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Sean Kirst: In Western New York, worried mayor can't reach mother after hurricane

Willie Rosas is thinking about his mother's advice, more than ever. Twenty months ago, Rosalia Rosas flew home to watch as Willie was inaugurated as the mayor of Dunkirk in Chautauqua County.

It was an unforgettable moment. Willie's parents were born in Puerto Rico. In Dunkirk, with a population of not quite 12,000, he became the first Latino in state history to be elected mayor of a city. Willie, a retired state trooper, has no doubt that his mother felt tremendous pride, but she also refused to allow even an achievement of such magnitude to go to his head.

"She pulled me aside and told me, 'Don't ever forget where you come from,' " Willie said. He knew exactly what she was talking about. About 60 percent of the children in Dunkirk's schools are of Latino heritage, Willie said. Most are Puerto Rican.

In the weeks after he was elected, people in difficult circumstances – men and women who often spoke little English – were showing up at his house at all hours of the day, seeking help.

Willie was surprised, a little overwhelmed. When his mother arrived for the inauguration, he told her about those unexpected visitors at his house. That's when she offered her advice. She reminded him of how their own family got started.

"She was saying, 'These people are poor, and remember what it was like to be down there,'" he said. "She told me, 'These people need help, and now you're in a position to do it.'"

He's been contemplating those words all week, at City Hall, as phone calls to his mother go unanswered.

Update: Schumer to try and help Dunkirk mayor find mom in Puerto Rico

Rosalia, 79, is in Puerto Rico. Willie and his brother Hector Jr., the city's coordinator of festivals and special events, have been unable to reach her for almost a week, since Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Much of Puerto Rico is without electricity. Violent winds snapped power lines like string. Phone towers were leveled by the storm.

Mayor Willie Rosas of Dunkirk, left, and his brother Hector Jr. check their phones in July on the city's boardwalk. Since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, they've had no luck in reaching their mother, who retired there. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Their mother lives near Hormigueros, where she built a home in retirement. Willie said thousands of Puerto Ricans in Western New York have ties to that community. Their parents or grandparents, struggling economically in Puerto Rico, were drawn to the Upstate countryside by farm work or jobs in regional factories. They eventually settled in this region, to build better lives.

As a young woman, Rosalia journeyed to Dunkirk to join her husband, Hector Sr., who'd found work on the railroad and would later spend his career at the old Red Wing Co. Rosalia is a small woman who was born with scoliosis, which caused a curve in her back. She also suffered from osteoporosis.

Willie and Hector Jr. both speak with respect of how their mother was left on her own when their father died of a heart attack at 45.

"Nobody was getting rich in Dunkirk," Hector Jr. said, "but she did everything she could. She was just such a great lady."

[Sean Kirst: As film opens, recalling when Dunkirk, N.Y., helped Dunkerque, France]

Rosalia, a breast cancer survivor, would always awaken early, to fix her family breakfast. Then she would leave for a full-time job at the old M. Wile Co., where she worked as a seamstress. The duties caused agonizing pain in her back.

Yet she would come home to mend pants for people in the neighborhood as a way of earning a few extra dollars. She always found time to prepare dinner for her children, and to insist that they take care of their schoolwork. Her greatest aspiration was exactly what happened:

Julia, Hector Jr., Willie and Robert all earned college degrees. Relieved, feeling as if she'd done her job, Rosalia fulfilled a dream. She built a house on a hill outside Hormigueros, where she still has ample family. In retirement, she moved there with her second husband, Heriberto Valentin.

It seemed like a happy ending. Her children and grandchildren could visit whenever they had a chance. Occasionally, she flew back to Dunkirk and Buffalo.

Last Tuesday, as Hurricane Maria bore down on Puerto Rico, Hector Jr. and Willie both spoke by telephone to their mother. She reassured them. The rain had already started, but she had plenty of food. She had a generator and gasoline. Her house, she believed, would be above any flooding.

Her four children hope all of that is true, that she is fine amid the chaos after the storm. But they don't know. Power remains shut down throughout the island. Phone service is limited. Many airports are either closed or accepting only a tiny number of flights or landings with emergency help. The weather is hot, and there is no air conditioning.

The Rosas siblings keep calling their mother, and the phone keeps ringing busy. They received a call Monday from the staff of U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, in Buffalo, who promised to do "everything possible to help" after learning of the situation, said Jason Kaplan, Schumer's press secretary.

According to 2015 U.S. Census estimates, Erie County has almost 46,000 residents of Latino descent. Casimiro Rodriguez Sr., president of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York in Buffalo, said thousands of Western New Yorkers of Puerto Rican lineage understand, in an intensely personal way, the kind of anxiety involving relatives experienced by the Rosas family in the aftermath of Maria.

The council, Rodriguez said, has connected Puerto Rican communities in Buffalo, Dunkirk and Jamestown. It is leading an effort to raise money and to collect batteries, bottled water, candles, toiletries and other goods for those affected by the hurricane. Information is available at http://hispanicheritagewny.org/, and Willie and Hector Jr. said a similar, coordinated effort is underway through the office of Dunkirk City Clerk Edwin Ramos.

"Everybody's doing what they can to help," Rodriguez said, "but it's going to be a long process."

[Sean Kirst: Cuomo's words raise hopes in Dunkirk, a 'city of ghosts']

As for Hector Jr., he has a plane ticket to fly Sunday to Puerto Rico. He bought it long ago. It was supposed to be a pleasure trip, a vacation, to visit his mom.

Now it becomes an entirely different kind of mission. He hopes he can use the ticket to reach Puerto Rico. He hopes, once he gets there, he'll able to rent a car and go in search of his mother. He intends "to have a lot of supplies I can bring with me" for those in desperate need.

Still, he has no idea of what to expect. The New York Times reports that the Guajataca Dam, in northwestern Puerto Rico, is in danger of bursting. A river not far from his mother's home has reportedly overflowed  its banks, Hector Jr. said. He doesn't know how those conditions might affect his travel, especially in a countryside already littered with broken trees and shattered telephone poles.

It is a risk, but one he is eager to take. He understands that his mother, for his family, represents only one especially intimate example of the suffering and uncertainty endured by millions across the island. He and Willie have been recalling Rosalia's advice:

Remember where you come from.

Hector Jr. is praying that she'll be waiting for him there.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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