Fort Worth

How a Puerto Rican family found happiness and hope in Fort Worth after Hurricane Maria

Wilfredo Colon works on a tattoo for Arturo Escalona. Colon is a 42-year-old tattoo artist who moved to Fort Worth from Puerto Rico in December after his city was left without electricity and water after Hurricane Maria in September. Now he has his own tattoo parlor called Latinos Tattoo.
Wilfredo Colon works on a tattoo for Arturo Escalona. Colon is a 42-year-old tattoo artist who moved to Fort Worth from Puerto Rico in December after his city was left without electricity and water after Hurricane Maria in September. Now he has his own tattoo parlor called Latinos Tattoo. rmallison@star-telegram.com

Wilfredo Colon never expected to call the Fort Worth area home.

The 42-year-old tattoo artist from Bayamón, Puerto Rico, loves how functional the city is. How nice people are. How safe he feels.

“I like the orderliness here,” Colon said in Spanish. “The first time I saw a broken traffic light, each person, without a police officer in the street directing, took turns at the intersection. Everyone is so organized.”

Leaving nearly everything behind in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, tattoo artist Wilfredo Colon, 42, was able to open up his own tattoo parlor just three months after arriving in Texas.

Colon, his wife, Carmen, and their three children relocated to Tarrant County at the end of December, 212 months after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean. The storm left nearly all 3.4 million of the island’s residents without power, clean water and food.

Half a year later, parts of the island are still without basic services. The Army Corps of Engineers estimated that electricity would be restored to 90-95 percent of the island by the end of March. However, it could be mid-April to late May before it's restored in hard-to-reach places.

Officially, power has been restored to 93 percent of Bayamón. But Colon says otherwise.

“To this day, six months after the hurricane, there’s no water or electricity in my house in Puerto Rico,“ he said. “The best move I made was this: moving to Texas.”

A diaspora redefined

For many of the island's residents who survived, including the Colons, the hurricane itself was not as bad as the two months that followed. Not only were their cars underwater, but fallen trees and other debris also made the roads impassable. And rising crime made the island feel unsafe.

Colon and his family are among the estimated 135,000-plus Puerto Ricans who have relocated to the United States since the storm, according to the City University of New York Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Researchers from the center estimate the total could reach 470,000 by 2019.

The biggest share of the hurricane refugees have relocated to Florida — and it was for that reason that Colon and his family decided against the Sunshine State. A friend told him about a nice, quiet city in Texas called Fort Worth. She had recently moved there with her three children and had easily found an apartment.

“I asked her what it was like and she said it was very different from Puerto Rico,” Colon said. “Here they follow the rules more strictly, and that’s how I decided [where] to move. It took us a month and a half to get the plane tickets to leave the island to get here.”

He was self-employed as a tattoo artist in Bayamón, but after Maria, with no electricity, he couldn't do his work. Having a backup generator wasn't the answer either.

“You had to wait in line, sometimes for 12 hours, just to get gas," he said. "And sometimes the gas truck didn’t even come. So after 12 hours, you had to go back home without gas.”

But as difficult as the storm had made their lives, leaving the only home they've ever known was no less scary.

Carmen Colon, a nurse, said they arrived with next to nothing: 10 suitcases filled with clothes for five people and supplies for her husband's tattoo work.

“It was really hard to leave because I had a stable job at a well-known hospital in Bayamón, and I had to leave it all to start a new life from zero,” she said. “The hardest part was leaving my family. My parents, my siblings, all of my family is there. The only ones here are my husband, my kids and our one friend who encouraged us to come to Texas.”

The family had to leave everything else behind, Wilfredo Colon said, pausing to fight back tears.

“And to fly here with the kids, to start a new life," he said. "To see what would happen.”

New aerial footage from the National Weather Service shows the scale of the damage wrought by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The footage from eastern and central Puerto Rico shows the devastation the Category 4 hurricane caused to entire neighbor

'Una nueva vida' (a new life)

Today, Colon is happy and looking only toward the future.

The family found a home in Saginaw, and his tattoo studio in Benbrook is a family affair. He’s the main tattoo artist, while Carmen manages the finances and helps him book appointments. His oldest daughter, Paola, 19, handles the social media marketing and promotion. Their Facebook page has over 24,000 likes, and most of their clients come to them by word of mouth.

“It’s not a job, really,” Colon said. “I’m enjoying it here. Each client feels at home. I treat them as if I’ve known them for a long time. Each day is a different challenge because each client has their own request and style. That’s what I like most. It’s not monotonous.”

They've decorated Latinos Tattoo to remind them of the island. Near the entrance is a Puerto Rican flag and other pieces of artwork hung up on the gray-blue walls. On one counter is a candle holder shaped like a dragon with a candle lit burning incense oil. The discography of Puerto Rican reggae band Cultura Profética plays in the background. Colon can be found at his computer working on designs for a client, consulting Carmen and Paola about the business, or teasing a client about how much the tattoo is going to hurt.

Colon said he feels thankful that in just three months he’s been able to start his own business. The best gift he got for his birthday on January 6, he said, was his license to tattoo from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

While not speaking fluent English can be a challenge for Colon, he said he’s fortunate to live in a place where he’s always able to find someone who speaks Spanish to help him out. Paola also helps translate, but she won’t be around as much when she goes back to school. She was studying accounting at a university in Puerto Rico before Hurricane Maria. Next semester, she’ll start classes at the University of North Texas.

That’s why Carmen Colon has taken up English classes herself, to help the business. She loves that the couple gets to spend so much time together. In Bayamón their work schedules never matched up. She and her husband barely saw each other. Here, they’re a team.

Most of Wilfredo Colon's customers are Hispanic. They feel more comfortable talking to him and explaining their visions, and he loves being able to openly give them advice on tattoos and work with them on designs. Many clients come in wanting tattoos related to their cultures or the countries they come from.

“Given that I’m Latino, it makes it easier for people to have a dialogue with me" in Spanish, he said. “Lots of people miss their countries and sometimes they see [tattoos] as the only way to be close to their country. Every time someone asks me for something cultural, I try to come up with something new for that person.”

Sandra Aguiniga, a Fort Worth mother of three who was born in California but raised in Michoacán, Mexico, got her first tattoo ever on February 3 from Colon. Almost two months later, she has seven.

One tattoo on her shoulder is a symbol of her upbringing: Half is a flower from California and the other half is the monarch butterfly (because Michoacán is home to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a U.N. World Heritage site).

Aguiniga said she learned of Latinos Tattoo on Facebook. She liked how clean and professional everything looked from the photos. When she came in for her first appointment and saw it was a family business, she felt even more comfortable. She liked that Carmen and Paola were involved.

Most of all, she was relieved to find an artist who spoke Spanish.

“You trust him a lot more because I don’t know English either,” Aguiniga said. “Sometimes I would hesitate because I didn’t know how to explain to the tattoo artist what I wanted if they didn’t know Spanish. They weren’t going to understand what I wanted. Here we speak the same language and he gives you ideas.”

Colon says the United States really is the land of opportunity. In starting life over again, he’s begun to appreciate even the most mundane encounters.

“When you go to the supermarket and someone bumps into you and says 'sorry,' that’s strange,” he said. “And that’s what I most like about Fort Worth. I don’t think I’ll leave. I’m here to stay.”

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