Puerto Rican attorney Iara Rodriguez waved campaign signs and cheered at the 2012 Democratic Convention as President Barack Obama was nominated. But the delegate’s euphoria faded when she returned home and, like everyone else living in Puerto Rico, could only watch as the rest of the country voted for its commander in chief. By January, she had moved to Orlando, joining a record number of Puerto Ricans who have left the island in recent years — more than 60,000 in 2012 — the majority landing in Florida. Most are fleeing Puerto Rico’s economic crisis, yet their presence on the mainland is drawing newfound attention to an age-old question back home of whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st state, remain a territory or become independent. A loose coalition of civic leaders in Florida and on the island is seeking to leverage the state’s growing Puerto Rican presence to turn this issue into something the rest of Americans can easily understand: a fight for equality and the right to vote. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth, but because the island is only a territory, its residents can vote for president only if they move to a state.
“It’s a citizenship issue. It’s like when women weren’t able to vote, when African-American’s weren’t able to vote,” Rodriguez said. “One of the reasons that my husband and I moved here to Florida was to not feel like a second-class citizen.”
Florida is home to nearly 1 million of Americans of Puerto Rican descent and is fast gaining on New York, which has around 1.2 million, according to the U.S. Census. Statehood advocates are counting on Florida’s influence in presidential elections to amplify their message in a way that those in the Democratic stronghold of New York haven’t been able to do.
Supporters are pushing their message of equality at the state and national level. This fall, the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida held its second annual moot court, inviting law school teams to argue the constitutionality of giving the island full political rights. In Orlando, former GOP state representative and attorney Tony Suarez is launching a grassroots Republican group that puts Puerto Rican equality among its top priorities. And in November, a group founded by the former president of the University of Puerto Rico held a rally outside the Capitol in support of equal rights.