Achieving economic stability is typically the main reason that many Puerto Ricans migrate to the U.S. mainland. At the same time, thousands return to Puerto Rico annually, describing their homecoming as "a dream come true."
After 22 years abroad, married doctors Sheila Perez Colon and Lionel Lazaro Collazo decided to practice medicine in Puerto Rico.
“We always wanted to return to the island, but we couldn't find the way,” Lazaro Collazo told VOA. According to the orthopedic surgeon, attending medical school and building a practice led the couple to live in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. "It hurt us a lot when our daughter asked us why she wasn't born in Puerto Rico, if the whole family was from the island."
Data from the 2020 Census showed Puerto Rico’s population at 3.2 million, with an estimated 11.8% decrease over the preceding decade. Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans residing on the mainland reached 5.8 million, making them the second largest Hispanic population in the continental U.S.
“We always had Puerto Rico in our hearts, sometimes even with a bit of guilt for not being able to be there,” Perez Colon said.
A pediatric endocrinologist, Perez Colon said the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing isolation led them to return home. The couple arrived in Puerto Rico with their 10-year-old daughter in June 2022.
“Knowing there’s a great need for specialties like ours in our home country, while you are providing that expertise elsewhere and not back home, brought us back,” she said.
They say their biggest concern was the salary disparity of medical professionals in Puerto Rico compared with the U.S.
“That’s a reality that no one can deny. But we are prepared. We knew what was in store for us. We knew we were going to have a lower salary, but we would be rewarded to be with family in a place that satisfies us,” Perez Colon said.
For Lazaro Collazo, it was also an opportunity to give back.
“This was my dream, where I wanted to be to be able to offer my services to my people again,” he said. “What better than two well-prepared specialists who are bringing needed services to the island.”
A total of 17,859 Puerto Ricans moved back to the island in 2021, according to the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics. Two years earlier, 24,531 returned, one of the highest numbers in the past decade.
According to the Pew Research Center, 2017 hurricanes Irma and María were determining factors in the exodus of Puerto Ricans, as they sought safety on the mainland. In the year after the hurricanes, Puerto Rico’s population dropped by 3.9%.
“The mid-2000s marked a turning point for the island's economy when it entered a recession from which it has not recovered,” the Pew study said. “Since then, many Puerto Ricans have left the island for the U.S. mainland, particularly Florida, often citing work and family-related reasons.”
For identity and art
For more than 30 years, Isaida Ortiz Rosa and Angel Valentin Concepcion lived on the U.S. mainland. Their story began in 1987, when they met on a bus. He was on his way home after a trip to Miami. She was on her way to university. A few years later, they married and decided to start their lives outside of Puerto Rico.
Ortiz Rosa, retired from a government job on the mainland, is dedicated to poetry, a passion she kept alive during her time away from home.
“I have been writing poetry since I was young,” she said. “I used to write on receipts or napkins and put them in a drawer, but in the U.S. I got my voice back. Working in the government, I used to write and go to poetry venues, but it wasn't until 2006 that I began to recite what I wrote.”
Her love for the written word began at school, when a drama teacher gave her a poem. But she recalls “there were other priorities.”
“My parents were building houses—we were poor and talking about the arts was something very strange.”
Valentin Concepcion, a photojournalist by profession, agreed that “all art is a luxury that the working class, who struggle day by day, cannot afford.”
“In my case with photography, my parents were government workers, lower middle class, and buying a camera was not something that was in the budget,” he said.
His plan was to spend two years in the U.S., but said, “When 20 years passed, I realized I had lived half my life abroad and that it was time to go back. I was always looking for the opportunity to return to Puerto Rico.”
The couple returned to Puerto Rico from South Florida in the summer of 2021, motivated by the deaths of close relatives and incidents of workplace harassment and racism experienced in the U.S.
“I noticed that co-workers looked at me with disgust,” said Ortiz Rosa. “When I speak in Spanish, I express myself much better.”
Like his wife, Valentin Concepcion says he felt like "a foreigner" once he left the island.
“I went to the U.S. thinking that I was American, and I didn't have information about the racial history of the U.S., what it meant to be a Latino with American citizenship,” he added. “I always felt like a visitor, like an immigrant in the U.S., I never assimilated as an American.”
Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens by birth since 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act into law. The island has been U.S. territory since 1898, when Spain ceded it after the Spanish-American War.
Now, this couple sees a future filled with positivity. They plan to distribute food and supplies in low-income communities as needed. They also intend to spend their time planting fruit and taking photographs.
"I think that I wasted a lot of time in the U.S. without giving Puerto Rico something from me, of what I have learned," Ortiz Rosa said. That feeling prompted her to start doing community work with youth groups, to teach them through poetry. “Let the youngsters see: ‘She left but she is now here, helping, doing something for the country.’”
"I say goodbye without perfect surrender to oblivion, because my heart already belongs to this my Puerto Rican land," says one of her poems.
"Although I was pushed north, here on the island I grew up, I lived and now I reside."