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Puerto Ricans who fled Hurricane Maria find a home in Pennsylvania's Amish country

The Amish "are a strong and united culture, and we can learn that from them," Carlos Manuel Cruz, owner of a mechanic shop in rural Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said.
A member of the Amish community works with horses in Lancaster, Pa.
A member of the Amish community works with horses in Lancaster, Pa.Maria Pena / Telemundo

LANCASTER, Pennsylvania — Evelyn Colón kisses the forehead of her mother, whom she cares for in her small apartment in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where they arrived from Puerto Rico three years ago after fleeing the devastation of Hurricane María.

Like thousands of Puerto Ricans, Colón is grateful for the new beginning, but still misses her island.

"It made me very sad to have to leave Puerto Rico," she explains, "I knew that I was coming to a place where one can do many things that perhaps could not be done in Puerto Rico, apart also for the health of my parents, plus, here I had my children and grandchildren."

Colón, 69, was busy preparing a party for her mother's 91st birthday with a cake full of candles.

Puerto Rican Evelyn Colón moved to Lancaster, Pa., to take care of her elderly parents, after being damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Her father died in 2019 without fulfilling his wish to return to the island.
Puerto Rican Evelyn Colón moved to Lancaster, Pa., to take care of her elderly parents, after being damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Her father died in 2019 without fulfilling his wish to return to the island.Maria Pena / Telemundo

Born in New York, Colón had moved to Carolina, Puerto Rico to take care of her parents, who were living in the island. She said she will never forget the arrival of Hurricane María — winds knocked down her fruit trees and destroyed two bohíos, or huts, that her father built as a young man — as well as the floods, blackouts, no water, and shortages of medicines and food.

"We prepared," she explains about the hurricane, "but no one imagined that it would be as it was. I started to pray, I thought, 'My God, this house is going to flood and I will not be able to leave' and my mother was in bed."

“The most terrible thing came later, seeing all that destruction. We threw everything we could into a briefcase, leaving everything behind. It hurts because you don't know when you are going to come back; Papi (her father) didn't want to leave his island,” she added, with tears in her eyes.

Now settled in Lancaster, her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, receives medical coverage. Her father died last year at 93. Colón no longer thinks of returning to the island.

Puerto Rico already suffered from high levels of unemployment, and the hurricane accelerated the exodus of many of its residents, mainly to Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The devastation drove out 125,000 Puerto Ricans in just one year, said Edwin Meléndez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York.

Meléndez predicted that, although many returned to the island in 2019, there will be another exodus to the U.S. due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

José Díaz, a retired Puerto Rican horticulturist and community activist, said that many displaced people have been able to successfully rebuild their lives but that it has not been easy. "Citizenship helps a little," he said, referring to the fact that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, "but they go through the same things as the rest of Latinos."

"They have come to a country that is in crisis," Díaz said, "they are displaced by climate change, by bad policies, and many may wish to return to the island." Yet they cannot find the help they were looking for.

Fusing Puerto Rican culture in "Amish country"

Hispanics account for almost 1 million residents in Pennsylvania, mostly Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Dominicans, according to CUNY, and thus make up 7.3 percent of the population, being the engine of more than 50 percent of the population growth in the last two decades.

Most have settled in the so-called Latin Corridor of Route 222, which includes rural Lancaster, home to the Amish, a Protestant group descended from Swiss and German immigrants who settled in the area in the 18th century. Many Hispanics either work with or for the Amish.

“The Amish have managed to preserve their culture, rejecting the influence of the outside world, and we Latinos dance our bachata even in the midst of the Pennsylvania Dutch," Norman Bristol Colón, founder and president of the Pennsylvania Latino Convention, said. "If there is any similarity, it is that we preserve who we are and where we come from.”

The Amish "can like a good chicharrón, (pork rind) a good pastry or a Colombian empanada, and the good thing is that our people can have an influence in some way, perhaps not completely influence a whole community, but one person at a time," he said with a smile.

The state's Amish population has grown from 44,620 in 2000 to 81,500 this year, according to the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies in Elizabethtown College. Half live in Lancaster County, where they make up 6 percent of the population.

At the same time, Latino businesses, such as restaurants, bakeries, auto repair shops and financial services companies, are flourishing in the area.

“I have seen an immense change in the Latino community here, many businesses. I am proud to see that a Latino takes risks when opening a business or to study,” Carlos Manuel Cruz, owner of a mechanic shop, said.

Cruz moved to Lancaster from New Jersey in 1990 to be closer to his family, and began selling used tires in 2011 in a building that the Amish originally used to make carriages.

“I've seen people go through hardship as they adapt, but many people who come from Puerto Rico are quickly working, studying; now you're seeing their economic, political strength," he said.

The Amish "are a strong and united culture, and we can learn that from them," Cruz said.

“To my surprise, when I opened the business I saw that most of the clients are Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Guatemalans; I feel like I'm in Puerto Rico. I quickly got used to the environment, the climate,” José A. Rivera Aguirre, who runs the Torres Family Bakery, said.

Linked by work, businesses

Hundreds of Amish-controlled businesses abound in the area, including farms and ranches, furniture manufacturing, quilt and craft stores and tourist services, employing family and neighbors.

The construction industry is an area in which younger Amish may work with Puerto Ricans, but it does not extend to social activities. Though the Amish are a large community, "a person can live and work in parts of Lancaster County and not have much interaction with them," Steven Nolt, the acting director of the Young Center at Elizabethtown College, said.

The Amish do not live in the city, Nolt said, but in their own communities.

Jack Meyer, an Amish of Chilean descent on his grandfather's side, explained that the relationship centers around business and labor primarily due to the cultural differences. The young Amish members' social life centers around events organized by their churches, as well as sports and hunting.

Meyer owns Aaron & Jessica Buggies, which offers rides in those iconic horse-drawn carriages that are part of a culture centered on faith and family and that rejects automobiles and other modern luxuries.

The Amish people are made up of descendants of Anabaptists and Mennonites who fled persecution in Europe in the 18th century. In Lancaster County, each group observes different rules regarding the use of clothing, technology and family life.

The Amish of the “old order” do not use electronic devices or appliances, or electric lights in their homes, and they hire drivers, many of them Latino, only in cases of emergency.

"They see us as people who like to work, who do not complain about work — their treatment is very cordial, they are very aware of the work and if you are a good worker, that's how they reward you," Mónica Luna Urban, a Colombian store owner, said.

"They work hard"

Half an hour from Lancaster, in the town of Bird in Hand, on the Old Pennsylvania Pike, Meyer's company was serving dozens of tourists last Saturday who, despite the leaden sky and a drizzle, asked for a carriage ride along narrow roads, to appreciate the bucolic landscape.

Sporting a typical beard, straw hat and simple clothing, John King offers a tour to an Amish farm, to explain his family history and the Amish vision of Latinos.

“My son was a bricklayer and he worked with Hispanics, as drivers or workers, and he told me that they work hard," King, whose Swiss ancestors settled in Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s, said. "I don't see why there can't be a good relationship. I think they live more like us than other non-Amish neighbors, because some grew up in the countryside."

Latinos "see that we lead a simple life, although some think that we sacrifice something with that," King said. "But we do not feel that way — we feel that it is a privilege."

An earlier version of this story was originally published in Noticias Telemundo.

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