WISCONSIN DELLS — Six former residents of Puerto Rico are working at Ho-Chunk Gaming-Wisconsin Dells and plan to make their stay here permanent.
Jose Serrano and Daniel Reyes moved to North Freedom near Baraboo in September to stay with a friend. They were already working at Ho-Chunk Casino when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, two weeks after the island took a hit from Hurricane Irma.
After the hurricanes, Zuleika Martinez Diaz also moved to North Freedom with her three children and started working at the casino. She, Serrano and Reyes are dishwashers. Diaz had plans to leave Puerto Rico before the storms hit, as Serrano and Reyes had.
The three speak Spanish and their boss, casino lead cook Angel Artripe, acted as translator for this interview. Diaz said she was scheduled to fly out of Puerto Rico the day after the hurricane, but the flight was canceled. The airport and its runways had been damaged in the storm. Later, she and her children were able to get on board one of the military rescue planes that brought her to the U.S. mainland.
Puerto Rico has been losing population for years. In the last decade, it lost 40,000 people in some years, a trend that accelerated in 2016 when about 84,000 people — almost 2 percent of the U.S. territory's population — left their homes on the island. The reasons, according to a CNN story, were lack of opportunities, especially for young people, and quality of life. The island, whose residents are U.S. citizens, has a huge debt and has been described as being in a recession for 10 years. The population exodus has swelled in the aftermath of Maria.
They are leaving because the situation on the island has become dangerous, Diaz said. She spoke of the stench of death on the island and how it was hurting people’s health.
Immediately after Maria hit, the death toll was put at 16, but that figure has been disputed, and now news stories and researchers have put the death toll at more than 500.
Other reasons for leaving are that two months after the hurricanes, 40 percent or more of the island is still without electricity. Roads are still blocked, Diaz said.
Serrano, who returned to the island for a visit after the hurricanes because his mother was ill, also said there was a lot of damage. He said “in isolated places,” people have no food.
Diaz said that many people have no jobs and markets are raising prices. In some places, bags of ice are being brought in to help people keep food cold, but people are not being told when the ice will be available.
President Donald Trump has not been much help, the three say. Social media has helped, and news reports often show that the situation is improving, but they said when they talk to their families, that is not so.
Many of those leaving the island have gone to Florida, but Diaz, Serrano and Reyes came here because friends in North Freedom. Serrano and Reyes are still living with friends, but Diaz has moved into an apartment in North Freedom.
Because of the language barriers, Artripe helped the three through the hiring process. David Abangan, public relations spokesman for the casino, said that when Diaz learned she had been hired, she started to cry because she was so relieved.
The three are dependent on their friends and co-workers for transportation since none has yet been able to afford a car. They also are sending money and supplies to family back in Puerto Rico. They can talk to their families there when cellphone service is available.
Even without cars, the three plan to stay here permanently because they like their jobs. Artripe also likes them as workers. He said he has been cross-training them in different positions within the kitchens and the three have passed the safe-server certification required by state law.
Artripe, who used to live in the Bronx borough of New York City, said he will be “bumping them up to prep cooks and cooks” shortly. He said the three are some of the best workers he has.
The three have also invited six of their friends in Puerto Rico to join them here, and Abangan said the casino needs the help. It currently has signs up outside the complex on Highway BD between Lake Delton and Baraboo advertising job openings.