Like many Puerto Ricans who fled to Buffalo in the wake of last year’s devastating Hurricane Maria, Angie Peña planned to stay no longer than a few months. “Ni aunque mi pagaran” – “not even if they paid me” – she vowed to her sister and husband.
Her sister, Hilda Ramos, picked her up at the airport with little more than her two kids and their roller luggage. They settled into the spare room in Hilda’s Parkside apartment.
And somehow, a year later, she still finds herself carting her son to soccer practice in Delaware Park and cooking habichuelas and chuletas in her sister’s kitchen.
“I didn’t want to live here,” she said with a shrug, shaking her copper hair. “But now I like it, I guess. I like the summer. I just don’t like the cold weather.”
Peña’s refrain reflects the experience of many displaced Puerto Ricans. Driven from the island by a historic storm last September, hundreds of families sought refuge in Buffalo with no intention of staying.
But as the island’s misfortunes stretched on, and as their families became enmeshed in the community, many “evacuees,” as social workers describe them, abandoned their initial plans to leave.
More than 450 Puerto Rican children enrolled in Buffalo schools last year, even more than enrolled in New York City. Meanwhile, newly arrived Puerto Ricans pack pews at West Side churches, flock to downtown bars and rent long-vacant doubles in Riverside, Black Rock and Kingsley.
Community leaders say Puerto Ricans could be the next face of Buffalo’s renaissance. Some estimate as many as 5,000 moved to the region last year – more than double the number of people who left Buffalo and Niagara counties in that period. Many came to join family in the region, which is home to an established, decades-old community of more than 35,000 Puerto Ricans.
“Having these people in the community has provided a breath of fresh air,” said Miguel Santos, a deacon at Holy Cross Catholic Church, where many new arrivals are parishioners. “They’re bilingual, they’re working, they’re filling vacant apartments. And I believe we’ll see their full impact as they acclimate further.”
And yet, advocates say the arriving U.S. citizens still face challenges.
Deciding to stay
“Acclimating” is admittedly not something Peña does well: The 45-year-old craves warmer weather. On a damp November morning in Western New York, she still wears black flip-flop sandals.
But Peña, now a stay-at-home mom, admits her family lucked out in comparison to other displaced Puerto Ricans. For starters, their home in Puerto Rico – a single-family house in a gated community, with a grassy, iguana-infested lawn – didn’t suffer any real damage during Maria, besides the loss of a shed in the backyard.
On top of that, when her children’s schools closed, Peña realized they had another option in her sister, who worked for almost 20 years as a Buffalo teacher.
“I knew we had good bilingual programs,” Ramos said. “So I told my sister, ‘bring the kids here to finish the school year, and go back to Puerto Rico after that.’ ”
But the kids – Briana, 16, and Eduardo, 12 – became attached to their new home. Days after arriving, Eduardo started at Frank A. Sedita Academy and Briana at Lafayette International High School. The two joined volleyball and soccer teams, enrolled in after-school classes and made friends among their fellow hurricane evacuees.
Briana Torres-Pena does her homework at her aunt’s Parkside home.
Peña, meanwhile, stuck around her sister. Like many displaced Puerto Ricans, she struggles with English and has not found a job here.
“So it was their decision to stay,” Peña said of her children.
“That was my decision,” Briana confirmed. “Because I have more opportunities here than at home.”
‘Big deal for Buffalo’
That one shining word – “opportunity” – inspired many evacuees to stay in Buffalo, social workers and school officials say. While thousands of people came seeking short-term refuge, many remained when they found jobs, low housing prices, bilingual schools and a vibrant Latino community.
Francisco Anyosa, 27, chose Buffalo for its low housing costs. But the young bus driver said he’ll remain with his wife and 6-year-old daughter because life is more difficult somewhere like Puerto Rico or the Bronx.
Saul Roldan, 25, also found work here as a landscaper. He and his wife joined a new church and enjoy borrowing a friend’s car to explore the suburbs.
“If they didn’t tell you they came here because of the hurricane, you’d never know,” said John Sanabria, who sits on the board of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York. “They’re already in the bloodline of the community. They’re already absorbed.”
In addition to driving and landscaping, Puerto Ricans have found work as salesmen, tradesmen, movers and cooks. Westin Hotels recruited bilingual front-desk staff from the evacuee community, and Aerotek Staffing placed 10 Puerto Ricans in hard-to-fill manufacturing roles.
Puerto Rican students, meanwhile, have enrolled in elementary Schools 3, 30, 33 and 67, plus Lafayette High School.
“We were really lucky and happy to get them,” said John Starkey, the principal at Lafayette. “We’ve noticed the families seeking refuge in Buffalo are motivated and focused on education.”
Evacuees have also boosted bilingual churches, such as Destiny Church on 14th Street and Holy Cross. They flock to restaurants in their new neighborhoods, from Señor Tequila and Las Delicias on Pearl Street to El Encanto in Black Rock.
During a recent, rainy lunch hour, a line of customers queued to the door at La Flor Bakery on Niagara.
“Business is definitely better this year,” said owner Enrique Sexton. “You can tell there are all these new people here. I see them on the street, I see them in the business.”
Buffalo needs those new people, local economists and advocates agree. Between 2010 and 2017, the Buffalo Niagara region grew by a paltry 1,700 people, points out UB Regional Institute analyst Brian Conley. Even a portion of the 4,000 to 5,000 arrivals some community leaders have optimistically estimated would be a “big deal for Buffalo,” Conley said.
There is no reliable data on the exact number of arrivals yet.
“The effect of adding more people to a local economy is generally a net positive,” said Abigail Cooke, a UB professor who studies the economic impact of migration. “All these people need to rent apartments, buy groceries, pay taxes – and those are positive economic outcomes for local tax bases and businesses.”
While Cooke studies economics, however, she warns against thinking about the Puerto Rican exodus in economic terms. Yes, the arrivals could prove a major boon to Buffalo. But starting life over in a new place forebodes profound personal challenges – challenges that may send some Puerto Ricans home.
On top of the obvious language barrier, Spanish-speakers suffer discrimination in Western New York, said Santos, the deacon. Puerto Rican children have complained to Mariana Gonzalez, a Catholic Charities social worker, about classroom bullies making fun of their accents.
At one point last year, a fight even broke out in the Catholic Charities lobby after a client yelled insults at a group of waiting Puerto Ricans.
“Some of them lived their whole lives without getting on a plane until they left Puerto Rico to come here,” Gonzalez said. “Even that is traumatizing. And now to be judged by other people?” She shook her head.
For Peña, the struggles of exodus have often been less visible. She has no problem getting around, she said, and she likes her neighbors in Buffalo – some of whom greeted her family with grocery store gift cards and winter coats. But she still has one foot on the island, where her husband watches their half-empty house and chihuahua, Valentina.
Now 1,800 miles away, Peña swipes through photos of them and admits her future might not include Buffalo. She agreed to stay for a few years: long enough for Briana to graduate from Lafayette and, she hopes, apply to law school.
From left to right, Hilda Ramos, Hilda Medina, Angie Pena, her daughter Briana Torres-Pena, and son Eduardo Torres-Pena, eat dinner at Ramos’ Parkside home.
After that, however, Peña doesn’t know. She repeats the phrase over and over.
She never thought she’d end up in Buffalo, after all.
“Look what happened,” she said. “Now I never say never.”