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For Jonathan Soto, dealing with hurricane 'survivor's guilt' and finding new purpose in Holyoke

Jonathan Soto left Puerto Rico in 2017 after Hurricane Maria and arrived in Holyoke, Massachusetts, not knowing much about the city's deep Puerto Rican roots.
Jill Kaufman
Jonathan Soto left Puerto Rico in 2017 after Hurricane Maria and arrived in Holyoke, Massachusetts, not knowing much about the city's deep Puerto Rican roots.

Four years ago this week, high school teacher Jonathan Soto left Puerto Rico and made his way to Holyoke, Massachusetts. He was among the thousands of Puerto Ricans who evacuated from the island after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

After the storm, Soto’s family considered themselves lucky, he said. But it was traumatic, and it's left a mark. 

“Everyone who went through that and even those who were here [on the mainland] and had family in Puerto Rico, we have all that trauma still of just those few hours,” Soto said, "not even counting the rest of the days that came.”

There are moments Soto can talk about easily and there are things that he can barely talk about, he said, like in the days after the hurricane when his brother’s whereabouts were unknown.

His brother, a pharmacist, lives about two hours from San Juan. Because most communications systems were down, they had no way to reach each other.

“[It was] about a week later,” Soto said, his voice cracking, “and he just came and he hugged my mom and he brought water and things.”

In Puerto Rico, Soto was a high school teacher in Morovis. The hurricane wiped out an important bridge in town, he said. For weeks, there was no running water or electricity. Kids and teachers tried to get back to normal, Soto said, but it was impossible. 

Even before Hurricane Maria, Soto and his wife had talked about coming to the mainland.

“But we didn't really want to do it because, like, if we're OK in Puerto Rico, we're OK. But we were not OK anymore,” Soto said.

Some of Soto’s coworkers lost everything he said, and many of them eventually moved.

“Not as immediately as I did, but they’re now — one is in Maryland and another one is in Texas, and Florida, of course,” Soto said.

Soto came to western Massachusetts via a family friend who was eager to help. But Soto’s “survivor’s guilt,” he said, was almost immediate.

“We’re thinking like, ‘Hey we’re taking this hot shower and we’re drinking this beer’ and my mom has no electricity,” Soto described.

Soon after arriving in the area, Soto was hired to teach at the high school in Holyoke, a city he said he knew nothing about, includingnothing about its large Puerto Rican population.

At first, he was just glad to be bilingual in a place with lot of Spanish speakers, and like the good history teacher he is, he dug deep into Holyoke’s Puerto Rican heritage. 

“Selfishly, right, [addressing] some of that survivor's guilt — now I was teaching students who came from Puerto Rico  who needed a teacher like me, someone that understood them, understood their language and was looking out for them,” Soto said.

This role gave him a sense of purpose again, Soto said.

While he and his wife are no longer together, she also lives in the area, Soto said, and they remain supportive of each other. He’s also made some good friends, many of them from Puerto Rico. If they were all still on the island, they may not have connected. But when you’re all part of the diaspora, Soto said, it unites you.  

“We all want to go back to Puerto Rico someday,” Soto said. “This is something even the people I know that have been here like almost all their life [want to do]! But I think that there’s a lot more for me here, in terms of what can I what I can do in my school, in the community.”

Maybe one day he can take all he’s learning in Holyoke and use it in Puerto Rico, he said.

“We’re always hopeful,” Soto said, “there's more for our little island.”

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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