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When Barack Obama carried Florida in the presidential election, the support of Puerto Rican voters was key. With that community's backing, Mr. Obama won 57 percent of the state's Hispanic vote. Florida's Puerto Rican population is growing, and as NPR's Greg Allen reports, Puerto Ricans are becoming an important swing vote in the nation's largest swing state.
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GREG ALLEN: It could be Saturday night in San Juan. A Puerto Rican band, Son de Toa, is on stage playing while couples are out on the dance floor. To eat, there's pollo frito, fried chicken, and tostones, fried green plantains. It's members say the Asociacion Borinquena de la Florida Central is the oldest ethnic organization in the state. The group's president, Luis Suarez, says the club has nearly 400 families and it's growing.
Mr. LUIS SUAREZ (President, The Associcion Borinquena de la Florida Central): We still love Puerto Rico, it's in our heart. There's something that's Puerto Rican that's in us. And then when we come here we like to relax as if we were in Puerto Rico.
ALLEN: This is Orlando. We're on the other side of the metro area from Disney and the other theme parks. It's an area of aging shopping centers and strip malls, where cafes and small groceries cater to central Florida's fastest growing population: Puerto Ricans. According to the latest census figures, nearly three-quarters of a million Puerto Ricans now live in Florida — and the largest concentration is here in Orlando.
The Puerto Rican presence in central Florida goes back decades to World War II, when some military bases first drew Puerto Rican servicemen and workers to the area. Emilio Perez, with the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida, says over the last decade, those numbers increased dramatically.
Mr. EMILIO PEREZ (Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, Central Florida): There was a time back in 2006 that we have an average of 1,000 people moving on a weekly basis from the island to the Central Florida region.
ALLEN: One factor was the economy: The recession hit Puerto Rico earlier than the mainland. Lawyers, businessmen and health care professionals came here looking for opportunities. But for many years, while Puerto Ricans' numbers grew, their political influence didn't. There are still just a few county commissioners and just one state representative who are Puerto Rican. One reason is that, until recently, most Puerto Ricans either didn't vote, or they cast their ballots back on their home island.
Ms. MARYTZA SANZ (Latino Leadership): The island, it's like having that picture of your mom when your mom is gone, you're always going to love and remember her. That is my island for me.
ALLEN: Marytza Sanz is with Latino Leadership, a group that does voter education and outreach. In the last election, Latino Leadership ran ads and did registration drives in an effort to get Puerto Ricans to the polls in Florida.
Ms. SANZ: Telling them it's okay that you love Puerto Rico, but if you decide to live in the United States in Orlando - we are talking about Florida - you have to then have a commitment for the place that you choose to live. And that is voting locally.
ALLEN: In the last election, it's a message that got through. Candidate Barack Obama courted Puerto Ricans and Central Florida, visiting the area twice during the campaign. Aubrey Jewett, associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, says as a result, Puerto Ricans registered to vote and turned out in record numbers for Obama, helping him carry the Hispanic vote and win Florida. He says that could have future significance for Florida and for both political parties.
Professor AUBREY JEWETT (Political Science, University of Central Florida): If Central Florida, the I-4 corridor, is the swing region of the state, then that Puerto Rican community seems to be the swing group in the swing region of the state. And if that community continues to register and begins to turn out more and more regularly, they will become a big political force.
ALLEN: A big political force that's only expected to grow. In Puerto Rico, the commonwealth's governor, Luis Fortuno, has announced he's cutting 30,000 public sector jobs. He's already carried out the first wave of layoffs, firing some 8,000 workers. Included in each worker's severance package is $2,500 to pay for relocation costs. Emilio Perez of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida says the region is bracing for a new wave of migration from the island.
Mr. PEREZ: It's going to be a domino effect because if these people move here and they find jobs, then the other ones are going to move here too. So, yeah, you're going to have huge, huge changes coming to Orlando soon.
ALLEN: Some of those changes will be measured next year by the census. Many here expect that when the count is done, Florida will move past New York as the country's third most populous state — and one factor is the explosive growth in the Puerto Rican community. The state could pick up two new congressional seats. Some analysts say that, under the Voting Rights Act, one of those new seats may have to be drawn to represent Central Florida's Puerto Ricans.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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