In Florida, Puerto Ricans’ rise gives a key swing state more swing voters
By Joel Achenbach, Published: October 23
Kissimmee, Fla. — There is nothing here that looks like a Little San Juan, no streetscape that replicates the sights and sounds of Puerto Rico, but you can get a taste of the island at Melao Bakery. It’s a spotless establishment in a bland shopping strip — authentic Central Florida architecture — on Boggy Creek Road. The staples of Puerto Rican cuisine are served buffet style: roasted pork shoulder, red beans, yuca, fried green plantains and a garlicky dish of mashed plantains known as mofongo.
At a table by the door, Luis and Angel Ortiz, 22-year-old twins, got tangled one recent morning in a debate about the presidential election. Luis is a liberal who believes that there are poor and disadvantaged people who need a helping hand from the government; Angel takes a conservative position that emphasizes rewards for hard work and consequences for personal mistakes.
When Luis described a hypothetical mother who can’t go to college because she has to take care of her out-of-wedlock child, Angel snapped, “Why did she make those decisions?”
“Because we aren’t perfect,” Luis answered.
The Ortizes — one vote for Obama, one vote for Romney — are among about 300,000 Puerto Ricans in Central Florida. That number is not a typo. There are at least 122,000 Puerto Ricans just in Osceola County, where the former cow town of Kissimmee is the county seat. Most arrived in the past decade.
This is an extraordinary demographic development. The surging presence of Puerto Ricans in the shadow of Disney World has created another wild card in the wildest of the swing states.
Florida is essentially a different state every four years. It isn’t like Iowa, or Wisconsin, or New Hampshire, or some other state that hasn’t changed much since the invention of the internal combustion engine. With bewildering speed, Florida has gone from a subtropical swampland to the fourth most populous state in the union, soon to be the third.
Hispanics have been in the thick of that, growing from 8.8 percent of Florida’s population in 1980 to 22.5 percent by 2010 — more than 4 million strong in a state with a population now more than 18 million. There were only about 9,000 Puerto Ricans in metropolitan Orlando in 1980, but the number jumped to about 52,000 in 1990 and about 137,000 in 2000, and has roughly doubled since then, according to historian Luis Martinez-Fernandez of the University of Central Florida (which has 50,000 students and counting).
For Puerto Ricans, Martinez-Fernandez says, this is the frontier. There are nearly 900,000 Puerto Ricans in the state, and perhaps by the time they reach the million mark they will no longer be an overlooked constituency. They are rapidly catching up — in raw numbers, if not in political clout — to the long-established Cuban American community that many people think of when they think of Hispanics in Florida.
What sets Puerto Ricans apart from other Hispanic groups is that they’re all American citizens. On the island, which is a commonwealth of the United States, Puerto Ricans can vote in presidential primaries, but they have no voice in the general election because Puerto Rico has no electoral votes. But when they move to Florida and take up residency, Puerto Ricans have the same voting rights as someone who moves from across the Georgia border.
Related Story: Florida' s Puerto Rican Vote Up For Grabs - Sept 4,2012