This week’s Encuentro Nacional of the Puerto Rican diaspora was a gathering of historic proportions for the local and national Puerto Rican community. For the first time ever Puerto Rican elected leaders from about eight states – including congressional representatives Nydia Velázquez of New York, Luis Gutiérrez of Chicago, José Serrano of New York (via Skype), Brendan Boyle of Philadelphia and Central Florida’s own Alan Grayson – came together to demonstrate the potential strength of the Puerto Rican voter and also examine solutions to the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico, weighed down by $70 billion in debt and a sagging economy that includes a nine-year recession.
Going forward the onus is on the 300 or so leaders and activists at the meeting, held in the newly refurbished Centro Borinqueño (formerly the Asociación Borinqueña) in east Orange County, to create a plan of action, to show that this was not just another conference of talking heads and pundits but a serious stab at resolving issues both aquí and allá , at being agents of change.
The moment is pregnant with possibilities. For one, the Puerto Rican population of Florida now numbers more than 1 million, generating a shift in focus – and hope – to Orlando, where Puerto Ricans are concentrated.
“We don’t appreciate the magnitude of the moment that we’re going through in Puerto Rico and the diaspora,” said Edwin Meléndez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, who attended the gathering. “We’re growing faster [in the states] than other Latinos … and that trend is not going to stop.”
Puerto Ricans are fleeing the island in unprecedented numbers –perhaps as many as 50,000 this year alone – plus Puerto Rican migration from other states has produced “a realignment” of the stateside Puerto Rican community, currently focused on Florida instead of New York, he said.
High Expectations of ‘Floriricans’
The high expectations of “Floriricans” to exercise their emerging influence, such as voting in presidential elections, sadly, is a reflection of the lack of tools and thus power of islanders to come to their own aid during one of the most severe economic crisis Puerto Rico has ever faced. Puerto Rico has only a nonvoting member of Congress to represent more than 3 million people and no presidential vote, save for in primaries. The same Congress removed Puerto Rico from the federal bankruptcy law back in the 1980s, limiting the island’s ability to negotiate with current creditors.
Only Reps. Gutiérrez and Serrano mentioned the gorilla in the room that was studiously avoided to prevent the meeting from disintegrating: the island’s hobbled political status as a commonwealth of the United States. “Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States,” Serrano said. “Lots of things won’t change. Puerto Rico has to make a decision.”
GOP Left Out
Orlando’s Puerto Rican community, too, has decisions to make: Will it crumble into factions or will it unite for a cause(s)? As soon as the disapora reception started, complaints surfaced on Facebook that the gathering was dominated by Democrats and no invitation had been extended to Puerto Rican GOP members. It’s probably no coincidence that on the same day, Columba Bush held a private meeting with other GOP followers in the offices of La Prensa newspaper organized by state Rep. Bob Cortés, a longtime friend of the publisher and a newly annointed GOP bulldog.
“I was not in attendance at this event nor invited. I found about it the next day on FB,” said Diane Velázquez, the first Hispanic commissioner of Apopka. “Rather then focusing on the exclusion of some of our Hispanic elected officials, which occurred at this event, I will applaud the success in bringing together many community leaders to strengthen the power of the Hispanic vote in the upcoming primaries and local elections in Florida.”
What Elected Officials Pledged To Do
• Create an organization of Puerto Rican elected officials to push for change on the island
• Push Congress to include Puerto Rico under federal bankruptcy law
• Eliminate the uncompetitive cabotage law under which Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Guam must use U.S. shippers, which are more expensive and push up the price of goods
• Remove limits on Medicare and Medicaid funds destined for Puerto Rico, where islanders pay full Medicare and Social Security taxes
˜ María T. Padilla, Editor