Last month, CNN published an article regarding a sizable increase in Puerto Ricans migrating towards the United States. This was in response to the island's Institute of Statistics publishing a press release indicating a record number of the population emigrated from Puerto Rico in 2014.
These news always catch my attention - I moved from Puerto Rico over eight years ago and encouraged others to do the same. Considering the number of my friends who have left Puerto Rico in the last two years has noticeably increased, it doesn't surprise me at all. But as someone who still has plenty of family and friends living there, particularly my mother, I have a lot of mixed feelings.
I thought I would share my own story about why I left Puerto Rico.
I graduated from my university with a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science in late 2003. I was fortunate enough to land a job about a month later. The job was for an electronics recycling plant, and my role was initially focused on repairing computers. A month in, I was transitioned to being their full-time web developer when I was able to fix a few issues for the company's internal PHP site that was originally handled by a team of outsourced developers from India.
I worked as a web developer at that company for four years, mostly on my own. I managed to learn quite a bit managing that project. But the projects I was working on were small, and it was working relatively well (although I cringe thinking about how horrible my coding skills were at the time compared to what I know now). I was also met with pushback whenever I would try to do any type of maintenance or improving the current stack. This eventually led to a bit of unhappiness and apathy towards my day-to-day duties, and led me to make the decision to leave the only job I had known at that point and find something else.
I began scouring job postings for any type of work related to software development. The only problem is that I couldn't find anything. Software development jobs were scarce, and the few job postings I had found were either for legacy projects (like COBOL projects for banks) or Microsoft-based work (Visual Basic, Classic ASP, etc.). I had done enough Microsoft-centric projects while in college that I knew that I did not want to make that my day job. It was not just negative feelings towards Microsoft, just that my interests lay elsewhere.
At the same time, getting work in Puerto Rico seemed to be getting more and more difficult for everyone. The unemployment rate in Puerto Rico at the time was hovering at around 10%, but I felt it would be getting worse before it would be getting any better, which did happen a few years later.
Due to these factors, I decided to try finding work in the U.S. It was not an easy decision to make. I was born in Chicago and am fluent in English, but had lived in Puerto Rico for nearly 20 years at that time - most than two-thirds of my entire life. Even though I had been entertaining the thought of living in the United States for a while, actually taking action was a lot scarier than I thought.
I began emailing a lot of companies all over the United States. I received many responses, but many employers were not keen on the fact that I was still in Puerto Rico and would have to move for the job, despite my indication in my cover letter that if I were to be hired, I would be relocating. There were also cases where people did not know Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and thought I needed a visa. Additionally, there weren't as many tools available for interviewing someone remotely as there are now. It made things difficult when I did manage to get a prospective employer's attention.
Just as I was about to give up hope, I caught a lucky break. I sent my resumé to a startup based in New York City. As luck would have it, the founders (a husband and wife couple) would be traveling to the U.S. Virgin Islands, and had a nearly two-hour layover at the airport in San Juan. They asked if I was willing to drive to the airport on December 25th so that they could meet me and talk about working with them before they went on the second leg of their trip. I agreed and made the 90-minute drive to the airport in San Juan at 7:00 AM on Christmas morning, 2007. It went well, and at the beginning of 2008, they reached out and made me an offer.
I accepted, meaning that I would be leaving Puerto Rico.
January 25, 2008: That was the last day I was officially a resident of Puerto Rico. Since then, I've been fortunate to live in New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area and now in Osaka, Japan. It's pretty crazy when I think about how I've lived in a very diverse group of cities in a relatively short time span. And because I either lived or had interest in these specific places, I had the opportunity to meet my wife, which I would not trade for absolutely anything in the world.
There are two questions I've been asked from time to time: "Do you miss Puerto Rico?" and "Will you move back to Puerto Rico in the future?" For the first question, that's very easy. Of course, I miss Puerto Rico. Anyone who lives somewhere for almost 20 years will definitely have a strong connection and solid memories with that place. The majority of my family still lives there, as well as many of my closer friends. Additionally, the natural beauty of Puerto Rico and its unique culture and people are very special. In particular, I truly miss the traditions of Christmas. It was my favorite time of year, by far.
Unfortunately, the question about possibly moving back is also rather easy for me to answer - I don't think I will ever live in Puerto Rico again.
For all the great things I love and miss about my country, there are other things I don't want to get back to. Crime and violence are sky-high, which is terrifying and something I worry about each and every day with my family and friends still living there. The unemployment rate is still way too high (a little over 12% at this time - still lower than its peak of over 15% a few years ago). And although jobs have improved for my line of work, opportunities are still scarce compared to all the other cities I've lived in. Working remotely as I'm doing now is an option, but given that opportunity, I would rather live somewhere that can provide me with new and exciting experiences.
I can't blame anyone for leaving their friends and family, all in search for a better living. There are times you have to focus on what's best for you, even if it seems selfish. I have been very lucky to have been provided opportunities to work hard and flourish in many ways since I left, and I have no doubt that most of my friends who left will also find the same. But I wish that there wasn't a need for to have to leave Puerto Rico in the first place.
I'm not sure if things will ever get better on the island. Just yesterday, The New York Times published an article about a bill that might provide Puerto Rico with a much-needed assist. But even the article indicates that the bill has little chance of passing. Things have been on the decline for years now, and with the amount of young, skilled labor leaving for greener pastures, the future doesn't look too bright. Hopefully, the country will find a way to overcome these issues and the new generation can enjoy a prosperous life there without having to leave everything behind.