Growing Puerto Rican Community Transforms Politics In Central Florida
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There are about a thousand new Puerto Rican families moving to Florida every month. They're leaving behind the island's troubled economy. As they are U.S. citizens, they can register to vote as soon as they arrive, and many of them are settling in central Florida, historically the swing region of a swing state. NPR's Asma Khalid reports on how their vote could affect the presidential election.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Betsy Franceschini remembers how rare it felt to find a fellow Puerto Rican in Orlando back when her parents moved here in 1979.
BETSY FRANCESCHINI: I remember my father getting real excited when he came here and somebody would speak Spanish. And he would, like - oh, my God, there's somebody here that speaks Spanish.
KHALID: Nowadays, you can hear Spanish spoken just about everywhere around Orlando.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).
KHALID: Walk up to this lechonera, and you can order Puerto Rican-style pork, rice and plantains. Then drive down the road...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).
KHALID: You can attend church services in Spanish. And then drive a little further...
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Spanish).
KHALID: And you'll hear waiters at this local restaurant burst into a birthday song, Puerto Rican-style. In addition to changing the food and the culture around here, Puerto Ricans have the potential to change the politics. Betsy Franceschini runs the local Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. It's kind of like the consular officer for Puerto Ricans in central Florida. They keep tabs on how many people are moving to town and what services they need. Franceschini says Puerto Ricans tend to vote Democrat, but...
FRANCESCHINI: There is a great amount of Puerto Ricans that are registered independent.
KHALID: Which means both Democrats and Republicans are trying to reach them.
FRANK TORRES: Now, the barricade between making progress - the public is making progress - is immigration.
KHALID: That's Republican political analyst Frank Torres.
TORRES: Puerto Ricans don't fall under the immigration umbrella, but they see that relationship and how it's being handled by the GOP as sort of the hints of the way other policies would be handled by that party.
KHALID: So David Velazquez with the conservative Libre Initiative is trying to focus on economic policies. He's knocking on doors this weekend in the overwhelmingly Puerto Rican neighborhood called Buenaventura Lakes.
DAVID VELAZQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KHALID: They're not pitching a particular candidate. They're offering services, like English classes, and selling a message.
VELAZQUEZ: We think that a limited government equals more opportunities for people to start a business, to rise up and have success in the country.
KHALID: And that philosophy does resonate with some Puerto Ricans, like Juan Salgado.
JUAN SALGADO: Well, I like the Republican because I prefer to small government.
KHALID: He moved to Orlando two years ago. Salgado says the number one issue for him this election is job creation, but there's another important issue.
SALGADO: I'm really worried about the situation in Puerto Rico. It's really bad.
KHALID: Find him a candidate with a solution to Puerto Rico's economic crisis, and that could influence his vote.
PHILIP ARROYO: Hi. My name is Philip Arroyo, and I moved here, like, a year and a half ago from Puerto Rico.
KHALID: I meet Arroyo at a social services fair. He's a democrat. He's manning a union booth, and all around us are Puerto Ricans enrolling in health care or learning about job opportunities.
ARROYO: I can see, you know, the inequality in terms of the way Puerto Ricans on the island are treated and the Puerto Ricans here are treated.
KHALID: Arroyo says it feels like the island is stuck in a colonial relationship, and Puerto Rico's political status is a top priority for him this election. There's a realization from both parties that Puerto Ricans will be important on Election Day, and there are massive efforts to register them to vote. In fact, right at the door to this fair is a voter registration booth.
I caught Tatiana Cesario just after she just signed up to vote and asked her which political party she chose.
TATIANA CESARIO: (Speaking Spanish).
KHALID: She tells me she didn't choose a party. She doesn't know much about any of the candidates and isn't even sure if she'll vote, and that may be one of the biggest hurdles for newcomers - basic voter education. Puerto Rico has completely different political parties. Local elections are held only once every four years, and Election Day is a public holiday.
RAFAEL BENITEZ: In Puerto Rico, politics is a fiesta.
KHALID: Rafael Benitez is a democratic activist.
BENITEZ: There are caravans. There is music. And here, you don't have that. You don't have that fervor.
KHALID: He wants to re-create that fervor - caravans and all - come Election Day here in Orlando. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.