Puerto Ricans fleeing island's troubles find an unlikely haven: Camden

Carmen Rios holds her son, Jetxiel, in her apartment. The mother of four, who relocated to Camden last year, says the city is safer than Puerto Rico.

Ramon Colón felt trapped in Puerto Rico.

He was making $7.55 an hour working in hospital maintenance. His wife had lost her job when her employer went out of business. Colón was forced to switch his teenage children to a public school because he could no longer afford private school tuition on the island.

"I tried to stay in Puerto Rico and contribute with my grain of sand to help the island, but like many others I was forced to abandon ship," said Colón.

So he moved in February - to Camden.

The city may be beset with problems, but that's not how Colón, 39, sees it: "Over there I was surviving, here I am living."

He's making $11.50 an hour in the shipping department of an auto parts supplier. His wife, Mayrie, has a factory job. Cherry on top: They're paying less in utility costs.

The Colóns are not alone in singing the praises of Camden. Some of the recent Puerto Rican migrants note that although jobs may not be plentiful, their children have better education opportunities. Others find the city, despite its well-known troubles with crime, safer than the neighborhoods they left.

Helping the Colón family make the leap from the Caribbean to New Jersey were his six brothers and sisters living in Camden and Philadelphia.

One of his sisters helped enroll his children in high school, secured him and his wife the higher paying jobs, and found the family an apartment on Chestnut Street in South Camden. Their neighbors are mostly Puerto Rican and their support made the move almost seamless, Colón said.

The Colóns are among tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have left the U.S. territory, which is grappling with a $69 billion debt crisis, an 11.3 percent unemployment rate, and the highest poverty rate in the United States. About 64,000 people left Puerto Rico for the mainland in 2014, contributing to the island's 9 percent population decline since 2000, according to the Pew Research Center.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, which eases their migration to the mainland, where more than five million Puerto Ricans live.

New Jersey saw its Puerto Rican population increase by more than 7 percent between 2010 and 2014, from 426,298 to 459,793, according to the Census Bureau. New Jersey is home to the third largest Puerto Rican population in the states, behind New York and Florida.

In Camden, the Puerto Rican population grew by nearly 11 percent to 24,028 between 2009-2014, despite an overall population decline in the city. Puerto Ricans are about a third of the city's population.

Many of the recent arrivals have not been able to shed poverty.

Brenda Moyet, 41, left Puerto Rico in November 2011 to escape a violent ex-husband. Moyet, along with her three children and current husband, Hector Aponte, lived in three New York City homeless shelters before settling in Camden last November.

Aponte, 43, is diabetic, bipolar and schizophrenic, and puts his Supplemental Security Income toward the $800 rent of their East Camden home.

Their landlord recently put the house up for sale, plunging their housing situation into uncertainty. The family of five relies on $560 in food stamps and on food banks.

"Many undocumented immigrants think that because we are citizens of the United States everything is easier for us, but it's not like that," said Aponte.

Their limited knowledge of English was frustrating at first, Moyet and Aponte said, but other Spanish speakers in the East Camden community eased their assimilation.

And despite their precarious economic situation, Moyet said she prefers living in Camden because her children are better off.

"Education, health care, welfare - everything is better than in Puerto Rico," said Moyet, who lived in public housing there.

Before moving to Camden, her son Raymond said, friends told him the city was unsafe. But Raymond, 18, said: "I feel safe. I guess it depends who you hang out with." He plans to attend Camden County College in January.

Despite barely knowing English when he arrived at 14, Raymond picked up the language quickly in school. At Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, he developed a knack for art, which is what he wants to study in college.

"It's not that I don't like Puerto Rico, it's just that I have more opportunities here," Raymond said.

The median household income of Puerto Ricans living in Camden County in 2013 was $28,809, roughly half the county median, but higher than Puerto Rico's median of $19,624.

Many Puerto Ricans migrating to Camden are low-wage, uneducated workers who have a difficult time finding jobs, says Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, a public policy professor at Rutgers who was born in Puerto Rico.

"They're coming to add to the unemployment line, to the welfare line, but they do have choices for good schools," said Bonilla-Santiago, founder of LEAP Academy University Charter School.

City Councilman Angel Fuentes, 55 - who left the island as a child and noted that the first wave of Puerto Rican migration to Camden was back in the 1950s - expects the new arrivals to find jobs with the companies being lured to Camden by tax breaks.

"I'm sure Puerto Ricans hear that Camden right now is experiencing a sort of renaissance with all these big companies coming to the city," he said.

Raymond Lamboy, president and CEO of the Latin American Economic Development Association, sees an economic positive in the Puerto Rican influx in a city that is otherwise shedding population.

But in one regard, he says, the community lags some fellow Hispanics.

"I haven't seen an uptick in Puerto Rican business ownership," Lamboy said.

Bonilla-Santiago attributes this in part to a culture of dependency that she says is a legacy of the island's colonial past.

"I usually see two types of cases," said Jocelyn Román, a case manager at Puerto Rican Unity for Progress. "There are those that have no income and apply for government assistance. Then there are those that arrive with the intention to find a job and actively seek employment agencies for help."

Carmen Ríos, 29, first moved to Camden in 2010 because her then-boyfriend lived in the city. She returned to the island because she couldn't get used to Camden - "I had to learn everything myself" - but moved back to the city last year.

"Here I can walk more safely than in Puerto Rico," the mother of four says of her East Camden neighborhood, speaking in Spanish like many of those interviewed. "I can let my children run in the park without worrying."

Although Puerto Rico has seen a decrease in homicides - from 1,136 in 2011 to 584 in 2015 - violence is still an issue there. Back there, Ríos recalled, there was a murder in her housing project.

Carlos Mattei and Elizabeth Class don't quite fit the mold of the new arrivals, except that they, too, have found Camden hospitable.

Both have degrees in architecture, but the 10-year recession in Puerto Rico was hurting their job prospects there. When they were offered teaching positions at LEAP Academy in August last year, the married couple left their homeland for Camden.

"We risked it, accepted, and here we are," said Mattei, 33, who directs the innovation lab at the charter school.

Mattei recalls doing a Wikipedia search and being alarmed by Camden's homicide rate. They quickly realized their apartment by the waterfront was a safe little "bubble."

"I miss the people, my family, my social circle, but at a professional level here I have more opportunities," said Class, 29, who works at LEAP's art center. "At a professional level, I don't regret moving."

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