The largest Puerto Rican population may be in New York, but to get the attention of federal officials and presidential candidates, a group of Puerto Rican activists and officials are betting Florida’s Puerto Ricans carry more weight.
Puerto Rican members of Congress, activists and others from around the country are convening in the central Florida city next week to rally attention to Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis and other issues regarding the island nation and Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland.
By being there, rather than New York, they are demonstrating the shift in power in the Puerto Rican community as newcomers from the island realign the demographics of Florida as a battleground state in the primaries and the general election.
“Picking Florida was a strategic decision by the congressional delegation (of members with Puerto Rican roots),” said Edwin Melendez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York.
“We realize how important Florida is as a swing state and all this attention, all these candidates going to Puerto Rico … We want to make the homeland (the U.S. mainland) the battleground,” he said.
Ironically, what is making Florida’s Puerto Rican population and the issues of all Puerto Ricans nationally a focal point are the problems in the commonwealth leaders hope to solve.
The goal of the two-day gathering is to come up with a “national Puerto Rican agenda,” including strategies for addressing the island’s $72 billion debt and a looming health crisis.
In the past, about 80% of Puerto Ricans were "Nuyoricans" living in NY. Now that's only 20%, and there's a growing number of "Mickeyricans" - Puerto Ricans living in the Orlando, FL area.
There have been bills introduced to allow the island to restructure its debt through Chapter 9, like Detroit, but these have languished in Congress.
“The federal government is not doing much to help with Puerto Rico’s financial crisis and meanwhile, people are leaving the island at a rate unseen since my parents left in the 1950s,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, who will speak at the gathering.
Other subjects being hashed out at the meeting include calling for a repeal of the 1920 Jones Act, which requires U.S. mainland vessels built by U.S. workers to be used to ship goods in and out of Puerto Rico. This makes island shipping costs much higher. A number of economists and legislators have argued for its repeal.
“The whole point of the national agenda is to tell the American public and elected officials and candidates for elected office … even though we care about local issues, we also are concerned about what is going on in Puerto Rico,” Melendez said.
“We do demand from the Congress - and the president - action, and the other people who report to him, we want action,” he said.
Puerto Rico’s population has been dropping since 2006, but the shrinking sped up from 2011-13, with about 50,000 a year leaving, according to Pew Research Center.
Today, about 5.2 million Puerto Ricans live on the U.S. mainland compared to about 3.4 million living in Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. territory.
Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., who is attending the gathering, said it is a good way elevate the Puerto Rico crisis in the 2016 presidential race. “Given that Florida is a battleground state with over a million Puerto Ricans living there, the message is clear that you ignore the Puerto Rican community at your own peril."
People living in Puerto Rico are American citizens by birth, so when they move to the mainland, they are voters, as long as they register.
In addition to coming up with solutions, those who gather in Orlando plan to work on a voter registration and mobilization plan. The hope is to register Puerto Ricans to vote not only in Florida, but also in Pennsylvania, Cleveland, North Carolina and cities throughout the South, Melendez said.
“Maybe in the old migration (of Puerto Ricans), we were more leaning toward Democrats, but in Puerto Rico, the elections go back and forth between Democrats and what would be Republicans (on the mainland),” Melendez said. Current migrants “are more conservative,” he said.
“This is a a message to both parties; our vote is up for grabs. Republicans, you have an opening,” Melendez said. The only Puerto Rican member of Congress who is Republican is Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho, who was not scheduled to be at the gathering.
Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, based in New York, said the growing Puerto Rican population in the U.S. has been increasing division in the community over the issue of whether the island should become a state, remain a commonwealth or be independent.
There have been issues that have brought the community together, such as opposition to the Navy's use of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a test bombing site. This Navy ended operations there by 2003.
“The [financial] crisis has kind of forced Puerto Rican activists to think a little differently and see the importance of getting together as a community,” Falcón said.
That has its challenges.
In the past, about 80 percent of Puerto Ricans who lived in the U.S. lived in New York. Now New York is home to about 20 percent of the population.
Florida, with about 18 percent, has the second largest concentration of Puerto Ricans. Orange County, Florida, which includes Orlando, is the county with the third largest Puerto Rican population in the country, 149,457 as of 2010, behind two New York counties, according to Pew.
Along with Puerto Ricans born on the island who have relocated to the U.S., the community also has included people who identified as Nuyorican – Puerto Ricans from New York.
The issues of P.R. need to become mainstream issues in the larger U.S. Latino community, says political scientist Angelo Falcón. "The clock is ticking on Puerto Rico."
There are now also what are often referred to as Mickeyricans, a reference to Disney World in Orlando, Falcón said. The population change means that organizing the Puerto Rican community - once done largely within a packed city - must now be done in a sprawling suburban setting.
Falcón said for the community to have any impact on Congress or on elections that could possibly change who controls the Senate or increase Democratic power in the House, the issues of Puerto Rico need to become more mainstream issues in the larger Latino community.
One indicator of the need to raise awareness is the petition begun on the White House’s “We The People” website.
To get a response to the petition from the administration, 100,000 signatures are needed. The petition was started on Sept. 10 and had a deadline of Oct. 12 to meet that requirement. As of Oct. 7, it had only 3,682 signatures.
“A lot more has to be done in terms of reaching out to Mexican Americans and Cubans,” Falcón said. “The clock is ticking on Puerto Rico.”