From Hardship to Homecoming: Starting over in Chicago after Hurricane Maria

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in mid-September of 2017, chaos erupted throughout the island as structural damage, loss of clean water and electricity, and delayed disaster relief left many to fend for themselves. For Nashville and her family, Hurricane Maria meant the loss of the home Alexander, her husband, had built for her and their daughters Brianna and Aleysha. It meant gathering up what remained, and leaving the rest behind. It meant food rations and sleeping on air mattresses on her mother-in-law’s living room floor.

In the immediate aftermath of the Hurricane, Alexander and several men from the neighborhood walked miles to a nearby well to fetch water in 5 gallon buckets for their families and other residents of Quebrada de Agua, a neighborhood in Ponce. Day after day he did this knowing that disaster relief, despite them living in Puerto Rico’s 4th largest city, could be days or even weeks away. Once the family had  moved into his mother’s house, which miraculously remained upright, Velazquez returned to Walmart where he worked, explaining the circumstances to his Human Resources representative. Nashville, Alexander and their family were among the lucky ones, despite losing their home.

Alexander reached out to his father who lived in Chicago. His dad immediately let them know they would have a place to stay if they could pay for their plane tickets to Chicago. They could do it. It would be tight, but they could make it work, Alexander assured his father. When Alexander returned to Human Resources to ask for a transfer to a Chicago location, the very same Human Resources representative reached into his pocket and handed Velazquez $60. “We’re going to help you with whatever you need,” he said, “Go and do some grocery shopping. Get what you need. We’ll pay for that too.” Alexander was moved to tears. Receiving the food – a tangible gift of life – was like a miracle. It was this gift and others that helped sustain the family before they boarded a plane in early November 2017.

It was frigid Chicago day when Aleysha and Brianna alighted the plane with their parents, but they were quickly energized when their grandfather greeted them warmly for the very first time at his apartment in the city. Upon arrival, their grandfather ushered the family to a cleared out living room with a few new toys. It wasn’t anything special, but for the first time in months they were assured clean water, regular meals, and a return to school – none of which they now took for granted. Their grandfather did his best to make room for 4 new houseguests and was unsure about the new living situation, but Alexander was overjoyed, “He said that he was sorry that it wasn’t much, but to us it was amazing.”

For Alexander, this wasn’t merely a new start but a homecoming. His parents relationship caused a great deal of upheaval when he was child, but he remembers his time growing up right off of Diversey & Campbell when he was brought to live in Chicago between 1995-1999. After his parents separated, Velazquez returned to Puerto Rico with his mother and had lived there ever since.

Upon arriving in Chicago, the family visited the Humboldt Park Resource Center where Hurricane Maria relief activities were underway with LUCHA and other community partners. They received clothing, vouchers, and access to resources, and even began to fill out an application for one of LUCHA’s evacuee-designated units but didn’t complete the application. With stable housing they felt it maybe wasn’t time just yet to uproot themselves once again.

Two months had passed, and it was becoming increasingly evident that a family of four occupying a living room was becoming a burden both for them and for Alexander’s father. They returned to the Humboldt Park Resource Center, completed their application with LUCHA, and within 3 days received a call from LUCHA’s Property Manager. One of the requirements to occupy one of the evacuee-designated units, or any of LUCHA’s units, is to provide proof of income. Alexander, unlike many other evacuees, had already been working at Walmart in Skokie for 2 months after successfully receiving a transfer in November. With proof of income, Alexander showed his pay stubs and before they knew it, the Velazquez family was moving into one of LUCHA’s units at Madres Unidas.

“When I was in Puerto Rico and I had lost everything, I broke down and I started screaming. I thought, ‘we’re done’. I started praying to God and calmed down. I talked with my wife and we believed it would be okay. This has absolutely been a blessing from God,” explained Velazquez.

The move hasn’t been without challenges; prior to Hurricane Maria, Brianna had just completed Kindergarten and was entering 1st grade, but the move to Chicago was a major hiccup in her education and she returned to Kindergarten. It hasn’t been all bad news, as she recently won student of the month and both her and her sister Aleysha, along with their mother Nashville, are slowly but surely learning English.

Madres Unidas, originally founded as a haven for vulnerable mothers in Humboldt Park, has become both a place of homecoming and a new beginning for the Velazquez family.

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