguing a 1928 hurricane he lived through did just as much damage as Maria.

Celia Lopez’ sister lives in Lagunas, a town in the Aguada municipality. Lopez is originally from Aguada, having spent the last 30 years in the U.S., most recently Elgin. Communication, food, water are still scarce.

“They’ve received nada, nada, nada,” she said. Nada is Spanish for nothing.

Her brother-in-law took a trip back to Puerto Rico and recounted his firsthand experience to Lopez. The vegetation was gone, and only recently is beginning to sprout thanks to the rains. Street signs, signs of any kind were destroyed by the ferocious winds, he told her.

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In Elgin, Lopez is trying to gather financial support for the victims. She co-organized a Friday fundraiser at the Elgin Salvation Army. “Tropical Night,” an evening of Zumba and salsa dancing lessons, is $10 at the door, with all the proceeds going to hurricane relief on the island.

The event runs from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Salvation Army’s community center on Douglas Avenue.

Lopez said she hopes people from all walks of life — not just those with connections to Puerto Rico — can help contribute to bringing assistance to the island.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Lopez said, referring to the devastation Maria brought to her home island.

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