Desiree Torres fled Puerto Rico six months ago. Now she and her family are fighting to make a new home in Central Florida 

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click to enlarge Desiree Torres serves her friends a traditional Puerto Rican meal - PHOTO BY MONIVETTE CORDEIRO
  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
  • Desiree Torres serves her friends a traditional Puerto Rican meal

FEBRUARY

On a warm February night, you could smell Torres' kitchen all the way down the street.

On one side of her small motel stove, she was making fried adobo-marinated pork chops in a small pan. In the back, she had sautéed homemade sofrito with hot dogs, red beans and potatoes to make habichuelas guisadas. Toward the front, she was perfecting her white rice by drawing out extra moisture with hamburger buns. In a repurposed plastic Publix cream cheese container, she mixed her secret garlic dressing for the salad.

Things finally seemed like they were turning around.

Yadiel offered to stay home from school to watch Ramsses so Torres could go to a job interview at a cleaning company, but she found a babysitter. The interviewer told her she had too much experience to just be a housekeeper – she could be a supervisor. The job was cleaning large, apartment-style villas at the Wyndham Cypress Palms, in front of the big orange-shaped tourist shop in Kissimmee. The pay was minimal – $26 to clean one large villa, $22 to clean the medium villa and $13 for a small villa.

Torres didn't have a car yet, so she'd have to take the bus. And FEMA had extended her voucher until March 20.

Still, she had enough energy left to cook 16 meals for her family, her neighbors and a gay couple who had recently moved out of the motel. John Cruz and Johny Luciano Otero had gotten jobs as soon as they came to Kissimmee from Puerto Rico but could never keep them – the Lynx bus system couldn't take them all the way to work. By a stroke of luck, they were able to get $13-per-hour jobs at Disney World and buy a car.

Torres made them lunches to take home while they played with the next-door kids, who came to hang out in her apartment while they waited for food.

"Some of these kids don't eat habichuelas at their house," Torres said proudly. "But they'll eat mine."

The next day, Torres got up early to tackle a pending problem.

She sat down with a large accordion binder and pink notebook filled with documents, forms, notes and business cards from different Florida agencies. Torres struggled to pull the packed binder out from under the coffee table.

"They throw a lot of information at you at the disaster center inside the Orlando airport, but they don't really tell you what it means," she said.

She'd signed up for the WIC program but was also trying to get SNAP benefits. Officials at both the Florida Department of Children and Families and CareerSource told her that to get SNAP, she had to sign up for an employment and training program at Employ Florida and complete about 80 hours per month of "work activity hours," such as paid work or volunteering.

She managed to fill out most of the information on her cellphone – she couldn't fill out forms at the CareerSource office because they wouldn't allow kids inside, according to Torres. But the state website was rudimentary and confusing even for Torres, who speaks English. On the phone, she grappled for hours, switching between case managers at DCF and CareerSource to figure out the problem. She watched a mandatory introduction video twice – the first time, the video froze, so she had to start over.

"Give me a moment," she said at one point. "I need a break."

She lit a cigarette and sat in an armchair she had moved outside. Later, Torres would learn she didn't have to sign up for Employ Florida at all – that requirement only applies to adults without children under 18.

"There's no clear path," she said. "They just give you papers and papers and papers and papers. There's so many people coming here with depression from Puerto Rico, and now we're in another depression here."

Torres was still on the phone with case managers at 2 p.m. when Yadiel came home.

"Mai, I got a good grade on my test," he said.

"That's good, mi amor," Torres said, distractedly looking down at her papers. Suddenly, she stopped.

"I'm sorry, mi cielo," she told him. "It's just – mom is trying to do something. Good job at school."

On Feb. 28, Torres turned 31. She didn't have a party, like she would have done in Puerto Rico with her family and friends. She felt homesick, but she didn't want to go back.

"I would love to return," she says. "I would love to be with my island. But even though I'm going through so many situations here, I don't want to go back. I feel calm here. I don't have that stress I used to have in Puerto Rico."

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