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There's A New Push To Make Puerto Rico A State. Thanks To The State Of Florida's Pull?

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Jennifer King
/
Miami Herald
PUERTO-POWER Members of Miami's Puerto Rican community pose in front of the Puerto Rican flag mural painted on La Placita restaurant in the city's MiMo district in 2019.

Florida's large and more recently arrived diaspora is a key force driving the new — and potentially successful — Puerto Rican statehood effort in Washington.

One of the big stories in Washington D.C. right now is a tug-of-war between two Puerto Rican Democrats in Congress – one from Florida and one from New York – who champion different visions for the future of Puerto Rico itself.

That is, whether or not the U.S. territorial island should finally become the 51st U.S. state.

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On the one hand, Orlando Congressman Darren Soto presented a bill on Capitol Hill last week to give Puerto Rico statehood.

“Our brothers and sisters back on the island have decided that their territorial status and second-class citizenship isn’t working," Soto insisted.

A majority of voters in Puerto Rico did say yes to statehood in November. Soto said the status change would help them tackle problems like their massive debt crisis, 40 % unemployment and the destruction left by Hurricane Maria four years ago.

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Orlando Congressman Darren Soto (center) presents a Puerto Rico statehood bill last week in Washington along with Puerto Rico's non-voting congressional representative Jenniffer Gonzalez (to Soto's left), Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi (far left) and several Florida congress members.

Puerto Ricans on the island are U.S. citizens by birth — but they can’t vote in U.S. presidential elections unless they live on the U.S. mainland. And they have no voting representatives in Congress. One result, said Soto:

“There’s a long history of policies here in the federal government that have Puerto Rico behind," including inequitable federal funding and trade restrictions.

READ MORE: Puerto Rico Wants to Be 51st U.S. State - But Is There Much Thrill on Capitol Hill?

But a competing "Puerto Rico Self-Determination" bill co-sponsored by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says: not so fast.

Ocasio-Cortez is a detractor, if not opponent, of what she calls the "colonizing" push for statehood. She argues the 52% of Puerto Ricans who favored statehood in November are not enough to justify Soto’s legislation — and she's calling for a more deliberate, convention-style process.

Here’s what could tip the balance: polls show most Puerto Ricans living in the politically influential state of Florida — more than a million of them — want statehood for Puerto Rico. And that reflects a sea change in the story of the Puerto Rican diaspora.

Or make that the two Puerto Rican diasporas — Florida's and New York's.

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Courtesy Frances Colon
South Florida Puerto Rican community leader Frances Colon (right) on a recent visit with her mother Frieda Hastings in Orocovis, Puerto Rico.

"There certainly is a difference in the way those two diasporas view the [Puerto Rican] status issue," said Frances Colon, vice president of the Puerto Rican Leadership Council of South Florida.

New York’s Puerto Rican diaspora emerged in the mid-20th century — meaning, many of its members today were not born in Puerto Rico. Much of that cohort has historically preferred independence for Puerto Rico rather than statehood.

Colon points out much of Florida’s diaspora arrived more recently, in the 21st century — and as a result tends to favor statehood.

“The Florida diaspora is very connected to what’s happening in Puerto Rico — the economic crisis hardship and the stark way our second-class citizenship has been displayed since the hurricane," Colon said. "So most Puerto Ricans in Florida feel statehood is a solution.”

Colon, an environmental policy consultant in Miami, was herself born in Puerto Rico, and her mother and several relatives still live there.

“Because of the lack of services there now, I’m not so sure my mom would be taken care of well if she were to need serious medical attention or an ambulance," she said.

"All of our families [in Puerto Rico] deserve to be treated as equal American citizens.”

The Florida diaspora is very connected to what’s happening in Puerto Rico – the economic crisis hardship and the stark way our second-class citizenship has been displayed since the hurricane – so most Florida Puerto Ricans feel statehood is a solution.
Frances Colon

A half century ago many Puerto Ricans on the island may have favored independence because they were inspired by the anti-colonial example of Cuba. Not so much with Colon’s generation.

“I grew up being told, ‘Do you want to be Cuba?’ That was a very common refrain,” she said.

BORICUA BOOM

That’s also a common refrain in Florida. The peninsula is still enough of a swing state to make politicians listen to its large Puerto Rican constituency, which President Biden won in November. And that could help push Puerto Rico statehood legislation over the top.

“Even Florida Republicans like Rubio and others agree with moving the process forward," said Victor Vazquez of Miami Springs, a Miami-Dade College history professor and expert on the Boricua diaspora.

Many Republicans fear statehood for Puerto Rico because its voters lean Democrat. Aside from its two U.S. senators, a Puerto Rican state would likely send three or four U.S. representatives to Congress.

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Courtesy Victor Vazquez
Victor Vazquez (left) with family members in Carolina, Puerto Rico.

But Vazquez points out Republican Florida Senator Marco Rubio supports statehood. So does GOP Miami Congresswoman Maria Elvira Salazar, a Cuban-American who once lived in Puerto Rico.

And so, he adds, do more Puerto Rican leaders in the historically anti-statehood New York diaspora.

“Puerto Rican Florida has been the largest growing diaspora in the last decade of all the 50 states, and the pro-statehood movement has articulated its argument quite effectively," said Vazquez, whose latest book, "Boricuas in the Magic City," about Puerto Ricans in Miami, will be published in May.

"So now they have several members of Congress arguing for this — including [Democratic] Puerto Rican Congressman Ritchie Torres from New York.”

There are many Republicans in Puerto Rico, too — and many are pro-statehood. The island’s non-voting representative in Congress right now is Republican Jenniffer Gonzalez, who helped co-presented the statehood bill last week.

“This unfinished business of American democracy needs to get to an end," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez’s party in Puerto Rico — the New Progressive Party — is made up of folks allied with Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. It supports statehood and it recognizes the critical support of Florida’s Puerto Rican diaspora.

In fact, said María Meléndez, a PNP leader and part of a Puerto Rican delegation consulting U.S. Congress members on the statehood issue, “the Puertorriqueños of Florida are the ones who inspire us."

Still, Florida Puertorriqueños hardly have the final say. If Congress approves statehood — which President Biden and most Americans support — Puerto Ricans on the island will then vote on whether to ratify it...before the issue then comes back to Congress again.

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Tim Padgett
Hurricane Maria victim Maritza Rodriguez looks through the blown-out wall of her house in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, in 2017. Many Puerto Ricans feel the U.S. federal government abandoned them after Maria - and feel statehood will remedy that.