By: Jonathan Montalvo
Puerto Ricans will not forget September 20, 2017. The strength of María, a category five hurricane, slammed through the island leaving a devastation never seen before. The effects of the hurricane joined the economic crisis of the island as some of the factors that have motivated thousands of Puerto Ricans to leave. The vast majority of these Boricuas have settled in cities where there is already a large Puerto Rican community, mostly in the state of Florida. However, other states have also witnessed the presence of Puerto Ricans. One of these is Iowa.
The migration of Puerto Ricans in Iowa has been possible thanks, in part, to the presence of the state’s universities in Puerto Rico. Institutions such as Iowa State University or Graceland University have had a great tradition of recruitment on the island. These universities are among the dozens of U.S. and Puerto Rican schools invited every year to participate in university fairs organized by Autopista Americas, an organization that provides strategic recruiting tours for academic institutions. The presence of Puerto Ricans at Iowa State University, given the size of the university, is not too surprising. However, the Boricua presence in Graceland University, a small liberal arts college in a rural area of southern Iowa, may seem more surprising. The university is located in Lamoni, Iowa, a town of a little over 2,000 people approximately 70 miles from Des Moines, the state capital, and 115 miles from Kansas City. It is a place where you would not expect to find a small community of Boricuas. Nonetheless, the university prides itself for its diverse student population. Although the current number of Puerto Ricans in the university is small, in the past they have received dozens of Boricuas who have come to obtain their education and, in some cases, to play sports for the school while creating the sense of community for which Graceland is famous.
Experiencing the devastation of Hurricane María from the Diaspora was not easy for some of the students and professors alike. Marianna Santos Bermeo, a biology major at Graceland, made the following comments: “I remember the days when I could not communicate with my family. I feel a lump in my throat when I think about those days. The day after the hurricane, I was calling my mother and my friends like crazy. Nobody answered me. I felt empty since I am alone in Iowa.” Many DiaspoRicans, including myself, shared Santos Bermeo’s feelings. Widalys Cruz González, a music major, says that the hurricane affected her family emotionally as much as it damaged her house and their belongings. Cruz González added: “My sister decided to leave the university [in Puerto Rico] because it was pure chaos. She started losing a lot of time trying to finish her bachelor’s degree because there were not enough professors.” The students were one of the sectors most affected by María. The uncertainty of not knowing if they could finish their degree in Puerto Rico or not, forced many to immigrate to the United States. The situation was difficult for both students and educators in Puerto Rico, and in the Diaspora.
I had the opportunity to travel to Puerto Rico last December, three months after Hurricane María, to represent Graceland University at a college fair. It was my first time returning to the island after a little over a year. I took advantage of my trip to visit my family, with whom I had been out of communication for months, in the town of Lares. On my way there, I encountered a different landscape: mountains missing their greenery, power cables, and fallen trees on the roads. The new landscape was symptomatic of my emotional journey as I drove around the island. During the university fair, the desperation of the hundreds of students and their parents was evident. Almost every student and their parents mentioned that the main reason to attend the fair was to keep their options open. Most attendees expressed that they did not know if the situation was going to get any better so that they could finish their studies in Puerto Rico. I witnessed how dozens of students applied to Graceland University, showing their willingness to explore or create new DiaspoRican niches.
Jonathan Montalvo is from Lares, Puerto Rico. His family moved to Indiana when he was 15-years-old. He received his bachelor’s degree from Purdue University-Northwest, his Masters in Spanish from Western Michigan, and his PhD in Hispanic Cultural Studies from Michigan State University. Currently, Montalvo is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Hispanic Studies at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa.