Fleeing Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria, Two Sisters Settle In New Bedford

Dec 7, 2017

For weeks after Hurricane Maria, Cynthia and Vanessa Melendez were trapped in their village in Humacao, Puerto Rico. They had no water and were running out of food. They eventually made their way out, along with their eight children, resettling in New Bedford. The sisters and their children have joined other Puerto Ricans arriving in the city since the hurricane.

In her hotel room, Cynthia Melendez is trying to persuade her four-year-old nephew to eat lunch. Coaxing him to open his mouth, Cynthia asks him, "remember how hungry you were?"

In the weeks after the storm, while the family was still in Puerto Rico, they would measure their hunger in pigs.

“How many pigs are you as hungry as?” She asks him. He takes the bite.

Cynthia, her sister Vanessa, and their kids, 10 people in total, arrived in New Bedford almost a month ago. At first they stayed with their brother. But he has a wife and five kids of his own, as well as a live-in mother-in-law. Altogether they were 18 people crammed into one house. And they were afraid he’d be evicted with all of them there.

“So we went to look for other housing, but no one wanted us because we were too many people,” said Cynthia.

So they moved to the Whaler Lounge, a budget hotel, renting two rooms, at a cost of about $200 a night. Since the sisters aren’t working, and their FEMA check hadn’t come through yet, local organizations are helping to foot the bill for now.

On Saturday, the kids are home from school. Two teenage girls braid one another’s hair while watching a Mexican soap opera on a cell phone.

A boy is flopped on the bed playing video games.

“We don’t have anywhere to take the kids," Cynthia explained. "We don’t have any sort of entertainment. We don’t have any money.”

The family has remained remarkably peaceful considering the tight quarters and the boredom. But Cynthia says sometimes, when everything feels too hard, too overwhelming, when she just needs a minute for herself, she’ll lock herself in the bathroom and cry.

Vanessa has been looking for work. She heads to an assisted living facility where she has heard about an opening, but the door to the building is locked. Back in Puerto Rico she was a nurse, but her license isn’t valid here, so for now, she’ll take anything she can get.

Vanessa calls to see if the facility is open, but it turns out they're closed Saturday and Sunday.

She’ll have to wait until Monday to apply for the job. For Vanessa and her family, that’s two more days without an income.

“We want to work,” said Cynthia. "We're not here because we want to be here, but because of the situation that happened in Puerto Rico."

That’s how she and Vanessa always refer to the storm, "the situation."

“We had our jobs, we had everything there,” said Vanessa. “Here we have nothing."  

In response to the influx of Puerto Rican hurricane survivors, several local organizations have joined together to help support the families. One of them is Mobile Ministries, basically a church-on-wheels. It looks like a hybrid of a hipster food truck and a hearse. The organization provides food, clothing and prayer.

The Melendez family arrives while the truck is still opening up. As the volunteers set up, Cynthia’s 11-year-old daughter practices her English.

"A, B, C, D, E," she reads out loud. When she gets to Z, she says, "that's all I know so far."

Before lunch the pastor says a few words.

“See Jesus right there puts light and life together,” he tells a group of regulars, standing in a semi-circle and holding hands.

Some of the people close their eyes. Others bow their heads. Cynthia, Vanessa and the kids are unsure about what to do. So they stand just outside the semi-circle, and form a line of their own, clasping hands.  They’re quiet and respectful, but their eyes are focused on what sits just behind the preacher in the back of the truck.


"Hi sweetie, what a hot dog?" one of the pastors asks the kids. "Come on in."

The older kids are embarrassed to go up and ask their moms to get food for them.

"It's not easy bringing the kids here," said Cynthia. 

She worries people will judge them for taking handouts.

After lunch, the family picks out a few bags of clothes before leaving. There’s a slip of paper in one of the bags that reads, “Free Pass to Heaven.”

A few days later, while the kids are in school, Vanessa heads to North Star Learning Center, a child development organization, and fills out an application to become a substitute teaching assistant.

Sitting in the waiting room, Vanessa is nervous. She clutches a blue, plastic file organizer against her chest.

"We do need help at the centers in the classrooms with the teachers and stuff," says Norma Alvarez, the center's director. 

The job is only part-time, and pays minimum wage, which in Massachusetts is $11 an hour. After making sure she has all the paperwork she needs, Norma tells Vanessa the job is hers. But before she can start working, she'll have to wait for the background check to come through, and that can take anywhere from a week to a month.

Next the sisters head to United Way, an organization that’s been helping them with their resettlement. When they arrive at the office, Cynthia and Vanessa find six bags of winter clothes waiting for them.

They have to catch the bus home. They look down at all the bags slumped at their feet. Then at each other. They struggle to collect the bags and start walking to the bus stop.

They make it 20 feet before needing a break.

A few minutes later, they need another break. Halfway there, Vanessa hears something.

The bus is coming.

They’re still a few blocks from the bus stop, so they start running, with the plastic bags banging against their legs.

In the next week, both sisters will get colds. Cynthia will get a job at a restaurant that pays her $5 an hour. And Vanessa will continue to wait to hear from North Star. The sisters will run out of money and leave the hotel. They’ll go to their brother. He’ll worry they’ll be evicted but will welcome them anyway. The sisters will even wonder if they should go back to Puerto Rico, even though they know they’d be worse off there.

But right now, Cynthia and Vanessa are running for a bus, and laughing.

"Sometimes you have to laugh or else you’ll cry," said Cynthia. "Sometimes it’s better to laugh than cry."