Will Puerto Ricans Decide the 2016 Election?

The effect of Puerto Ricans in presidential elections is not a new topic. Despite being U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are unable to vote due to being residents of an “unincorporated territory.” However, they still contribute to national politics in other ways. Puerto Rico still has delegates, and they lend to decisions in partisan primaries. Yet another way they affect the presidential election has started getting more widespread attention in the media. I myself first realized this when a certain far-right news site shared an outlandish story about one of the presidential candidates actively importing people from the island in order to sway the upcoming election. This story is improbable simply because it’d be a ill-conceived waste of resources to go out of the way to physically bring Puerto Ricans up to the mainland en masse when they’re already doing that.

Despite how some keep trying to frame the whole disaster, the current economic crisis has been happening more or less for decades. Puerto Rico has frequently experienced fiscal turmoil during the U.S.’s overlordship, and this virtually always culminates in migration to the mainland. The lopsided political relationship between the U.S. and the commonwealth ultimately falls hardest on the working-class in Puerto Rico and many of their number find more and better opportunities in the continental mainland, especially when the alternative is no opportunity. Some of these migrants were even able to earn enough working in the mainland to build mansions back in their significantly poorer communities. You’ll occasionally see hand-built mansions mingled in with shacks on the rough mountain roads through places like the traditionally isolated San Sebastian, which provided many of those migrants to places like New Jersey.

The current migration, however, has a considerably different makeup. The demographic that’s leaving the island now to settle in the mainland is not made up almost solely of poor laborers and farm workers, but is constituted very significantly by professionals and specialists of all segments of the middle class. Despite this, many have found less opportunities than their forebears, who flocked to grab onto factory jobs and other labor-intensive professions that were still available in relative abundance in the Northeastern United States at that time. These new migrants have instead congregated in Florida, where they deal with poverty and rising racial tensions. You may be asking why all this background information is important – it’s because it’ll give you an idea of how these Puerto Ricans will vote, if at all, and why.

Coverage of this issue is divided between the usual far-right panic attacks about mass Hispanic migration throwing swing states to the Democrats, and whether or not Republicans could possibly take advantage of the new demographics in Florida. Reporters point out that Puerto Ricans, like most Latinos, are inherently socially conservative and emphasize family values. However, this point is frequently misread by outsider observers who don’t really seem to realize what Puerto Ricans on both the island and the mainland prioritize in terms of values. I see no way the current Republican party could possibly poach any voters from Clinton, and it’s their own fault. That’s not to say that the Democrats have done any better, but though both parties shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to enticing Latino voters (and probably all other minority voters, and arguably just all voters), only one continuously rubs salt in their own wounds. The Republican party of this election has been adding some dirt and fungus to that gaping open wound as well, and they’re behind even the Democrats in realizing Puerto Ricans and other Latinos have been watching the whole time.

Clinton is enjoying a lead of around 60-70 percent among the Puerto Ricans living in Florida, which is about the percentage she had over Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary in Puerto Rico. A study conducted by the Center for American Progress offers some more interesting breakdowns. The biggest concern amongst the Florida Puerto Rican community by far is the economy/unemployment, with healthcare being the runner-up, and issues like immigration, education and racism trailing behind at more or less equal levels of interest. The vast majority would not vote for Trump, and though nearly half like Marco Rubio most would still choose a Democratic presidential candidate over him. A slim majority are pro-statehood and consider a presidential candidate’s views on Puerto Rico to be a deciding factor in casting their vote. Of those surveyed, most were older (over 40), had some level of education beyond high school, had resided in the mainland for over 15 years, were children of first generation immigrants, and were from lower income households. Most also followed the news regularly, primarily through TV.

Though this was one study, it provides some interesting insights. One of the biggest is that the majority of Puerto Ricans in Florida are not newcomers. Most are the children of people who migrated there in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, when Puerto Rico went through several recessions coinciding with economic downturns in the mainland. Most are also educated, to various degrees, but still poor, and stay connected the news and to current events in Puerto Rico. In the latter case, that’s despite over half not being born on the island. We can make several inferences from all this data: mainland-based Puerto Ricans still far outnumber those residing on the island, and they fall in line with most other Latinos demographically and ideologically. One of the biggest differences is also one deciding factors in determining their 2016 votes – their continuing connection to Puerto Rico. The lukewarm to frigid reception of Republicans is a product of this, as though both parties and their associates blame each other for the problems in Puerto Rico, only one is more vocal and binary about their views regarding the island. Trump’s nomination only made it worse, with Puerto Ricans having the same low view as other Latinos of his past comments about Mexico. Though Puerto Ricans have been citizens for generations, most still pretty open-minded about opening paths to citizenship for the undocumented. It’s also interesting to note that though the report claims most are pro-statehood, it doesn’t go into detail about committed they were to the cause – which may have shed more light on why Puerto Ricans wouldn’t be more inclined to lean Republican as nearly every pro-statehood Puerto Rican politician does.

I’ve found that most Puerto Ricans have become, deep down, rather pragmatic politically due the issues they face regarding their identity as part of the United States. Many see Puerto Rico becoming a state as an inevitable reality, as, typical of colonized people, they cannot see themselves operating independently and risking becoming one of the poor islands occupying the Caribbean. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of Puerto Ricans who are patriotic Americans, but many don’t take for granted that the U.S. has their best interests at heart. Many becoming reactively leftist, especially those coming from the island. Indeed, I’ve seen firsthand how elitist conservatives can become liberal political activists when they come North. I’ve seen some juggle contradicting views of the poor on the island and the poor in the mainland. Puerto Ricans in the U.S. clearly see themselves as of the “have-nots” and the right-wing’s continued rhetoric demonizing Puerto Rico has left little room in their minds as to who’s to blame. Republicans keep unloading into that foot, and they’re panicking now because although Puerto Ricans aren’t really swarming to Florida as it’s been portrayed, they’re adding numbers to an already disenfranchised but politically conscious community.

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What About the 23 Puerto Ricans in the Orlando Shooting?

We’re all reeling from the recent attack at an Orlando nightclub, in which a perpetrator wielding an assault rifle and a handgun opened fire on over 100 people, including at least three Orlando PD. The attacker was the son of Afghani immigrants to Brooklyn, and was reported to have called 911 and supposedly claimed allegiance to the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, or whatever else you want to call it) in the midst of the attack. The story has already become politically charged as pundits and politicians jockey for control of the narrative here. The attacker was described by coworkers as “unhinged and unstable,” who also claim he frequently made offensive remarks regarding homosexuals, African-Americans, Jews, women and others. He also changed his name  to the Arabic word for “strong” and within the past two years traveled to Saudi Arabia multiple times. He was investigated by the FBI twice for suspicious activity, but they let him go both times. Now, some claim they’ve found his profile on a gay dating website and that he had been spotted at this very same gay club by some of the survivors. People are jumping to pin down his reasoning on one thing or another, whether he was indeed a self-radicalized Jihadist striking at Americans or an anti-gay zealot projecting his insecurities onto others in a violent way, or just a lunatic who should have never been allowed near a computer, let alone a weapon.

Many of the victims had another common connection: quite a few were Puerto Rican. A number of Puerto Ricans from all over the island and the mainland were visiting Florida at the time of the massacre, and there have been many looking to permanently relocate to Orlando and other areas in the Sunshine State. Florida has become the new primary destination for Puerto Ricans not only from the island, but for those born and raised in other parts of the mainland United States as well. People have cited the familiar Latino culture as one of the main reasons for places like Orlando becoming a popular destination, along with the high rate of violence as one of the main reasons residents are leaving Puerto Rico in the first place. That makes this particular all the more tragic considering how many left the island because of the violence only to find worse in a supposedly safe area. It’s even worse when you consider the unfortunate trends in Puerto Rico concerning LGBT rights and preconceptions about them. There has been significant resistance to attempts to secure equal rights and access for gay and trans people, including protests and targeted violence. One landmark case involved the mutilation and murder of one trans woman, which sparked outrage from LGBT rights groups on both the island and the mainland. The latter have been especially critical of the lack of legal protection and often total disregard for LGBT people within the court system. The situation for LGBT people in Puerto Rico overall has been too often even worse than for those on the mainland. Many of these people left this situation presumably with the hope that the one up north would be a better option, only to have that hope taken away from them so brutally and violently.

We come to the question of “why?” Why did the gunman choose this particular spot at this particular time, and these particular people? The entire case has been speculation from the start, complicated by both the perpetrator’s apparent mental illness and the modern political climate. Even on the things we should all agree on, we find ourselves combating each other for what should take priority. Whether the attacker was acting because of his religion or because of his detachment from reality is kind of a moot point to the victims and their families. Whether he targeted them because they were gay or Hispanic is an important question, but also ultimately a moot point for the same reason. Their specific nationality is also a factor when so many of one group was slaughtered, but who can say that was the assailant’s specific intention? It certainly wouldn’t make a lot of sense to the rational mind, if his agenda really was to stop the bombing of Syria by going after one of the most marginalized groups in the U.S. Maybe it was an excuse for his bigotry, or to act out his power fantasies. A lot of assumption on the former comes from an interview with one man, his former coworker, Daniel Gilroy. Gilroy claims that Mateen would use racial slurs in his presence so much that it was to the point of only using those slurs to refer to individuals of those groups. Mateen gave him the impression that he hated everyone, but at least one survivor’s account potentially contradicts Gilroy’s assertions. It could have been spur of the moment, but the attacker made a conscious choice not to murder any more of the Black patrons in the club, which makes his supposed racism seem relatively shallow, for lack of a better term. Of course, no one has made any mention of him sparing any of the many Puerto Rican and other Latino patrons present, so maybe his prejudice was narrower than his past statements would lead us to believe.

The incident was a perfect storm of hatred, vulnerable people exposed to the depredations of a madman. By all accounts, the attacker was a very insecure man and hid that insecurity behind a bully’s mask. Bullies will often go after people who they feel are easier targets for their rage and cruelty, and past lessons have shown that Puerto Ricans – especially LGBT islanders – are invisible victims. However, with the sheer number of Puerto Ricans present in the Orlando-Kissimmee region, they could have just as simply been targets of opportunity for this psychotic killer. It’s unknown whether Mateen chose the club’s “Latin Night” event specifically or if the date was just convenient for his homicidal rampage. I personally suspect it was a mixture of his supposed familiarity with the place and the personal hatred he harbored within himself, but we’ll never know for certain. Even if the attacker had lived, all the evidence pouring out about his personality in hindsight suggests he wouldn’t have ever explained his agenda any more coherently. Many people have come up with their own theories, but as of now they’re still just theories. People have come forward with their owns reasons, including that he had a secret gay life, but authorities have shot down these claims. It seems impossible to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong. No matter what the initial cause, 49 people are dead, and whatever labels are slapped on that story will not bring them back. There were straight, gay, black, brown and white men and women in that club. If anything positive is to come out of this tragedy, then as Americans and People of Color we need to acknowledge that these were members of our community.

News outlets have claimed there were a few families not claiming their slain relatives’ remains because of possible public shame. That’s probably the worst tragedy in all this, that even after seeing the human cost of this bigotry, some still refuse to budge on their outdated beliefs and continue treating LGBT Puerto Ricans as “undesirables.” The only good thing that can come out of this incident is for greater acceptance of these people by their families and the public as human beings. If there’s one thing I’ve learned growing up a Puerto Rican, it’s that – for better or worse – family’s always there. I’ll argue that it’s against our very culture to outright reject anybody, especially family. Hopefully, while this tragedy is in the public spotlight it will create an open dialogue about the status of LGBT Puerto Ricans on the both the mainland and the island.