For Puerto Ricans Displaced By Hurricane, A First Christmas Away From Home

Dec 21, 2017

Miosotis Castro, her husband Francisco Alvarado and their three children are among thousands of Puerto Ricans who lost their homes when Hurricane Maria hit the island three months ago. 

And like tens of thousands of people, they are now making a new home in the mainland U.S.

Castro and her family are slowly settling into life here in Rhode Island, and right now they’re getting ready to celebrate their first Christmas away from Puerto Rico. For Castro, that means getting to know her husband's relatives, who have welcomed the family here.

“With my new family we cook, we have a Christmas tree, we have a safe home,” Castro said.

A Christmas tree twinkles with lights in the living room of Castro’s in-laws’ house in Providence, where the family is living temporarily.

They were forced to leave everything behind after the storm, including their middle class life in Bayamon, a city outside San Juan, where Castro and Alvarado both worked as correctional officers. During the hurricane, glass shattered, as windows blew out from the wind. Water flooded into their home. Castro fights back tears as she remembers.

The family came to Rhode Island with only the clothes they were wearing, which obviously didn’t including winter hats or jackets. For the first time, they're relying on the support of family, strangers, and relief organizations.

Castro explains in Spanish, being forced to relocate to the states has been a difficult lesson for her children.  

“All the times that I told them eat your food, value the good clothes you have, your bed, your home,” she said. “Now they know what it’s like not to have one. I always tried to instill that in them.”           

In Puerto Rico, Christmas is celebrated outside with grand block parties, complete with live music, a whole roasted pig, and coquito, a drink similar to a Pina colada. But here in frigid New England, traditional island celebrations will be challenge.

“Normally we Puerto Ricans do activities outside and you make the roasted pork outside,” said Castro. “And here you can’t because it’s snowing or it’s too cold.”

This family will try very hard to recreate their island traditions, but they will do so without most of their family members.

“It’s that time that we haven’t had all year, family you haven’t seen all year,” said Castro. “At Christmas you see those people. This year we don’t have the way to share it.”

Despite its small size, Rhode Island has a large Puerto Rican community of about 40,000 people. And they are embracing Castro and Alvarado, along with the other refugees from the hurricane.

At the Puerto Rican Professional Association of Rhode Island's annual Christmas celebration, guests stream in wearing winter coats, brushing off snow. They shed their winter gear to reveal suits and sleeveless gowns. A live band plays traditional Puerto Rican music.

The idea is to bring the tropical outdoor festival inside, with traditional decorations, music and, of course, food, says organizer Ivette Sollivan.

“It’s all about the island, the food, the desserts, the smells when you open up the food the pasteles and the morcillos, and of course the music,” said Sollivan. “We hug a lot and we kiss a lot. This is Puerto Rico really.”

The Castro and Alvarado family sits at a table, eating roast pork, rice and beans and Puerto Rican tamales. Fellow guests greet them like old friends. Castro says it seems here in Rhode Island they’ve managed to successfully bring a little bit of a Puerto Rican Christmas to life.

“My son, my young son say, ‘mommy, all this like Puerto Rico,’” said Castro.

She, her husband and their children will spend the holiday with the few family members they have on the East Coast. If there’s a white Christmas in the region, it will be another reminder they are celebrating far from their island home.