LARES, Puerto Rico - Puerto Ricans in a town two hours west of San Juan have taken over an abandoned school and transformed it into a makeshift apartment complex for people who didn’t have a place to go after Hurricane Maria.
Dalia Castillo Latorre was sleeping in her car with her husband and barely eating. They would go into a motel for hours at a time with the little money they had. She had no idea what they would do next until she heard about an abandoned school in the mountains.
What used to be a classroom is now her apartment.
“It's crazy how you can transform it in your personal area, in your home,” she said.
Such also rings true for Anthony Maldonado, who went to school at Manuel Rojas Luzardo from ages six to seventeen.
“I never thought I'd be living here,” he said.
Now he has everything he needs, including safety ahead of the next hurricane season. He knows that because the facility is where he spent Hurricane Maria.
The school in the Bartolo neighborhood had been abandoned since 2015. The city still owns the land, but the people living there now didn’t have time to ask permission to use it. They opened the gates and started cleaning and painting it. Seven families are living there now and seven more are coming.
“We occupied the school,” said Elisa Sánchez Torres, one of the community leaders. “One of the leaders told me we need to do something for the people who have been abandoned.”
They knew they could put this space to good use, and so far, it has all been possible thanks to private donations.
“Everything that we need is coming to us since day one,” Sánchez Torres said.
The next step is to become self-sustainable. They plan on doing it right in the school.
“We said 'wow, it's a big school, we can dream big,’” she said.
They're growing food, raising animals, creating a catering business, building a coffee shop and creating art they can sell.
“I'm going to be really happy when I start making cakes, doing painting, and can win some money,” Castillo Latorre said.
She has a degree is in computer science but hasn't had a job since the hurricane.
“I studied a lot for nothing,” she said.
Her husband left to find landscaping work in Massachusetts.
“It's strange but I feel like it still smells like him so I sleep in his corner,” Castillo Latorre.
He'll be back in eight months, but in the meantime, she will busy giving shape to their new life along with a community that didn't have to rebuild, just remodel.
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