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Orlando Sentinel

Return To Puerto Rico Completes Cycle Of Life

By Jeff Kunerth

November 30, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

The front yard is sprinkled with plastic-foam packing peanuts. Cardboard boxes and barrels are stacked by the front window of the duplex in south Orlando. The moving van arrives Thursday.

Santos and María Rivera are going home.

The Riveras have lived stateside for most of their lives, raised their children here, but it was never home. Home is Puerto Rico.

"I left young and spent my life away from my country, and now I'm going back," said María Rivera, 61. "When you leave your family and the country that you love, you feel so happy going back."

Now retired, Rivera and her husband are joining the reverse migration of older Puerto Ricans back to the island.

In the 1990s, there was a net migration of 51,000 Puerto Ricans older than 44 from the States to Puerto Rico -- up from a net return migration of 30,000 in the 1980s, according to the latest census estimates.

The return to the island of middle-aged and older Puerto Ricans runs counter to the out-migration of young people from the island that has been going on for more than 70 years. Younger Puerto Ricans tend to move to the United States for employment. Their elders return for family and a lifelong loyalty to the island.

"Most studies have found that whereas Puerto Ricans move to the mainland primarily for economic reasons, they return to the island primarily for cultural and social ones," said Jorge Duany, professor of anthropology at the University of Puerto Rico, in San Juan.

'Looking for better work'

The Riveras were part of the out-migration of young people when they moved to Chicago in the early 1960s. Neither could speak English. The only person they knew in Chicago was María's brother.

"We were looking for better work or a better life," María said. "When you're young, you're not afraid of anything. Everything is beautiful."

They found work, but they also found a harsh climate and homesickness in Chicago. The couple returned to Puerto Rico in 1969 but moved back to Chicago in 1973 at the insistence of their children, who missed the city and their friends. María then worked for 16 years in a hearing-aid factory. Santos spent 17 with a company that makes boxes.

Last year, the couple moved to Orlando to care for María's mother, who subsequently died of lung cancer. A few months ago, the couple decided to move back to Puerto Rico. No longer working, they decided they had no reason to stay in the States.

"I came here only for work," said Santos Rivera, 63. "I don't want to exchange my beautiful country for anything."

Marisa Medina, office manager with Pan American Express moving company in Orlando, said her business averages about 30 Puerto Ricans a week moving into the Orlando area and about 15 a week moving back to Puerto Rico.

"Usually it's the older people who are moving back. They miss the island. They are ready to spend their last days of their lives on the island," she said.

Another moving company with offices in Orlando and New York said the flow of return migrants to Puerto Rico has increased in recent years. Although it is far more common for Puerto Ricans in the Northeast to move back to the island, Florida is producing its own exodus of return migrants.

"In New York, maybe 25 years ago, it was more coming in than going back. For the last 10 years, it's about the same number," said Enrique Gutiérrez, Orlando office manager for La Rosa Del Monte Express moving company. "Ten years ago, there were more coming into Central Florida. In the last five years, it has almost become equal."

During the 1990s, 56 percent of those moving from the United States to Puerto Rico came from the Northeast, while 26 percent moved back home from the South, according to the 2000 census. At the same time, 46 percent of those moving from Puerto Rico settled in the Northeast, while 37 percent came to the South.

Circular migration

The fact that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who can travel between the island and the mainland without passports contributes to the "circular migration" of Puerto Ricans to and from the United States. It also eases the transition back to the island when Puerto Ricans reach retirement age.

"The circulation of large numbers of Puerto Ricans back and forth regardless of age facilitates the possibility of returning to the island in retirement age," said Félix Matos-Rodríguez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College in New York City. "The ties are not broken."

For some Puerto Ricans, moving back to the island is an obligation, a pledge to the people and the place they left behind.

"It's a duty, a historic duty to move back to where you come from," said Gilberto Gerena Valentín, 84, who left Puerto Rico at age 18 and moved back at 67.

When leaving Puerto Rico, many carry with them a tune inside their heads that lasts as long as they remain in the United States, Valentín said: "There is a song called 'In My Old San Juan' that is almost like a national anthem for those who migrate."

The song, a ballad that speaks of longing for the island left behind, is María Rivera's favorite.

"I love that song," she said. "When I hear that song, oh, my, sometimes tears come."

So for many, the return in old age to Puerto Rico is the completion of a dream, living out the song of their lives.

"You have people who had that dream from day one," Matos-Rodríguez said. "No matter how well it went for them, no matter how successful they were, the plan was always to go back. They never felt quite at home."

Feeling discrimination

Many Puerto Ricans never feel completely at home in the United States because of the prejudice and discrimination that exists toward Hispanics, said Valentín, a former New York labor organizer who moved to the mainland in 1937.

"There is nothing idyllic about going to a country that rejects you," said Valentín, who served on the New York City Council and the city's human-rights commission. "Many employers do not want employees who cannot speak English. You want to come back to where you are not discriminated against."

In the 1970s, María Rivera encountered signs on apartment buildings in Chicago that said, "No cats, no dogs, no Puerto Ricans." The feeling of being unwanted never completely disappeared.

"It makes you feel like you are nothing," Rivera said.

But in Puerto Rico, she will be back among her brethren, submerged once again in the sounds, sights and smells of her homeland. Among her desires: fresh -- not frozen -- banana leaves for the traditional Puerto Rican Christmas dish, or "Comida de Navidad," made of rice, green bananas, squash, plantains, potatoes and pork.

In moving back to Puerto Rico, she is returning to a sister, two brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles. But she is leaving behind a sister in Orlando and three adult children in Chicago.

Yet in doing so, she is opening the door for her children to a land, an island, they know only from vacations and holiday visits. Her 30-year-old son, Orlando, has spent his life in Chicago, but sees himself following his mother back to Puerto Rico.

"My son, he tells me, 'You complete my dream. I am living in Chicago, but I belong to Puerto Rico,' " Rivera said. "When he retires, he's going to Puerto Rico to live."

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