Central Florida Votes Puerto Rican: The Future of a Swing State and the Island in One Vote

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Que Vote Mi Gente voter registration at the Melao bakery in Kissimmee, Florida after the first caravana. Photo: David Pastor

The cars keep showing up. Dozens of them are parked one after the other, facing the street in a long procession of two rows. It’s early on a Saturday afternoon in mid-October and Que Vote Mi Gente, a newly formed coalition of local organizations, is preparing to lead its first official caravana through the neighborhood of Hunter’s Creek, which sits between Orlando and Kissimmee, Florida.

When it’s almost time to leave, Jimmy Torres, President of Iniciativa Acción Puertorriqueña (Puerto Rican Action Initiative), gathers the group into a circle. Remember to follow traffic rules, he says, stop at red lights if need be. In Puerto Rico, this wouldn’t be an issue. Caravanas – or caravans – are a traditional part of political campaigns on the island. Though in this case, there is no candidate. Que Vote Mi Gente is only looking to make some noise (both in a literal and figurative sense) and encourage Puerto Rican voters to register and vote.

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Back in 2012, there were around 800,000 Puerto Ricans living in the state. With the worsening debt crisis and mass exodus from the island, that number has surpassed 1 million, with an estimated 400,000 living in the Orlando area. Which is the why the I-4 corridor, which runs through central Florida, has become crucial to winning this swing state and with it, the presidential election.

The procession of cars exits the parking lot, honking their horns and waving flags as onlookers take notice. The route lasts for a couple of hours. Christina Hernández and Frederick Vélez,  two of the main organizers, think the event goes well enough. Some changes will have to be made, but next week’s caravana will be bigger, including a large bus to be added to the fleet and more importantly, loudspeakers to play music.

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Que Vote Mi Gente lead organizers Christina Hernández and Frederick Vélez. Photo: David Pastor

Vélez and Hernández first met in 2012 at Casa Obama, the Tampa headquarters of the Obama reelection campaign. Christina was the Hispanic Vote Director and Frederick helped with the last six weeks of the election. The first thing she asked when Frederick showed up was if he could speak Spanish. It was an obvious, yet urgent question since Hernández didn’t have any Spanish-speakers on staff besides herself. When Vélez, a native of Puerto Rico, replied ‘yes,’ there was an immediate sense of relief and a partnership was formed.

Four years later, Hernández is working with the community-based nonprofit Organize Now in Orlando and getting ready to launch Que Vote Mi Gente. It’s a concept she had pitched as far back as the Obama campaign in 2012.

“We’re seeing something very different, in terms of the attention that is being paid to the Puerto Rican community,” says Hernández, who has spent the intervening years leading grassroots efforts in the area: “In four years, our community has come a long way in taking more control of how we do outreach to our own people.”

“This isn’t about Republicans. This isn’t about Democrats. This isn’t about Hillary. This isn’t about Trump…This is about the power of our community and us taking a stand, turning out to vote, and making ourselves heard.”

For Hernández, 32, and Vélez, 26, the emphasis has been on working directly with the community toward more long term goals: “This isn’t about Republicans. This isn’t about Democrats. This isn’t about Hillary. This isn’t about Trump,” asserts Hernández. “This is about the power of our community and us taking a stand, turning out to vote, and making ourselves heard.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t significant obstacles to accomplishing these goals such as voter apathy toward Puerto Rican and mainland politics, and modest resources.

The sense of community and culturally appropriate programming is important in engaging Puerto Rican voters, many of whom are voting for the first time on the mainland and are faced with a host of other priorities in their lives. For some it’s a matter of learning the US political system, as Hernández notes: “Whereas a lot of seats in Puerto Rico are appointed, here you vote down the ticket for school board, for sheriff, for city council, for a county commissioner. And so the voter has a lot more power and control over who is representing them.”

The added voting power would normally be an incentive, but many Puerto Rican voters are leaving behind a political situation that has exhausted their otherwise steadfast participation in elections on the island.

Hernández has nearly a decade of experience working in politics, much of it in Hispanic outreach. She worked for the Clinton campaign in 2008 and then for the Obama campaign in 2012. Originally from California, she has spent most of her life in Florida. Her background is half-Puerto Rican and half-Panamanian, or as she playfully describes it: tengo la derecha de Cotto y la izquierda de Durán, a reference to two legendary prize fighters. Vélez spent the past five years working in Washington D.C. for Congressman José E. Serrano, while studying for his M.A. in Politics and Government from Johns Hopkins University.

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The Organize Now office in Orlando arranging the days mail-in ballots. Photo: David Pastor

After the short stint in 2012, Frederick joined Christina at Organize Now. Together, they have been at the forefront of a movement to give Puerto Rican voters both in Central Florida and Puerto Rico a collective voice, and in the process, leverage their political power at the local and national levels. “And with that power,” Vélez explains, “We don’t only use it to improve the quality of life of people who are living on the mainland. But more importantly, we also get to use that power to help people that are living on the island. And I think it’s very important to make that connection and that people in Washington D.C. understand that.”

Back at the main office in Orlando, a shared space between several local organizations, Christina breaks down Que Vote Mi Gente’s Puerto Rican-centric, yet Latinx inclusive, branding strategy. The group’s logo was inspired by the Taíno sun, an indigenous symbol of Puerto Rico. “It’s a break from the traditional check mark in a box for the V for vote,” she adds. Yet the symbol also looks like a gear, a nod to the relentless work being done to organize the Latinx community. The name of the organization is taken from a line in the song, “Mi Gente”, a classic salsa hit by “El Rey de la Fania” Héctor Lavoe. It’s a catchy, simple play on words.

Hernández took things one step further and rewrote the lyrics of “Mi Gente” into a voting anthem. She then approached Fania Records to acquire the rights. Earlier in the week, Hernández found herself in a recording studio in New Jersey singing backup vocals and producing a record with Grammy-nominated artist Frankie Negrón. A few days later Christina received an email with the final version, adding “executive producer” to her résumé.

Much of Que Vote Mi Gente’s efforts have centered on mail-in ballots, giving voters the opportunity to study up on the candidates and avoid long lines on Election Day. The day before the caravana, canvassers set up in front of the Unidos Supermarket in Kissimmee. “In the first three weeks we registered over 3,000 people to vote by mail,” says Vélez. Que Vote Mi Gente also hosts political forums with local candidates and cafecitos, informal gatherings where coffee is served and politics are discussed.

Two days before the caravana, Que Vote Mi Gente celebrates the opening of its office in Kissimmee with music, food, and dancing. As Frederick is addresses the crowd of organizers, families, and friends, suddenly a group of pleneros bursts into the room. La Plena is a traditional Afro-Puerto Rican style of music that features hand drums and singing. Vélez’s voice is quickly drowned out by the playful interruption and the crowd begins to sing along. These kinds of get-togethers are typical, seemingly more festive than political.

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Dalmaris Ortiz Rivera signing up voters in front of the Unidos supermarket in Kissimmee. Photo: David Pastor

Those in attendance are encouraged to fill out cards in English and Spanish expressing why it’s important to vote. Once paired with the hashtag #QueVoteMiGente, the photos show up on social media and the group’s website. For many, including those recently arrived from Puerto Rico, storytelling is a key element in Que Vote Mi Gente’s digital campaign. It helps members of the community connect to one another and feel less alone in adjusting to their new lives.

The diaspora is seen as increasingly important in representing the interests of Puerto Ricans on the island as well. Past efforts this year have included two diaspora summits (one in New York City and the other in Holyoke, MA), the approval of a National Puerto Rican Agenda, and various social media awareness campaigns such as Stand Up For Puerto Rico.

For all the attention to detail, Que Vote Mi Gente’s mission is simple: to let people be heard, in whichever language they prefer, within a context that feels safe. It’s a necessary step toward involving those who are uninterested or feel ignorant about the electoral process.

“For a long time, Puerto Ricans were not taken seriously until suddenly we had huge numbers [in Central Florida]…How can we take that negative situation in terms of the crisis in Puerto Rico, that causes a lot of people to move here, and turn it into a positive?”

Although recent polling shows that Puerto Ricans in Florida heavily favor Clinton, and will be a deciding factor in the upcoming election, the goal is not just to demonstrate the voting power of a growing demographic. It’s about making the best of a difficult situation: “For a long time, Puerto Ricans were not taken seriously until suddenly we had huge numbers [in Central Florida],” says Vélez, “How can we take that negative situation in terms of the crisis in Puerto Rico, that causes a lot of people to move here, and turn it into a positive?”

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Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation an anonymous donor and readers like you.

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