It’s almost never easy to leave home—especially when that decision is made for you by circumstances beyond your control. And for many immigrants, the journey from their place of origin to the United States is a bittersweet one. There is simultaneously an appreciation for new opportunities coupled with a sadness about the things and people left behind. For Puerto Ricans who are leaving the island, especially because of Hurricane Maria, there is a similar sentiment. Of course, they are already American citizens so they are not emigrating by moving to the mainland. But they are leaving a distinct culture, traditions, language and experiences that will be sorely missed when they leave their beloved island behind.
Because of a long-standing financial crisis, the number of Puerto Ricans who have moved to the mainland for employment, family reunification and other reasons has been steadily on the rise. Hurricane Maria just hastened this pattern.
Even before Maria strafed the region, a record number of Puerto Ricans were realizing that the declining island might be where their heart is but cannot be where their feet stay. Nearly 500,000 people left Puerto Rico for the mainland during the past decade, according to the Pew Research Center, pushing the stateside Puerto Rican population past the number living on the island last year — an estimated 3.3 million.
The government of Puerto Rico’s guess is that by the end of 2018, 200,000 more residents will have left the U.S. territory for good, moving to places such as Florida, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New England. It would mean another drop of more than 5 percent in the island’s population.
A lot of those who have left the island are young people with degrees and burgeoning careers who, unfortunately, do not see staying on the island as sustainable financially. Others may be parents who feel that they cannot afford to raise school-aged children in the uncertainty of the recovery and wait out what might happen on the island post-Maria. Currently, two-thirds of schools on the island have power. But that doesn’t mean all is well. Many schools only have power a few days a week—resulting in frequent disruptions and an environment that hinders students’ learning potential. Additionally, in February, the governor announced a plan to close more than 300 schools and privatize others. This has not gone over well with parents and and teachers who say that they were not involved in any discussions with government officials about education reform.