National News

From San Juan to New York, He Offers Help and Hope for the Uprooted

Posted February 4, 2018 3:44 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Rafael Ocasio Barreto refused to leave Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria tore through his part of San Juan, Caño Martin Peña, flooding streets with dirty water, toppling power lines and destroying houses. He soldiered on for two weeks, although he was just as devastated as his community. Finally, his friends forced him — wearing just the clothes on his back — to get on a plane to the States.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency resettled him at a suite motel in Queens, not far from La Guardia Airport. A tiny Puerto Rican flag adorns his living room, as if he was claiming this corner of Northern Boulevard. In a bedroom, plump winter coats and new sneakers are piled atop the bed. The kitchen is stocked with food. Just as he cared little for material possessions in Puerto Rico, these items are not for him, but to share with other uprooted Puerto Ricans also staying at the motel as they await the next steps when FEMA stops covering their hotel costs on Feb. 14.

“I have to give them a hand so they can confront this new life,” Ocasio Barreto said last week. “In Puerto Rico, even with all its dire needs, you can get someone to help. Here, that really doesn’t exist. Here, it’s about individualism. You feel the racism. It’s not the affection you felt back home. Fortunately, even in this motel, I have found Dominicans, Hondurans and Ecuadoreans who identify with us and extend their hand like a brother nation.”

Perhaps it was because he saw too much and felt too much that he made the reluctant trip north. Ocasio Barreto, 48, had been living in Caño Martin Peña, where he worked with a public-private coalition of eight local communities to address the needs of residents and the environment. More than a century ago, squatters descended upon the area’s mangroves, using debris and castoffs for landfill as they built shacks. Over decades, the mangroves almost vanished as tens of thousands of people settled the area, which mostly lacked proper sewage systems.

The hurricane made a tough life worse, and Ocasio Barreto conducted daily surveys to see what people needed. “Before I left in the morning, I would cry,” he said, his voice cracking. “Then I’d leave the house with my Superman chest puffed out, like nothing affected me. But I saw so many people who had nothing, children crying, old people with infections from the dirty water, and all I could give them was a hug. And when I got home, I’d cry again.”

His friend and colleagues, alarmed by his emotional state, insisted he go north, and put him on a plane to Florida, where he spent some time before heading to Connecticut to see family and finally to New York, where he crashed with a friend before getting help with housing, as well as treatment for depression and anxiety, at an assistance center in East Harlem.

At the motel since Dec. 12, he continues paying it forward. An acquaintance connected him with Nos Quedamos/We Stay, a South Bronx housing and community advocacy group that he is now helping with its Puerto Rican relief efforts, making sure aid and supplies get to the right groups on the island. Now intending to stay for a few years in New York to continue working with the diaspora, he has applied for several apartments, but has yet to hear back. Like many others who made this journey, the road ahead is daunting.

“Nobody expects to come here,” he said. “People say everything is easy and money and jobs are everywhere. That is just not real. You have to work to get things done.”

Which is why he continues his mission when he goes home to the motel. Walking through the softly lit corridors, the warm aroma of garlic and fried food makes him smile. “You know there are Puerto Ricans here,” he said. “You can smell the food.”

About a dozen families and individuals are staying there. When a newcomer arrives, he asks how they feel, what do they need, whether they received any benefits for housing, clothing or food. He can see in their faces the same uncertainty he has endured.

“I always have enough food to prepare them rice and beans or something, so at least they won’t go to bed hungry,” he said. “I bought a 30-pound bag of rice and divided it up into little bags that I give them. If they need a coat, I’ll give them mine if I have to. I’m always thinking of the other person’s situation. Why they are like this? What do they need?”

These are all lessons he learned growing up in the countryside. People may think Puerto Ricans just want others to solve their problems. Ocasio Barreto sees it as his duty, as he did the day he went on a grocery run for a single mother of three who showed up at the motel with her hungry brood.

“I have nothing,” he said. “Whatever I have is to be shared. We know struggle. To be in a bad way. But I always try to help people get something, even if only for one day. Tomorrow is another story.”