Puerto Rican caravanas – the get-out-the-vote staple of Puerto Rico elections –cruised Orlando streets to generate voter enthusiasm in Central Florida.
Iniciativa Acción Puertorriqueña, together with Misión Boricua, Que Vote Mi Gente, Organize Now and others – all progressive leaning groups – drew 50 or more cars to the parking lot of the shuttered and decaying Kmart in the heart of Azalea Park to kick off its fourth caravana of the general election season.
With Puerto Rican flags and #BoricuaVota banners flapping in the breeze, the vehicles lined up by the Kmart curb before heading out to cruise the streets of southeast Orlando and Orange County, where many Puerto Ricans reside.
“The last caravana is next Saturday,” November 5, right before the November 8 elections in an as-yet-to- be-determined location, explained Jimmy Torres Vélez of Iniciativa Acción Puertorriqueña and the SEIU labor union. Three caravans already have tooted their horns in Buenaventura Lakes and Poinciana in Osceola County, and in Hunters Creek in Orange County.
All are aimed at revving up the crowd with traditional Puerto Rican bomba y plena music and scaring away voter apathy, a specter that haunts the organizations. The caravana routes are all in heavy Latino areas, the focus of intense get-out-the-vote efforts.
In fact, Osceola has the highest voter turnout thus far among “the top five black and brown counties in the state,” according to Stephanie Porta, executive director of Organize Now, who added the data were from the VAN voter database system.
Organize Now is taking nothing for granted. Porta commented that since July her group has knocked on 1 million doors in eight mostly Hispanic counties in Florida.
Puerto Ricans Under a Microscope
Puerto Ricans in Florida have come under a microscope as their numbers soar – over 1 million in the state – and organizations realize they are ripe for the picking and organizing.
Earlier in the day, Vamos4PR conducted a workshop attended by more than 100 people at the Centro Borinqueño in Orlando aimed not just at voter turnout but what happens after the ballots are cast and counted.
Vamos4PR wants to harness the potential power of the Puerto Rican population to influence the outcome of Puerto Rico’s $72 billion debt crisis negotiations.
“We have to turn this crisis into an opportunity,” said Shirley Aldebol, vice president of SEIU 32BJ of New York, the driving force of the 30 coalition partners of Vamos4PR Florida.
Compared with Florida, a right-to-work state, Puerto Rico has higher labor activism – from teachers to hotel workers. And decades-long links with stateside labor unions.
“Puerto Rican participation in the labor movement generally has been more intensive and consistent,” wrote Eddie González and Lois Gray in a Cornell University study, titled “Puerto Ricans, Politics, and Labor Activism” in the 20th century.
Filling a Vacuum
The influx of tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans to Florida has shocked Puerto Ricans already here with stories of hunger, homelessness and deprivation. It has lit a fire under this and local labor coalitions to fill the vacuum of what is perceived as a lack of official local government response.
“I lost everything,” said Kaisha Toledo, originally of Hatillo, Puerto Rico. “I have $283,000 of student debt and it terrorizes me,” she added, explaining that she accumulated the debt while studying for a Ph.D in Puerto Rico, where she worked as a mental health counselor. But she cannot practice in Florida and is desperately looking for a solution.
Blue for Life
In fact, many professional Puerto Ricans – teachers, for instance– say it’s difficult to navigate the state’s licensing procedures, which seem bent on keeping people out than letting newcomers in.
If Vamos4PR Florida and other organizations succeed in drawing the disaffected Puerto Rican migrant to their movements, it’s a good bet the newcomers will be progressive for life, potentially turning the now purple state of Florida a deep shade of blue.
That ought to have Florida Republicans seeing red for years to come.
˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor