Two weeks ago, Daisha Rivera was living on Puerto Rico’s north-central coast, where her family had trouble finding clean water a month after Hurricane Maria.
Thursday night Rivera joined other new students for a communal embrace at Wilbur Cross High, the new academic home for 10 other hurricane evacuees as well.
Rivera, who is 17, is a senior at Cross. She now lives with relatives in the Hill and is working on applying to colleges like Yale and University of Connecticut, where she hopes to study nursing.
NHPS’s Student Services department organized Thursday night’s event to offer to support to students and families who have recently arrived in New Haven after fleeing the destruction wrought by not just Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico but also the Sept. 19th earthquake near Mexico City.
Hosted at the Wilbur Cross High School auditorium and organized by Principal Edith Johnson, school social worker Lissette Agosto, and New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) social work supervisor Johanna Samberg-Champion, the event, called “A Night of Healing,” featured musical performances, mental health counseling, and motivational speaking directed towards Hispanic evacuees of recent natural disasters who now find themselves living, working, and going to school in New Haven.
Over the past few weeks, the public school system has taken in over 60 new students whose families have relocated from Puerto Rico to the Elm City because of Hurricane Maria.
Principal Johnson said that 11 of those 50 new Puerto Rican students have ended up at Wilbur Cross, which has a total student body of 1,514. Cross has also received three new students from Mexico and one new student from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Johnson said that 58 percent of the school’s student body is already Latino. She has set up a program whereby current Spanish-speaking students at the school are paired up with recently arrived Puerto Rican and Mexican students, and can therefore offer them support and guidance as they get acclimated to attending high school full time in New Haven.
Before the event began, Rivera spoke with the Independent about living in her home town of Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, during and after Hurricane Maria hit on Sept. 20.
“It was really an eye-opening experience,” she said. “Because you had to adjust to everything that you normally take for granted. It was hard to find places with clean clothes, clean water, clean food.”
She said that, even before the storm hit, she had been planning on coming to the mainland United States to pursue higher education. The hurricane, and the devastation it wrought on the island, made that transition happen sooner than she expected.
She left Puerto Rico with her cousin’s mom on Oct. 20 and came to New Haven to live with her mom, her cousin, and his parents. Her father stayed behind in Puerto Rico to look after her grandparents.
“It’s been very liberating,” Rivera said about finding safe haven and resuming her education in the Elm City. “It’s been very calming.”
Aleicha Maury, 17, and Jose Feliciano, 17, two cousins who are also new students at Wilbur Cross after fleeing Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, joined Rivera to tell the Independent their story of surviving the storm.
“It was something horrible, to be honest,” Maury said.
She and her family lived in the small, north-central city of Florida, Puerto Rico. After the storm hit, she said that her stepfather lost his job as a chauffeur, and her family lost their home. She remembered the winds during the storm being so strong that one house on her block nearly had its roof blown off.
“It was horrible,” Feliciano agreed. “I didn’t like it at all.”
Maury and Feliciano left Puerto Rico on Oct. 11 and are now living with extended family in New Haven and adapting to school at Wilbur Cross.
Rivera and Maury then found seats in the auditorium as a range of student performers, educators, health professionals, and spiritual leaders took the stage to entertain and offer support to the school’s newest members and their friends, families, and peers.
The dance team from Wilbur Cross’s international club performed a lively flamenco number that ended with the students unfurling individual banners that spelled LATINOS across the stage.
“We’re just representing where we come from in order to help bring people together,” Wilbur Cross junior Alondra Rodriguez said before joining her classmates for the dance.
Cross Choir Director Daniele Storey-Carson led a small group of students in an a capella performance of La Borinqueña, the Puerto Rican national anthem.
Luis Rios, a marriage and family therapist at the Fair Haven Community Health Center, followed the student performances with a brief message on the medical resources available to New Haven’s newest newcomer population, particularly for those who may be suffering from some sort of PTSD after surviving the storm.
“Some people may be having nightmares,” he said. “Some people may be having flashbacks. Some people may not be sleeping at night. That sticks with us.” He said that resources like the Fair Haven clinic have doctors and mental help therapists on hand who are able to help people talk through their stress.
Pastor Hector Luis Otero of Una Iglesia Para La Ciudad in Fair Haven gave the keynote address. With NHPS staffer Pedro Bermudez, Jr. translating from Spanish to English, Otero offered an animated, extended riff on a parable about an old, poor man and his horse, highlighting again and again the story’s message that even the most dire of hardships can contain hidden blessings.
“In Puerto Rico, where I’m from,” Otero said, “there’s a saying that there’s no wrong that can’t have something good come out of it, too.”
“Mexico is a blessing,” he continued, as the sparsely filled auditorium stood up in applause. “Puerto Rico is a blessing.”