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Disney hardships: Puerto Ricans living in overcrowded motels in Orlando

Moving to Central Florida, where more than 314,000 Puerto Ricans live, was not as easy as this family from Mayagüez imagined.
4 May 2016 – 02:14 PM EDT
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Aldis Ruiz was carrying seven bags, five one-way airplane tickets and $3,000 in her pocket when she arrived at the airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, along with her four children in late April of last year.

As thousands of Puerto Ricans have done in recent years, she was headed to Orlando, Florida, at the suggestion of a friend who had been living there for 10 years and assured her that the move would be easy.

Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have decided to leave the island due to the enormous economic challenges facing its government . The island's Governor, Alejandro García Padilla, announced Sunday that his government had stopped payments on its huge public debt through an executive order, saying Puerto Rico was in the midst of the worst fiscal and humanitarian crisis in its history.

But life in the land of Walt Disney World, where more than 314,000 Puerto Ricans already reside, is not as easy as Ruiz had pictured: she and her children have spent more than a year living in small motel rooms in the south of Orlando.

Many of their belongings hang in a portable closet, which occupies a large part of the double room they rent in a budget motel in the city of Kissimmee. Their kitchen is a small electric grill, a rice cooker, and a dish rack, all mounted in the large sink at the entrance of the bathroom. One of Ruiz' daughters will at times get tired of sleeping with her mother and siblings, and she naps on a thick mattress spread on the floor between the beds in the room.

"Before coming here, I always thought it would be much easier to get a home," Ruiz told Univision News. "I never imagined that there would be so many requirements," she added.

In Kissimmee, Ruiz no longer hears the sounds of bullets in the distance, one of the reasons she fled from her former home in Mayagüez, in western Puerto Rico. There were so many shootings near their residential complex that her son already recognized the distinctive sound of each weapon used by the criminals in the neighborhood.

"(There) it is normal to hear shots, it is normal to live in fear of stray bullets," laments Ruiz. "Or having to explain to your children why we woke up to so many police officers in the courtyard of our complex, and it's because they are hoisting up the body of someone killed at dawn."

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In Central Florida she faces a new problem: it's been impossible for her to find a home where she can raise her four children, since she doesn't have a good credit history nor the cash needed to cover housing costs.

"They ask for so much in order to rent a house here in Florida. They require you have a salary that's three times the rent; they require a background check, and people who can attest that you are not a criminal," explains Ruiz, 37, who has a sociology degree with a minor in criminal justice. "Then there is the deposit, first month's rent and payments to get water and electricity switched on".

As a result, her family has moved from motel to motel, and they are not the only Puerto Rican household living this way.

"There are people who arrive and put stoves in their rooms," says Pablo Caceres, director of the local office of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA). "We have seen serious cases of 5 or 6 people living in one room, and others sleeping in their cars."

Hopping the pond

Caceres’ office in South Orlando Avenue gives guidance to Puerto Ricans who come seeking help. "When a Puerto Rican comes, I like to speak the truth," adds Caceres. "Whoever does not come with a transition plan can quickly see themselves out on the street. It is not as easy as hopping the pond and hoping to get everything".

Gloria Puerto, a Colombian living in Central Florida, founded the group Feed and Fortify five years ago to feed families and children in need in Orlando. Puerto affirms that so many Puerto Rican families have come to the motels in the Kissimmee area that it's normal to see school buses pick children up in the morning, or to see a group of these young people playing in the pools or in the surrounding areas of the motels.

"They do not come prepared, and within two months are left on the street," says Puerto, who has led an effort to bring food and clothing to these Puerto Rican families. "They don't get jobs quickly, they don't come with the language or with the necessary documentation. It's like taking a suitcase and saying, 'I'm going on vacation'. That's the major problem, and that's why so many families end up in a difficult situation".

According to Yamira Johnson, a Puerto Rican who also helps families with Feed and Fortify, the trend is due to a lack of information on the island about what a family needs to settle comfortably in Florida, like a fixed income, enough money to pay three or four months' rent, several official I.D.’s and a good credit history.

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"Those who don’t have good credit end up in hotels," Johnson explains, adding that the motels provide free services such as electricity, water and maintenance, and they don't ask for credit history or deposits.

On the island, entrepreneur William Alemán saw the need for information for Puerto Ricans leaving to the mainland. He created Florida Expo in 2014, an informative conference for those who are considering moving.

"If you're guided, if you make well-informed decisions, it can be done," said Alemán, who has already produced four conferences on the island. "First you have to know English, and have at least six months' salary, or leave having a job already set up. But most important is that you're not misinformed when you leave."

Conference attendees list various reasons for leaving the island, such as 12% unemployment, the lack of federal funds for healthcare in Puerto Rico, and the Zika outbreak.

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Thousands of Puerto Ricans have attended the four Florida Expo events, which provides information on education, business development and health programs available in Florida. For the first expo, which took place in March 2014, more than 10,000 people registered; for the second one about 22,000.

No going back

But, like Ruiz, a growing number of Puerto Rican parents who have come to live in the Orlando area motels prefer their new reality to the idea of returning to the island.

"I spoke with my children and asked them if they want to return to our country," says Ruiz. "They don't want to because here they haven’t heard a single shot. Here they don’t see so much crime. And they love the school."

For Ruiz, life in Kissimmee has been a struggle. She pays $70 a day for taxis to commute to and from her job at Walmart, where she makes $10 an hour. Since her arrival, she has requested government assistance in order to save some money and get a home, but it hasn't been a simple process.

"I applied for food stamps, I applied for housing. They denied housing because I had to have lived here six months in order to qualify ... they took a month to give me food stamps," she says.

Ruiz paid $256 a week in a hotel where she lived for months. She recently moved to a more expensive hotel - without cockroaches.

Though she has considered returning to Mayagüez, Ruiz is certain she'll soon find a permanent home in Central Florida. "My children ask me, 'Mommy, when will we get a house?' They don't understand. Sometimes I have to cry in the bathroom because they can’t even imagine that I cry, they see me as a strong person," says Ruiz.

She's excited at how quickly her seven year old daughter has learned English: "In that respect, I feel very satisfied because my children are achieving what I wanted, they are getting educated."

Ana Maria Rodriguez contributed with the interviews in this article