ORLANDO — One early morning in October last year, Nydia Irizarry packed what she could from her flooded, storm-ravaged house into a suitcase, gathered her two children, and fled her hometown of Manatí, Puerto Rico.
That was a month after Hurricane Maria wiped out Puerto Rico’s power, water, and medical services. Irizarry’s 23-year-old daughter, who has cancer, had taken a turn for the worse, struggling without electricity and water. Her daughter’s skin started to turn yellow, and at times she couldn’t breathe. The family was airlifted to Florida by the American Cancer Society after a doctor told Irizarry her daughter would die if she stayed in Puerto Rico, where medical facilities could not treat her.
A year later, Irizarry has an apartment and a full-time job working with a church in Orlando that’s connecting other hurricane evacuees with apartments, jobs, and help getting started in the mainland US. She’s staying in Florida because she needed to be somewhere more stable for her daughter’s treatment, for her son to stay in school, and for the family to be able to move on with their lives.
“It’s been so many difficult changes, but it’s been good because it’s forced us to grow, we’ve grown as a family, and we’ve learned a lot,” said Irizarry.
Now, with an election coming up next week, Irizarry and other Puerto Ricans who fled to the mainland are preparing to vote for the first time since a hurricane ravaged their home and, many feel, the federal government neglected them in dire circumstances. Like Irizarry, tens of thousands moved to Florida after the storm, a purple state with two major, close races this year. Florida Gov. Rick Scott is currently running against incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson in a tight race that will help decide which party controls the Senate next year, and Republican Ron DeSantis, an ally of President Donald Trump who served three terms in Congress, is running to replace Scott against Andrew Gillum, a progressive Democrat who would be the state’s first black governor.
BuzzFeed News spoke with displaced Puerto Ricans in Florida, as well as several of the groups that are helping them to settle on the mainland and hoping to get them out to vote. The majority of these interviews were conducted in Spanish.
Irizarry and others told BuzzFeed News they feel an extra responsibility to vote in their first federal elections because their friends and relatives on the island can’t. (Residents of Puerto Rico, despite being US citizens, don’t have the right to vote in federal elections.) Irizarry said that after everything her family has been through this year, she wants to vote because “we are spokespeople for the people who are still there [in Puerto Rico].”
“We will vote, and the things we achieve here we achieve for them,” she said. “Donald Trump doesn’t want to give us statehood, but if we have the opportunity to vote here and help the people on the island, that’s a fortunate thing. That’s how I see it. Because the people there maybe can’t leave for whatever reason. The island is pretty destroyed.”
Irizarry says she registered as a Democrat, both because of Trump’s anti-Latino rhetoric and because of her experience with his administration in the aftermath of the storm. Her house in Manatí was completely flooded during the storm, with everything inside destroyed, but FEMA denied her assistance to rebuild her home, she said, because like many on the island, the house’s deed is in her deceased parents’ names.
Puerto Ricans arriving on the mainland don’t necessarily have a predetermined political affiliation because the political parties are entirely different on the island. The majority of Puerto Ricans support either Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s New Progressive Party (PNP) or the opposition Popular Democratic Party (PPD). The question of whether or not Puerto Rico should become the 51st state in place of its current status as a territory is one of the main issues that differentiates the two.
In Florida, displaced Puerto Ricans say they’re assessing candidates on their records, and based on who consistently came to meet them and hear them out over the past year. They’re also thinking about how the president has dealt with Puerto Rico.
“You have to evaluate each candidate individually for the work they have done and their projections for the future, to make a decision that will be good not just for me and my family but for all of us who came here,” said Sarai Perez, who left Trujillo Alto last October because she couldn’t continue her work and sustain the business she owned as a physical therapist without power or water.
“I understand that I can’t complain about things unless I also exercise my right to vote. I can’t exercise my rights unless I’m willing to speak up,” she said.
Yadira Valle, 45, who left Aguada for Orlando in October last year, also said she registered to vote soon after she arrived in Florida. She said she had already been planning to move to Florida, where she hoped to find more work and a new start after getting divorced last year, but the hurricane left her without water, power, or employment, and sped up her plans.
She said she doesn’t want to vote along party lines like she used to in Puerto Rico, but instead wants to consider candidates’ experience when she’s making her decision. She thinks candidates should know that newly arrived Puerto Ricans have been struggling with a lack of affordable housing.
Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans were forced to leave Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Between 159,000 and 176,000 have left the island since September last year, according to estimates from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York, speeding up an exodus that was already underway because of the island’s dire financial crisis. Of those, some 70,000–75,000 people settled in Florida, according to the center’s estimates.
There are also no definitive statistics on how many newly arrived Puerto Ricans have registered to vote, though advocacy groups say that, anecdotally, they believe many of them did register when they were converting their driver’s licenses and getting Florida state identification.
More broadly, there has been a significant uptick in the number of Latino registered voters in Florida. According to the Pew Research Center, the state has seen a 6.2% increase in Latino voter registrations since 2016, bringing the total to 2.1 million. Puerto Ricans now account for around 31% of potential Latino voters in the state, whether or not they’re registered — the same as the number of potential Cuban voters, according to Pew’s analysis.
But despite the enthusiasm some Hurricane Maria evacuees have for voting, advocacy groups are not really expecting newly arrived Puerto Ricans who are still getting settled on the mainland to turn out in great numbers on November 6.
“In 2018, at least right now, they’re struggling so hard to rebuild their lives, we know just from talking to them at the doors that their turnout is not going to be that significant,” said Alex Barrios, political director for Alianza, one progressive group that has been working on registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns for Latinos.
Barrios says the real impact of this mass exodus from Puerto Rico could be felt in a few years, around the time of the next presidential election, when families have had more time to settle and begin to engage with the political process.
“Right now we’re just trying to build relationships, connect them with the services that they need so that they can resettle and make their way forward. In 2020 though, you will see their impact,” he said.
But Puerto Ricans who were already in Florida and still have ties in Puerto Rico might be more immediately motivated to vote Tuesday, he said, especially after the president has repeatedly denied that more than 3,000 Puerto Ricans died because of the hurricane and has praised his own administration’s response to the disaster.
“I think you’re going to see a huge spike of those people. They are much more engaged now,” said Barrios. “They have relatives on the island from Maria, they are very, very upset about Trump, they have struggled with the issues — housing, health care, jobs; they are struggling. And truly, Trump. The disrespect.”
Scott has distanced himself from the president’s comments about the death toll, but that may not matter to voters like Julio Anduja, who answered the door to Alianza canvassers in Kissimmee on Sunday, and said he has family on the island. He said the way the Trump administration handled the hurricane means he definitely won’t be voting for Republican candidates in the midterms.
“People got affected deeply because of the way the government treated them. We’re not a third-world country, we’re actually part of this nation,” Anduja said.
Father José Rodríguez, the pastor at the Iglesia Episcopal Jesús de Nazaret, works with around a thousand Puerto Rican families who evacuated to Central Florida. Over lunch at a Korean restaurant near his office, which is about a 15-minute drive from the airport Puerto Ricans fly into when they arrive in Orlando, Rodríguez told BuzzFeed News that he’s a registered Republican but that, from what he’s seen, his party has let Puerto Ricans here down and has probably lost the chance to engage these new voters in the process. His church has been working with a coalition of groups, some of them progressive and some nonpartisan, to advocate for families over the past year.
“It takes a very strong person to pick up and move. There is a strength to a person who has left Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Maria,” he said. “They didn’t come here defeated, they came here for a new start. They came here ready to work, ready to plug in, ready to contribute. But, sadly, the government of Florida, the governor, abandoned the same people he welcomed.”
Rodríguez said a lot of the work of helping families get on their feet has fallen to church groups and nonprofits because of the lack of consistent support from state and federal agencies. At his church, Rodríguez employs six people to help Puerto Ricans find resources — the church maintains a list of affordable apartments in Orlando and Kissimmee and helps connect people with jobs — and Rodriguez himself is constantly fielding calls from families finding it challenging to navigate a whole new bureaucracy as they try to set themselves up.
“When the hurricane happened, [Gov. Scott] set up a welcome center at the airport and he registered them as residents of this state, and then abandoned them,” he said. “He didn’t make any effort to help these families start their lives again.”
Scott’s campaign says he’s done more than set up welcome centers at Orlando and Miami airports, where state agencies and nonprofits provided information to Puerto Ricans in the immediate aftermath of the storm. The campaign cites his eight trips to the island since the hurricane; meetings and phone calls with Puerto Rican officials; a joint letter he signed urging Congress to pass an expanded disaster relief bill; and three roundtable meetings he held with mayors, local officials, and volunteer groups.
“Helping Puerto Rico in their time of need is not about politics. Governor Scott has remained committed to supporting the Puerto Rican community and families both here in Florida and in Puerto Rico. He will continue to fight for what matters most to them in D.C.,” said Scott campaign spokesperson Chris Hartline in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
Scott’s Democratic opponent, Nelson, has also visited the island several times since the hurricane, and the two have split endorsements from local officials. Nelson has the backing of Puerto Rican Gov. Rosselló, while Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative in Congress, Republican Jenniffer González-Colón, has endorsed Scott.
Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor, has also spent some time with displaced Puerto Ricans. On Sunday, he held an event at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, where many Puerto Ricans are now living, and was greeted by a few hundred people. Wearing a “Puerto Rico” T-shirt over his button-down shirt and tie, Gillum was accompanied by Democratic Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a Puerto Rican New Yorker who has been a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria and the island’s financial crisis.
A spokesperson for DeSantis, Gillum’s opponent, did not respond to a request for comment on whether he has spent time in Kissimmee or with displaced Puerto Rican families.
For the 700 or so families who were living in Orlando and Kissimmee hotels through a FEMA program in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, finding housing in the midst of Central Florida’s affordable housing crisis has been a major barrier to getting settled. Rodríguez said there was no transition plan from the state or federal government for those families, which left many of them in a precarious position as the program came close to being suddenly terminated several times, and was finally terminated in August this year.
Rodríguez said he’s seen local Democrats spend time with Puerto Rican families and to individually try to help people find housing and petition federal agencies to do more, while he’s seen relatively little from his fellow Republicans. The officials who have been most present with the community, he said, are state Reps. Amy Mercado and Victor Torres, and US Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Darren Soto — all Democrats.
“There have been politicians who have been out there in hotels crying with families, there have been politicians who have been out there sweating with the families, holding their hands, being with them,” he said. “We don’t need promises, we need action.”
Last Sunday, thousands of Latino families gathered in downtown Orlando for Calle Orange, a yearly street festival celebrating Latinx culture in Orlando. Among salsa bands, stalls selling tostones and refrescas, canvassers for Alianza and Boricua Vota drew a few dozen people over the course of the afternoon asking how and when to vote.
There were also three candidates with booths at the festival — Orlando County Sheriff candidate John Mina, who’s running as an independent, Dean Mosley, who’s running to be a judge in Florida’s 9th Circuit, and Soto.
Lillian Lopez, 55, who was strolling through the booths at Calle Orange with her son, said one of the most pressing issues for her is how Puerto Ricans have been treated by the federal and state governments over the past year. She’s Puerto Rican, but has been living in Florida since before the hurricane.
She said she’ll be thinking about Puerto Rico — “the way we were treated” and “what they went through” — when she heads to the polls Tuesday.
Ivelisse Velazquez was at the festival with her family and is also Puerto Rican, but not a hurricane evacuee. She said she thought Scott had done a good job of responding to the hurricane and that the state has helped people arriving in Florida, something a few other Latino festival-goers echoed.
Another couple, Tony and Sol Martinez, were at the festival with their two kids. They said they have family in Puerto Rico, and while they haven’t decided whom they’ll vote for yet, they’ll be looking for candidates who have specific ideas on how to help Puerto Ricans both in Florida and on the island.
Most of the political outreach to Puerto Ricans in Florida is being done by a handful of mostly progressive Latino groups, including Alianza, actively courting Puerto Rican voters in Central Florida. Under two umbrella groups — Respeta Mi Gente and Vamos4PR — hundreds of canvassers have been out every day since voter registration closed October 9, focusing their get-out-the-vote campaigns largely on Latino neighborhoods.
Some member organizations, including Organize Florida, Vamos4PR Action, and Boricua Vota, have endorsed Democrats down the ticket, starting with Nelson for the Senate and Gillum for governor. Nonpartisan groups like the Hispanic Federation are also a part of the coalitions but are not endorsing candidates.
The groups under Respeta Mi Gente and Vamos4PR have together worked with thousands of newly arrived Puerto Ricans on housing, jobs, and voter engagement. They don’t have an exact breakdown of how many new Puerto Rican voters they registered or have reached in the lead-up to the midterms, but referred to the overall increase in Latino voter registration across the state.
Another group reaching out to potential Puerto Rican voters, Latino Leadership, is nonpartisan but more conservative. The group’s executive director, Marucci Guzmán, told BuzzFeed News that Latino Leadership has been in touch with around 10,000 newly arrived Puerto Rican families, helping connect them with services and get oriented in Florida. The group also spoke to around 1,500 people as part of a phone canvassing effort, in addition to having some canvassers on the ground, Guzmán said, though she couldn’t say exactly how many people the group had registered to vote.
Guzmán pushed back on complaints about the GOP’s outreach to the Puerto Rican community. “For anybody to say that one party did more than the other, they’re being disingenuous. I will say, and I’ve said it often, Gov. Scott did step up,” she said.
Guzmán said Scott met with Latino Leadership staff for three hours to talk about the families they were working with. She said other Republicans, including Adam Putnam, Florida’s agriculture commissioner, who lost the Republican primary for governor this year, as well as state Reps. Bob Cortes and Rene Plasencia, had been working on education initiatives in particular for Puerto Rican students to be able to enroll in local schools and colleges.
“It’s not enough to just show up to a hotel. If you’re able to change policy, then do it,” she said, referring to the education initiatives and Scott’s airport welcome centers for Puerto Ricans. Welcome to Florida initiative. “I think that maybe one party did a better job of having cameras while they were doing that work.”
Both the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee have devoted resources to attract the Puerto Rican community as well.
A DNC spokesperson pointed to $100,000 the party spent in Florida and Pennsylvania each, funding Puerto Rican organizers “to help connect [Puerto Ricans] to social services in the community and register them to vote.” Ahead of the midterms, they also worked with the MirRam consultancy group, founded by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father, Luis A. Miranda Jr., to “identify issues of importance and messages that connect with the Puerto Rican community.”
“We want Puerto Rican voters to know that their values are the Democratic Party’s values, and we will continue to fight for their interests here in the states and on the island,” said Enrique Gutiérrez, the DNC’s director of Hispanic media, in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
The RNC’s director of Puerto Rican engagement, Gary Berrios, has hired staff to work on Puerto Rican voter outreach and registration drives, and the party has held training workshops for volunteers and fellows to work in Puerto Rican communities in Central Florida, along with voter registration drives.
Yali Nuñez, the RNC’s director of Hispanic Media, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that the party “understands the pain and devastation Puerto Rico went through,” and pointed to the RNC’s Welcome to Florida workshops, which gave people information about “Florida civics, school choice, and local employment” as well as the billions in federal aid sent to the island to help recover from the hurricane.
“Puerto Ricans know that the president and the Republican Party are there for them,” Nunez said. “We are focused on making them feel at home, and are counting on their support on November 6 so that our shared values continue to unite this country.”
But for some Puerto Rican families, an early impression of Republican politicians in Florida is hard to shake. More than half a dozen people who spoke to BuzzFeed News brought up the party’s annual Sunshine Summit, which took place in Kissimmee this year, recalling the image of Florida GOP leaders driving without stopping past dozens of displaced families who were about to lose their temporary housing.
The families, organized by Vamos4PR, camped outside the conference for two days. Father Rodríguez was there with them. He says that of all the Republican officials at the conference, only Sen. Marco Rubio sent a representative outside to actually talk to the families.
“That was the extent of my fellow Republicans stepping in to help these families, whereas on the other side of the aisle they were personally investing themselves. They were showing up, crying, and holding hands,” he said. “That’s an image I’ll never forget. And if that moved me, that’s permanently seared into the mind of the Puerto Rican voter.”
For Father Rodríguez, the real concern going into the midterms is that all the attention the community is getting could disappear after Election Day, and with it funding for organizations helping displaced Puerto Ricans, like his church, even as most people who have moved to the mainland are likely to bring family members over from the island in the coming years.
“I really pray that I’m wrong, but my heart tells me that a lot of these extra resources that we’ve seen are going to disappear after November 7.” ●