Mujeres Valientes: Leaving Puerto Rico Later in Life

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By Andrea González Ramírez

“I won’t leave if you don’t leave with me,” Sussette Pérez Moll’s partner told her five years ago. Her answer was certain: “Nos vamos.” We’re leaving.

He had found a job in Houston, Texas after finding himself to be unemployed in Puerto Rico. When they left the island, Sussette had never lived anywhere else. She was 61.

They are now married and own a house in the city. A retired lawyer and former public servant, 66-year-old Sussette now spends her days taking care of the house, going to the gym and going to lunch with her friends.

“I don’t really like Houston,” she said. “But you know that saying: when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.”

What drives a woman to leave the only home she’s ever known to try her luck somewhere else? The Center for Puerto Rican Studies set out to find out how unique their experiences are and what challenges these women may face when they cruzan el charco, or make the leap to the other side of the ocean.

Sussette Pérez Moll

Originally from the city of Bayamón, Sussette has been retired since 2006. Her daughters live in New York City and when the chance to leave came, she had already lost her father and was taking care of her mother. But moving away with her husband was a no-brainer. After all, it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up, though that didn’t make it easier.

“It’s been a very difficult transition. Can you imagine living 61 years in a place and leaving to go to a state you don’t know?” she said. “You’re starting from scratch. I’ve always thought this type of change should happen when you’re young.”

The most recent report by the Puerto Rico Statistics Institute showed that out of the almost 74,000 boricuas who left the island in 2013, more than 17,500 were 45 or older. This means that about 24 percent of those who moved had been in Puerto Rico for almost half-a-century.

Therefore it’s not surprise that to this day Sussette is still amused by how different Houston is from Puerto Rico. The distances are “incredibly long” between one place and the other, there’s none of the human warmth that characterizes Puerto Ricans and you don’t even get to see and even less get to know your neighbors.

“In my neighborhood I don’t know anyone, just the ones that live in the house across the street!” she said. “In Puerto Rico you can show up unannounced and people will give you a cup of coffee and chat with you.”

That has not stopped Sussete from being her usual boricua-self. (She describes herself as 66-year-old that feels like a 30-year-old.) The only Puerto Rican couple she knows in Houston was one she met in the supermarket.

“You know how it is, we seek each other!” she joked.

A sense of longing can be heard in her voice when she talks about going back with her husband to the island where for six decades she called “home.”

“Whenever I miss Puerto Rico, I buy a plane ticket and hop on a plane,” she said. “It’s my Isla del Encanto and I wouldn’t change it for a thing.”

She’s not the only boricua who feels like she wouldn’t change anything about Puerto Rico. Idalia Rodríguez believes that the island’s only definition is happiness.

Idalia Rodríguez

The 68-year-old moved to Los Angeles, California with her 90-year-old mother last October. Her daughter and son-in-law have lived in the city for a while, and she said the sole purpose of her journey was to bring her family together, no matter the costs or difficulty.

“I lived all my life in the same ten miles,” she said. “But after a month-long vacation at my daughter’s, I felt the kind of peace I didn’t have in Puerto Rico. I knew I had to take this leap of faith.”

Originally from San Juan, Idalia loves Los Angeles, even though she misses her friends dearly. Her group of friends has remained the same since high school.

“I miss picking up the phone and calling them to talk about nothing. I could just say vente pa’ acá and they would come to my house and we would cook together,” she said with a smile in her voice. “You don’t have that here, everyone pretty much keeps to themselves.”

Her mother has understandably struggled through the transition. She says, “you can’t see the sky and the stars like you see them in Puerto Rico,” according to Idalia.

“I know it’s not easy, but I’m her only daughter and it was my responsibility to take her with me,” she said.

Unlike Sussette, Idalia has no plans of going back to Puerto Rico. Her daughter will soon have a child and her son lives in Tampa, Florida.

“All of my family is here in the States,” she said. “Puerto Rico made me very happy, but there’s nothing calling me back there.”

But for many, the island will always be calling them back. Dalila Rivera, a teacher originally from San Germán, believes her time in West Allis, Wisconsin is just a parenthesis in her life.

Dalila Rivera

The 46-year-old arrived in the Midwest with her husband and 16-year-old daughter only nine months ago.

“It’s been a hard, challenging transition. It’s a lot of changes all of the sudden,” she said. “It’s the environment, the weather, the language. It’s not like I can say that we arrived here and President Obama was waiting for me in the airport! It’s been tough.”

But the positive experiences carry more weight than the negative ones for Dalila. She’s currently a pre-K teacher and many of her coworkers are boricuas who’ve lived in Wisconsin for decades.

“They are lovely. I even tell them to talk to me more in English than in Spanish so I can practice the language,” Dalila said.

The economic situation in the island and the lack of opportunities for the working class were among the main reasons Dalila and her husband left. They’ve had to get used to Wisconsin’s harsh temperatures, restructuring their budget and speaking a language that’s not their own, but Dalila still believes others should accept the challenge of leaving if that would make their lives better.

“There is a very complex situation in the island and even if I get nostalgic, I know this was the right decision,” she said. “We want to achieve some goals here so we can go back to the island we call home.”

These courageous women have never met and are thousands of miles apart. The one thing they have in common is the island they left but still love so much. When asked about what Puerto Rico means to them, Sussette and Dalila answered without missing a beat: “mi vida.” Idalia agrees. The island was and will always be their “life.”

How could it mean anything else?

© Andrea González Ramírez. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 11 March 2016.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.