Ricardo O. Benítez Villamariona completed, during his youth, five years of engineering studies in Recinto Universitario de Mayagüez (RUM). As a true self-learner –as he puts it–, he taught himself graphic design and worked on the profession for six years.
He added to his resume professional experiences such as aviation mechanic in the United States Air Force, municipal agent in San Juan, life insurance salesman, and as employee for a signs company in Levittown, Toa Baja.
One day, however, with his emotions and financial woes resulting from the economic crisis, Ricardo –originally from El Salvador, but raised and trained in Puerto Rico– decided to seek that elusive economic stability which he so much urged outside of what he considers his nation. He boarded a plane and went searching for the so-called American dream.
Ever since two years ago, a truck is to Ricardo not only his means of work, but home. “As a truck driver, I go from state to state and my home is where I might happen to fall asleep,” he said during a telephone interview with this daily while driving his tractor-trailer truck to the state of Missouri.
The truck, which tows a 53 foot-long trailer, has, among other things, a bed, a small microwave oven, and a TV set. There he spends long, uninterrupted hours, transferring goods of every kind, from cereals to metals, and fuels, throughout the United States.
For other basic needs, the man uses commercial truck stops, where –for a low fee– he is allowed use of a room with a toilet, a seat, and a place to hang clothes. He doesn’t need a barber because he learned how to do it himself.
Ricardo, a father to two teenage girls, one 14, the other 19, admitted to never having imagined that, after studying and working for years in various fields, he would end up driving and living in a truck.
“I don’t feel uncomfortable because I save on many things, event rent,” he said.
However, attaining that financial stability has included endangering his physical integrity. “As truck drivers we are exposed to being robbed, whether for the goods we carry or for any cash we may have,” he said.
In order to protect himself, the former municipal police officer was forced to take out a permit to carry a firearm in the state of Florida, which is valid in 34 states of the nation. In the remaining states, he is contented with leaving it inside the truck.
“I carry my firearm. I keep it with me at all times... Thank God, so far I’ve not had any dangerous experiences, but I have seen in the news, about several cases where drivers are murdered, injured, even high jacked trailer-truck and all, and then they are just dropped off in the middle of nowhere, minus the truck,” he said.
Despite the risks and the implications involved in this nomadic life, away from the family, Ricardo stated not to regret having abandoned Puerto Rico.
“Out of love for my nation, I used to say that I would grow up and die in Borinquen (Puerto Rico). I didn’t wanna leave Puerto Rico. There is an essay called ‘Los cerebros que se van y el corazón que se queda’ (which roughly translates to ‘The brains that leave and the hearts that stay’). I felt so proud of myself, of being part of that heart that stays, but saw myself in such dire straits, so into debt, almost at the level of a depression, that I had to become one of those brains that leave,” he said.
The only thing he regrets, the man said, is not having left sooner for the United States.
On the road to exodus
The last stable employment Ricardo held in Puerto Rico was with the Municipal Police Department of San Juan. But as he said, the money was barely enough to survive.
“I lived to work. It didn’t matter how much over time I’d do, I always collected the same because I was under a salary … My paycheck was always the same. I’m talking about $700 every two weeks, free and clear for me, and I had to survive on that. With loans, sometimes I managed to go on cruises with my friends and (get into) some mischeive, but then came the responsibility of paying for the loan, while still having to deal with the bills and child care,” he said.
“In Puerto Rico, I felt that regardless of how much I worked, of how early I got up, I couldn’t get out of the hole, as we Puerto Ricans say,” he added.
After a decade in the capital’s police department, he decided to quit. He tried his luck at selling life insurance and sign-making, but –in a country already immersed in a severe fiscal crisis and a recession– his income kept shrinking ever so more. It got to the point where he didn’t even had money to please his little daughter when she would ask him to take her eating at a fast food restaurant.
Then, an acquaintance told him that several former police officers were working as truck drivers in the United States. “Honestly, my impression was: ‘trucks, nahhh!’. I had this image of a ‘trucker’ as a ‘bearded,’ dirty, and fat guy,” he recounted between laughs.
However, Ricardo travelled to Orlando, Florida, in search for an opportunity. There, he got a commercial transportation license and, right off, was hired by an American company.
“My first year here in the United States, I was able to take my daughters to Bush Gardens, something I never thought I could do while I was in Puerto Rico,” he pointed. According to Ricardo, with what he started making he was even able to pay his debts in Puerto Rico and even save a little money.
No place for homesickness
Despite the homesickness he feels from being away from his country, the now truck driver has no expectations of coming back to live in Puerto Rico.
The economic crisis, ever more fierce in the Island, frightens him. The city of Jacksonville, in the state of Florida, or in the state of Texas figure as the main options for the man to, some day, make a home for himself.
According to data in the Migrant’s Profile 2015, from the Institute of Statistics of Puerto Rico, during this year, 89,000 people emigrated from Puerto Rico to the United States.
Of those, 21,000 migrated from Puerto Rico to the United States with some post secondary education.
The five states that showed the highest net migratory balance in relation to Puerto Rico were Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Connecticut.
According to the analysis carried out by the Institute of Statistics of Puerto Rico, in the period between 2006 and 2015, some 445,000 citizens emigrated, exceeding the “Great Exodus” of 1945 to 1960, setting a new historic record. The projections point to continued growth in that figure.
However, not everything is easy for those who leave the Island, as the complex situations faced by Puerto Rican migrants, once they touch US soil, have come to light.
“Not everything is as they sometimes picture it, as Disney. People who come on vacation or to visit imagine this idealized Disney-like world. But it is not the same to come and visit and travel than to come to live and face a work-place that is tight in many places,” said anthropologist Jorge Duany, an expert on migration issues.
“This image that everything here comes easily, that the cost of living is low, that there is abundant work everywhere, has to be put into perspective because that depends on the place and on the industry in which the person is inserted,” added the professor of Anthropology at Florida International University, in Miami.
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