Monthly Archives: March 2017

3 posts

Welcome Workshops for Puerto Rican Migrants

The welcome workshops or “Talleres de Bienvenida” help Puerto Ricans and other migrants to acclimate to life in Florida./ photo credit: Sami Haiman-Marrero

Welcome workshops for Puerto Rican migrants will return to Central Florida in a series of classes starting in May after a year-long hiatus in 2016.

Samí Haiman-Marrero and others created the welcome workshops, known in Spanish as Talleres de Bienvenida, in 2014 to help Puerto Rican migrants learn the ropes of Central Florida.

Puerto Rico’s economic distress is pushing many people toward the exit doors, much the same way that extreme poverty and lack of economic development forced hundreds of thousands to flee during the 20th century.

A big difference is today’s migrants overwhelmingly choose Florida – and specifically Central Florida – over other states, a reflection of the demise of manufacturing in the Northeast, once a big draw.

How will migrants acclimate to life in Florida? Do they have a handle on the cultural changes? Will they thrive?

There are over 1 million Puerto Ricans in Florida, although not all come from the island. Obviously, hundreds of thousands of people already have settled down. But there are many examples of families in crisis.

Kids Caught in the Middle

“They are faced with living in a new place where everything is completely different,” said Haiman-Marrero, who is particularly concerned about Latino families living in shelters. “When they’re living in shelters that means they can’t take living in cars anymore. What breaks my heart is the kids. They are caught in the middle of this,” explains Haiman-Marrero, who runs her own marketing firm called Urbander.

Sami Haiman-Marrero addresses a workshop audience. /photo credit: Sami Haiman-Marrero

Six workshops were held, three each in 2014 and 2015, topping 140 people per workshop on good days. But she took a break in 2016 because of the “craziness” of an election year.

The workshops, open to all newcomers not just Puerto Ricans, cover issues such as housing, transportation, education, health care and how to find a job – “key things anybody needs to know if they move to a new country.”

Puerto Ricans aren’t exactly moving to a new country since all are U.S. citizens and Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory. But in many respects island newcomers do behave like immigrants due to language differences.

Nearly 90,000 people left Puerto Rico in 2015, the highest annual migration figure reported in the period between 2006 and 2015, approaching historical proportions. There’s a good chance that migration may strengthen as new austerity measures are enacted on the island.

Shorten Learning Cycle

The workshops are aimed at shortening the learning cycle. “Instead of it taking a year or two, it takes six months” to acclimate, she explained. “We want to make sure they have the information that can help them better manage the stress.”

Moving is one of the top stress-producing life adjustments, according to psychologists and moving specialists, no matter whether it’s a corporate relocation or a personal one. People are uprooted, their sense of self is shaken. Financial resources may tighten. Children watch parents closely for signs of distress. Public and even familial empathy often is in short supply.

Haiman-Marrero and her then partners, Nancy Shariff and Jackie Méndez, got little empathy in 2014, when they held a taller in San Juan billed, “Florida Expo: World of Opportunity.” About 8,000 people showed up for the three-hour workshop.

Expo Disaster

The “expo” was not their idea, but it was too late. The show had to go on. Local critics charged they were inviting more Puerto Ricans to Central Florida. On the island some said they were  exacerbating Puerto Rico’s financial crisis.

Young workers are over-represented among migrants – just the population needed in Puerto Rico, where labor force participation is around 46 percent and tax revenues have fallen, Puerto Rico statistics show.

“It was mind-boggling,” she said. “But then I figured, why travel to Puerto Rico with our limited funding?”

May Launch Date

Five workshops were held in Central Florida, reaching up to 140 or so people per workshop. This year’s workshop – all free – are set to kick off May 6, followed by one workshop per month held at a branch of the Orange County library, ending in October. Details at https://www.facebook.com/talleresdebienvenida/.

The 2014 workshops were co-sponsored in part by Florida Blue and Orlando Health. This year Haiman-Marrero also is raising funds for the workshops at FundLatinos .

“We’re going fine tune it and make it more robust,” Haiman-Marrero said. “I want to offer a hand up to my fellow boricuas and fellow Latinos.”

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

Another Strike Against Florida’s Death Penalty

Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala is under attack for announcing she won’t seek the death penalty in any murder case. /WFTV-Channel 9 screenshot

In the matter of Florida’s death penalty whom do you trust?

In a rare display of prosecutorial decency, Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala said she would not pursue the death penalty in any case before the Ninth Judicial Circuit, including against Markeith Loyd, who is accused of the shooting death of an Orlando police officer and the killing of his pregnant girlfriend.

Both are terrible coldblooded crimes for which Loyd will stand trial and is 99.9 percent certain of being convicted, never again to see the light of day. 

Normally, that would be the end of it. Instead, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and many state elected officials took the grand stand of loudly opposing Ayala, calling for Loyd’s – and Ayala’s – heads.

Ayala is Florida’s first African American state attorney, elected by voters last November to a four-year term.

Whom do you trust?

Dangerous Precedent

Scott also issued an unprecedented and highly political executive order to strip Ayala of the case, handing it to the Lake County state attorney because the governor was “not happy” with Ayala’s position, including a refusal to recuse herself.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, called the governor’s decision “a dangerous precedent,” which it surely is. “Whenever the governor doesn’t like the exercise of prosecutorial decision by an elected prosecutor, he’s going to step in and appoint somebody else?”

Whom do you trust? 

Death Sentencing Quagmire

Would that the governor had shown such compunction about the death penalty quagmire in which Florida was stuck until recently, in which juries were not required to have unanimous death penalty verdicts and, worse, in which judges could overturn juries’ decisions.

The super-majority Republican Legislature tried papering over U.S. Supreme Court objections to Florida death sentence procedures by settling for 10-to-12 death penalty verdicts. But that, too, was a no-go.

The Florida Supreme Court insisted death penalty verdicts must be unanimous or nothing, a totally reasonable demand when faced with state-sanctioned execution. 

Whom do you trust?

Death Penalty “Fix”

Ironically, Scott just signed the “death penalty fix,” allowing executions to go forward. Florida has nearly 400 people on death row. Scott personally is responsible for execution orders for 23 prisoners since 2011, when he became governor, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

And, by the way, about 26 innocent people have been freed from the state’s death row, the Death Penalty Information Center has reported.

Whom do you trust?

Just so you know, “As of January 2013, Orange County had more prisoners on its death row than 99.2% of U.S. counties and was among the 2% of counties responsible for more than half of all executions in the U.S. since 1976,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Whom do you trust?

What Ayala Got Wrong

If Ayala got anything wrong, it’s this:

  • First, Ayala seriously and naively underestimated the blood-thirsty politics of the death penalty, although only 35 percent of Floridians favor the death penalty, per Public Policy Polling.
  • Ayala went out on a limb all by her lonesome self, including in front of TV cameras, instead of building a coalition to help support her anti-death penalty position,  which 62 percent of Floridians actually support, per Public Policy Polling. She looked alone, unsure and isolated before the public. Supporters, including clergy who thanked Ayala for being “just and brave in the name of God,” came out a day later. But by then Republicans and the 24-hour news cycle had done a number on Ayala.
  • Third, Ayala has not appealed the governor’s executive order (although there’s still time to change her mind, and I wish she would). Scott’s order may be popular in the court of Facebook but it may have no legal leg to stand on in a court of law. Floridians need to be certain of that, one way or the other.

Ayala has broken no law. Governor Scott should not be allowed to replace prosecutors whose decisions he doesn’t “like.”

Whom do you trust?

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

Nationalism Is Hiding in Plain Sight

Nationalism is hiding in plain sight today in almost every corner of the globe, coming at us fast as global economies and governments seek to protect “their own,” whatever that means.

Since taking office, President Donald Trump‘s brand of nationalism has come into focus – economic nationalism. Companies and jobs stay in the U.S. to benefit American workers. Immigrants and outsiders are bad and must be kept out of the country. America should not concern itself with other nations’ problems. America First!

There is another type of nationalism loose in the land that’s not as recognized or lamented – Puerto Rican nationalism, which has been growing for years after a lapse in the 1940s, considered its hey day.

Puerto Rican Nationalism

Puerto Rican nationalism has much in common with Trumpism. Puerto Rico comes first, last and always. Puerto Rico does it better. (This was a tourism slogan until the island’s economy collapsed). ¡Alza la bandera! Puerto Rico can do no wrong, not even in its current economic debacle.

Under the thumb of the United States for over a century, the territory of Puerto Rico has limited agency, which accounts for some – but not all – its nationalistic instincts. These are instincts whose boasts obscure a lack of confidence not an abundance of it, that demands Puerto Rico’s purported uniqueness or singularity be proclaimed every hour on the hour.

They sound a lot like Trump’s trademark claims, aimed at those who have lost confidence in the nation and need much affirmation. As if saying so makes it so.

But if nationalism is bad for America – as both the right and left state – it must be bad for Puerto Rico as well. If Trump is allegedly gaming voters, who are Puerto Ricans gaming? If Puerto Ricans can identify nationalism in Trump, how is it that we cannot identify it in ourselves?

“Puerto Rican nationalism throughout the 20th century has been characterized by Hispanophilia, anti-Americanism, Negrophobia, androcentrism, homophobia, and, more recently, xenophobia,” writes Jorge Duany, the author of several books on Puerto Rico.

All are hallmarks of nationalism. How can this be helpful in forging Puerto Rico’s future?

Quest for Equality

For instance, the quest for Puerto Rico statehood or equality often is built on Puerto Rico’s supposed uniqueness, as lawyer Anthony Suárez argues here in a recent Orlando Sentinel column marking the 100th anniversary of American citizenship for Puerto Ricans.

Puerto Rico is “a perfect bridge” to Latin America. It is “strategically placed.” The island can “lead the charge in American values and institutions.” And on and on, Suárez states.

Which is irrelevant. The island ought to be admitted as a state or cut loose not because it is special but because second-class citizenship is untenable in the United States, where equality supposedly rules. Period.

Corporate Exploitation

In a counterargument, law student Phillip Arroyo states, “The island has been exploited by corporate America for decades through exotic tax loopholes.” Because, of course, Puerto Rico is a passive vessel for American greed.

True up to a point. Puerto Rico and Congress collaborated for decades – with the full consent of the island’s political establishment – on a number of federal tax schemes to bolster the island’s economy whose engine has never generated sufficient activity for its people.

One such “loophole” poured billions of corporate dollars into the island’s banking system, enabling Puerto Rico banks to reinvest the cash in mortgages, auto loans, small business loans and more, benefitting locals (often at usurious rates).

Not a Victim

Then Congress, stalking additional revenue, took it away. Puerto Rico was not a victim. It was a partner that preferred rapid development to creating its own entrepreneurial class, which would have taken longer to develop. As a U.S. territory it took full advantage of the U.S. bond market – Wall Street – borrowing billions to fill budget holes rather than make needed reforms. Until it could no longer borrow.

Puerto Rico was not a victim. It was a partner in its own financial demise. (But Puerto Rico is not a partner in federal programs, in which It is treated unequally.)

A Cult

Pride in ethnicity or identity results in cultish behavior, a religiosity about anything related to Puerto Rico or Puerto Ricans. An egregious example: the 2016 Kissimmee race for mayor which pitted Cuban-American José Alvarez against Puerto Rican Art Otero, who pulled out all the stops to remind voters to “vote Puerto Rican.” As if shared ethnicity were sufficient qualification for elected office. (Imagine a campaign that urged people to “vote white.”)

Fortunately, voters did not play along, supporting the better qualified candidate – Alvarez – with the help of many non Hispanic voters, to be sure.

How can Puerto Rican nationalism help the island? How can nationalism help Puerto Ricans in Florida and other states, where nationalism often is even more pronounced, as in the previous example?

More to the point, has Puerto Rican nationalism helped in any way?  No.

Infantilizing Puerto Rico

Insistence on Puerto Rico victimhood infantilizes the island, shooing away unpleasant truths in which Puerto Rico apparently has no agency, no ability to act. Which is not entirely true.

Cries of nationhood are hollow when Puerto Rico itself has professed little desire to be independent.

Talk of Puerto Rico’s greatness does not bolster confidence but makes it suspect, helping to create faux heroes such as ex-terrorist Oscar López Rivera. Or mythologizing our indigenous past or revolutionary resistance. Having “confidence in confidence” doesn’t mean you possess it.

Alza la bandera, if you will. But for Puerto Ricans faced with economic and migrant crises aquí y allá  the way to harness the future is to unfurl the flag with less rah-rah and more realism grounded in an actionable agenda. Or continue to suffer the consequences of shoddy sovereignty.

˜˜Maria T. Padilla, Editor