From Puerto Rico to Iowa

Families settle in Marshalltown; some to escape hurricane damage

Coming from Ponce, Puerto Rico to Marshalltown has been tough but rewarding for families who made the journey. Some, like Eugenia Hernandez and her children Jeremy and Emma Badillo, came here in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. From left: Woodbury Elementary first-grader Eliw Rivera and his mother, Xiamara Hernandez; second-grader Jeremy and first-grader Emma with their mother, Eugenia.


It has been over three months since Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on the island of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea, and some families from the island found their way to Marshalltown late last year.

“[It was] ugly, but it wasn’t so ugly in the center part of the island,” said Eugenia Hernández from the city of Ponce on the south side of the island. “But trees fell, the light posts fell … the river overflowed in our area, there were a lot of houses de-roofed.”

She and her two children, 7-year-old Jeremy Badillo and 6-year-old Emma Badillo, came to Marshalltown in November of 2017 as a result of the damage to infrastructure and lack of electrical power in Ponce. The children are now students at Woodbury Elementary School, where Spanish is spoken half of each school day.

“There are still sections where, even right now, they don’t have electricity,” Hernández said of Ponce, adding she knows of at least 40 families from her area who left in the storm’s aftermath.

Woodbury Principal Anel Garza said Hernández and her children are among a small group of Puerto Ricans who have arrived in Marshalltown since the hurricane. Along with Jeremy and Emma, she said five other children have recently arrived at the school from the island.

“A couple of families already had family here,” Garza said, adding Jeremy and Emma’s cousin, 7-year-old Eliw Rivera, was already attending Woodbury when they arrived with their mother. “Here, in school, they seem to be doing well; I think they’re comfortable because at least half their day they can comprehend what’s going on … because of the Spanish.”

Xiamara Hernández, Eliw’s mother and Eugenia’s sister, arrived in Marshalltown from Ponce last September.

“I think that the cold has been the most difficult, since it’s really warm over there (in Puerto Rico),” she said, adding learning English has also been difficult, but that she is learning quickly. “We like Marshalltown; it’s calm, it’s family-oriented.”

Jeremy, Emma and Eliw were in agreement that the snow and going to school were the things they enjoy most about their new Central Iowa home.

“I like the school and I like the snow!” Eliw said, adding he also likes living in Marshalltown.

Emma said she liked Woodbury’s half-day of Spanish, and she and Jeremy both said the food served at the school is different than the food they ate at their school back home.

“They all came very well prepared as far as academics … the families brought all their records with them,” Garza said, adding she was told the storm seriously damaged many of the students’ schools in Puerto Rico. “All of these families did tell me ‘We had to come because our kids were not going to school, and we wanted them in school.'”

She also said the bitter cold that has swept through Marshalltown has likely been shocking to the new residents, and that cultural differences do exist.

“I’m sure the weather is a complete shock,” Garza said. “They still have different customs, different ways of doing things, compared to the majority of our kids here.”

She said most of Woodbury’s students are originally from Mexico and have a very different cultural background from their Puerto Rican classmates; she added the children seem to be happy in their new environment.

“Every one of them will say ‘Hi’ to me in the hallway and they’ll have a big smile, which is very important,” Garza said.

Additionally, Woodbury currently has two English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers from Puerto Rico, and Garza said one of those teachers will facilitate a support group for the students to help them acclimate to Marshalltown.

Neither of the Hernández sisters have had a chance to go back to the island, and both said they miss home.

“Change isn’t bad, every once in a while,” Xiamara Hernández said, adding with a smile “I can get used to the cold.”

Both women said they have plans for their new life in Iowa.

“I want to find a good job and purchase a home,” Eugenia Hernández said, while her sister said she wants to study to become a nurse. The women and children spoke to the T-R, in part, through a translator from the Woodbury staff.

Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm last year, and is estimated to have done billions of dollars in damage to the island’s infrastructure.


Contact Adam Sodders at (641) 753-6611 or