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Puerto Ricans in Florida: the ‘outsiders’ with a powerful swing vote

Puerto Ricans have left behind the island amid financial crisis, but language barriers and xenophobic rhetoric leave them feeling cast aside in the mainland

For the citys 66 million annual tourists there are parts of Orlando that you cant help but see: the Mickey Mouse-shaped street lamps; the citys enormous ferris wheel and billboard after billboard hawking the new Harry Potter attraction at Universal Orlando.

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But theres another Orlando that, like Disney Worlds utilidors, you wont see in the trip from the airport to the theme park, unless you go looking for it an Orlando with more Spanish moss than palm trees, one with dozens of little lakes, and train stations to ferry people to work rather than the Magic Kingdom.

Almost 48% of companies here are minority-owned and nearly 30% of the population is Latino. In Osceola County just south of Orlando, where housing is somewhat less expensive 48% of firms are minority-owned and 49.7% of the population is Latino.

That number is growing, in part spurred by a recent influx to Florida of Puerto Ricans fleeing the effects of the financial crisis on the island. The Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration regional office estimates that 1,000 Puerto Rican families relocate to Florida every month; as a result, the state is poised, for the first time, to edge New York out as the state with the most Puerto Ricans.

And though many Puerto Rican voters in Florida are focused on the financial crisis on the island, that doesnt mean that theyre unconcerned with the rhetoric around immigration and Mexicans, as epitomized by statements made by people like Donald Trump.Like many Latinos in the US, they know full well that most white Americans who run around insulting Mexicans are using it as a substitute for Latino.

Orlando Rodriguez, 41, inside Lechonera El Jibarito #2, a Puerto Rican restaurant. Photograph: Bastien Inzaurralde for the Guardian

Real estate broker Orlando Rodrguez, 41, spoke in Spanish, concerned that his English wasnt good enough and his accent too thick. When Im speaking to an American, if I dont speak properly sometimes they get annoyed, he explained. Thats what Ive mostly come across, he said, in terms of overt, individualized racism.

Americans dont see us as US citizens; Americans see all Latinos as Mexicans. Just like we think all Asians are Chinese they could be Korean, Japanese, Indonesian but we see them and think theyre all Chinese. Lots of Americans see [Latinos] as all the same.

And though this issues that individual groups of Latinos might be different from Cuba policy to the financial crisis on Puerto Rico, and from immigration enforcement to raising the minimum wage they all eventually find themselves bound together by their daily experiences. They arent all the same; yet they too often all get treated with the same basic disrespect.

Jose Martinez, 35,like many Puerto Ricans, has very fair skin. I look American, from the States, he explained. [But] when I start talking in English, I have an accent. He was at a cousins wedding on Cape Cod a few years ago, waiting to play pool and, when I came to the table, I changed the rules to the Puerto Rican way and the guys were cool with it, but the bouncer, [he heard] me, threw me out.

That was only his first time: When I worked with Fema [after Hurricane Sandy, inspecting housing damaged by the storm], when I went down to Queens, stayed the night and [the residents] looked at me normal until I started speaking and then they knew I was Puerto Rican.

But I was working for the federal government, so they were respecting me because I was doing the inspections. If not, you know what happens.

Julie Torres, 32, thinks that race plays a role in the way many white Americans view not just Puerto Ricans or just Latinos, but the whole relationship between the US government and Puerto Rico. There is a history of racialization that I think that does impact how we view Puerto Rico as kind of this other, this other entity, this other culture, this other people, that could come into play, the doctoral student said. I mean, people think American, [they think] white America.

Tania Irizarry: Everything has to do with the political system and with colonialism. Photograph: Bastien Inzaurralde for the Guardian

But unlike the 11 million undocumented immigrants Donald Trump has promised to deport in his first two years in office, Puerto Ricans are US citizens, and eligible to vote, whether they live in Puerto Rico or on the mainland.

In a swing state like Florida (where George W Bushs official margin of victory in 2000 was just 537 votes) an influx of thousands of Puerto Rican voters who lean Democratic could definitely swing Floridas 29 electoral college votes in November.

About 400,000 of people of Puerto Rican extraction now live in Orlando; many of the most recent arrivals speak limited English, which prevents them from obtaining comparative jobs in the fields they left behind on the island but, with taxes and the cost of living going up and jobs disappearing there as a result of the ongoing financial crisis, they see few alternatives to building a new life on the mainland.

Martinez is one of those recent arrivals: apologetic about his accented but near-perfect English, he explained that he moved to Orlando in mid-April. Though he was a real estate broker on the island, his license didnt transfer, so hes working in construction temporarily. I had a good job down there, he said over traditional Puerto Rican food at Lechonera el Jibarito #2, but when I was seeing what was going on, I decided, Im going to jump the hoop and see what happens.

Julie Torres, 32 (from left), Tania Irizarry, 39, Jose Martinez, 35, and Orlando Rodrguez, 41. Photograph: Bastien Inzaurralde for the Guardian

Rodrguez and elementary school teacher Tania Irizarry, 39, moved to Orlando 10 months ago with their five-year-old son for similar reasons though the financial crisis was, for them, just the final frustration with a political system rigged against most of the residents.

The ordinary people have to bear the brunt of the situation, Rodrguez said. They have to put up with bad health and education services and with crime. Job prospects arent good. Crime levels are through the roof.

But, it doesnt matter [to the politicians] what state our education or health services are in, he added. Theyll fall over themselves trying to win the election and run the colony because theres money in it that theyre going to earn; theyll share it out amongst themselves and theyll be fine. Everyone else can go to hell.

Irizarry, who was able to transfer her teachers license from the island and now works as an assistant teacher, says that the educational system and the lack of access to information holds back many of the people on the island. Everything has to do with the political system and with colonialism, because youre only taught one part: the part thats in the interest of whoever wants to keep control of the country, she said in Spanish, though she is fully fluent in English.

Torres, who wasborn in the Bronx of Puerto Rican extraction, moved to the city from Illinois as part of her doctoral research into Puerto Rican migration patterns.

Like Irizarry, she sees the echoes of American colonialism in both the economic crisis and the lack of access to services like education that most Americans all but consider their birthright. I think that we do need to recognize just how the deeply rooted history of colonialism on the island has impacted Puerto Rico and the economy and all these different facets, she said.

Esteban Garcs, 35, doesnt want ignorance to be a problem for the Puerto Ricans moving to central Florida. Born in Washington, DC to a Bolivian immigrant, he is also a recent transplant to Orlando, where he works as an organizer with Mi Familia Vota, helping educate Latinos about their rights and getting them to the polls. But after stints in DC and Boston, Massachusetts, where immigration issues are paramount, he says that large Puerto Rican population in and around Orlando isnt as focused on immigration: like Rodrguez, Irizarry and Martinez, theyre very focused on what Congress is or is not doing to end the financial crisis on the island.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jul/09/puerto-ricans-florida-election-immigration

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