Maria Mercedes Olivieri stands in the parlor of her home in Burke, Va., poring over the rough outline of a four-generation family tree she’s drawn. A discussion of what she calls her family’s “continuous circular movement” between Puerto Rico and the mainland United States in the past half-century demands a visual aid.
She came to Virginia “41 years ago for one year,” she said, and ended up staying for government jobs and to raise a family, even after she divorced.
A cousin divides her time between Puerto Rico and nearby Alexandria, where she bought a house last year to be closer to her grandchildren. Over the years, other relatives came to the mainland, too — to New York, to Florida, to California. But Puerto Rico has always been home.
Olivieri’s mother lives there, as do her sisters, nieces and nephews. That may be why she describes herself as “an accidental immigrant.” She never planned to stay in the United States.
“I would have gone back to the island in a heartbeat,” she said. “That’s where family is.”
But family is now here in Virginia. Hurricane Maria tore through the island Sept. 20, knocking down homes, contaminating drinking water and leaving much of the territory without electricity. Her sister packed up their 92-year-old mother, an uncle, 95, and his 93-year-old wife and took refuge in Virginia. A niece stayed but sent her 8-year-old son to live with his grandfather in Orlando, where he could enroll in school.
Olivieri, 70, and her extended family are trying to acclimate to their upended lives. For some, that means picking up a new language or a new job, making room for displaced relatives, or learning to live apart. And it means figuring out what home means now.
Officials estimate that 100,000 Puerto Ricans left the island after Maria, extending a mass migration that began decades ago. Even before the devastating storm knocked out its entire power grid and destroyed its rain forest, Puerto Rico was deeply in debt, losing jobs, professionals, young people and hope for the future. Indeed, more Puerto Ricans live in the mainland United States than in Puerto Rico.
[Opinion: The Puerto Ricans are coming]
“This movement from Puerto Rico to here has been going on since I was small,” said Enid Olivieri, Maria’s 65-year-old sister. “Almost everyone has someone who is here.”
Unlike her sister, Enid Olivieri raised her family in Puerto Rico, working as a pastor. When her husband, a chemical engineer, lost his job in 2010, they contemplated moving to the mainland. Their daughter had gone to school in France, then ended up in Long Island, where she is raising a grandchild. But, questions about finding work aside, they couldn’t quite wrap their heads around the prospect of shoveling snow.
So Enid Olivieri stayed — and endured Hurricane Maria. It quickly became clear that clean drinking water wouldn’t last and electricity wasn’t consistent enough to power the breathing machine she uses to battle sleep apnea. The family decided she should lead their elders on a sojourn from San Juan to Virginia in what Maria Olivieri called a “parade of wheelchairs.”
The plane tickets were one-way, and the oldest members of the family were not happy.
“I was dragged,” said Maria Mercedes Ramos Rodriguez, mother of the Olivieri sisters.
Carlos Ramos Rodriguez, her brother, and his wife, Luz Selenia Gonzalez, ended up staying with Eris Trinidad, a 69-year-old cousin who lives in Alexandria.
Trinidad and her husband have been traveling between Puerto Rico and the mainland for more than a year now. They bought a house in Virginia in 2016 because three of their children live there or nearby — two working for the federal government, one serving in the Army at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. But their parents remain in Puerto Rico and require care.
The couple was in Alexandria, caring for their grandchildren, when Maria struck — a blessing, Trinidad said.
Enid Olivieri’s niece, 32-year-old Josely Davila, has always lived in Puerto Rico. After Maria’s devastation, she made the difficult decision to send her 8-year-old son, Yasel, to Florida to live with his grandfather in Orlando. She stayed behind in San Juan, returning to her job as a 911 operator.
Davila saw no other option. She wanted to go to Florida herself but couldn’t without a job.
“I was desperate,” she said. “I wanted to get him there so he could be fine, so he could have [electricity], so he could be in peace, so he could be safe.”
The transition came with daily phone calls — and tears.
Gustavo Velez, the boy’s 67-year-old grandfather, moved to Florida from Puerto Rico about five years ago after retiring from a long career in the pharmaceutical industry. He doesn’t have the energy he once had to care for children, but he thinks his grandson is better off on the mainland.
“To come to the States is not easy,” Velez said. “There is a problem with the language. There is a problem with the culture and the philosophy of life.” But: “The future is not in Puerto Rico.”
Elizabeth Aranda, a sociology professor at the University of South Florida and the author of "Emotional Bridges to Puerto Rico: Migration, Return Migration, and the Struggles of Incorporation," said the island was in the middle of a "cultural trauma" as families leave, contemplate leaving or deal with life on the ground after others have left. Her parents, now in their 70s, plan to sell their home in Puerto Rico and relocate to Florida to be closer to their grandchildren, Aranda said.
“So many people are experiencing patchworking — getting people into safe places to create normalcy,” she said. “But at the end of the day, home is home.”
Maria Mercedes Olivieri said she knows there are members of her family who are eager to return to Puerto Rico. She is planning to host them at her home for Thanksgiving.
In the past, she put out a spread that’s “not a typical American Thanksgiving,” she said, including paella, pumpkin-coconut flan and pernil — Puerto Rican roasted pork shoulder. Over the years, family began requesting that most American of Thanksgiving foods: turkey.
“We compromise,” she said.
But at least one guest has already sent her regrets. Enid Olivieri returned to Puerto Rico on Friday.