Every day, Puerto Ricans in Florida and the rest of America are suffering from the effects of Hurricane Maria. Puerto Ricans are struggling to find housing. Puerto Ricans had to leave their jobs, livelihood, and homes to come to the United States because Puerto Rico—suddenly, was not fit for human habitation. Admittingly, voting in the general election on November 6th will not solve all our problems, but it will move us in the right direction. Voting will make sure our schools are properly funded and have plenty of Spanish speaking faculty. Voting will make sure we are treated fairly by the criminal justice system. Voting elects politicians that enact policies making it easier for displaced professionals to begin anew in Florida. Voting lets politicians know they need to respect our vote. Voting will provide affordable housing. Voting guarantees fair representation in all levels of government. In short, voting makes the impossible happen. Let these following stories show you what we are going through, so you know what is at stake.
Victor Ayala, a twelve-year-old kid from Ponce. Victor moved with his abuela to Tampa after Hurricane Maria destroyed his Middle School, so he could finish the Seventh Grade. He comes from a school that teaches in Spanish with one mandatory class in English. He’s smart, passing all his classes with flying colors. Then Victor moves to Tampa and enrolls for school when he arrives at the airport and starts a week later. Victor’s schoolhouse experience suddenly changes. Victor is now in a foreign land. He is a minority now. During his first two months at school in Tampa, Victor is constantly teased for his Spanish accent, his broken English, his curly hair, and his olive-colored skin. Victor’s grades slip because of Tampa’s lack of Spanish speaking teachers to accommodate him.
Victor is mad, mad that he now lives in a country that sees him as a brown minority, someone who does not belong in America. Victor is mad that he lives in a country with a President who whines and complains when Americans citizens, like Victor, need a helping hand. One day, a bully makes a cruel joke about Victor’s accent when he asks, “where de bus estacíon es?” and he snaps. Months of built up anger, depression, and frustration rush out in one instance when Victor beats the bully and breaks his nose. But Victor is a person of color in America, a student of a low-income school patrolled by police. Victor is subsequently arrested and sent to a juvenile detention facility. Victor spends the night there, curled up, trembling and scared as the other kids yell at him and taunt him as a show of dominance and strength. Wishing he was back home in his old room in Ponce, as if this whole ordeal never happened. However, wishing a problem away does not make it go away.
The next day, Victor appears before a judge for “sounding” the proper term for the arraignment proceeding for a juvenile. The judge must speak slow, in the most irritated way, so that Victor can understand his rights and the proper procedural steps. Since Victor is a first-time offender, the judge releases him with restrictions that he only leave his home to travel to and from school and work and a mandatory curfew. Six months later, Victor attends his trial, he still feels anger that he is punished for the racism he experiences and sorrow for the loss of his home in Ponce. The trial lasts forty-five minutes and is a bench trial—meaning the judge sits as
“judge, jury and executioner.” The only witnesses are the bully, the arresting officer, and a teacher who helped break up the fight. Victor is convicted of battery and sentenced to six months in juvenile detention.
Victor is a victim of being an unwanted minority in a city sprawling with opportunity. Victor was forced to move after Maria, move from his friends, from his parents working hard to survive, from his old life in Puerto Rico. Victor understandably became depressed, angry, and was punished when those frustrations erupted out of him like a pyroclastic flow from a volcano.
Voting in the upcoming election may seem meaningless to stopping Victor’s suffering but, it can prevent episodes like this from happening again. This November provides an opportunity for us to vote people into office that deeply care for our values and community. Voting this November, and every other election, will guarantee that all public schools absorbing refugees from Maria have plenty of Spanish speaking teachers and teaching aids so kids like Victor will not let his grades suffer for coming to America and learning a new language. Voting to enact policies that keep kids like Victor from entering the criminal justice system over a simple schoolyard fight. Vote this November to guarantee Victor will get community service hours as a punishment as opposed to time behind bars. Voting makes the impossible happen.
Next, Lorenzo Andino, a single, twenty-five-year-old adult from San Juan. Lorenzo had a great life in San Juan, working as a paralegal since high school. Lorenzo lost his job after Hurricane Maria when his employer’s office was destroyed, and Lorenzo decided to make the move with his Tío in Kissimmee, Florida. Unfortunately, Lorenzo’s Tío lost his house to a foreclosure, so now Lorenzo must stay at a resort off U.S. 192, while he looks for full-time work. Lorenzo does not speak English well, since working as a paralegal in Puerto Rico requires an excellent command of Spanish and Civil Law. However, Florida is a common law state, a major difference akin to the difference between English and Spanish. Lorenzo feels like his on-the-job education is useless. Instead working at a fast food joint to keep afloat, getting yelled at daily by customers and management. Lorenzo now realizes he must start from the bottom, in his own country.
Lorenzo’s money is running out too. Like most Americans, he has a meager savings account, let alone enough money for a life-changing move after the storm of the century. Lorenzo’s situation is typical of most people fleeing Hurricane Maria. But Lorenzo’s situation is fixable, needing only three things to help keep him settled in America. Those things are: financial assistance in the form of FEMA housing assistance, language education, and professional licensing help. First and foremost, Lorenzo needs an extension on FEMA housing assistance, so he will not have to become homeless while in America. Homelessness is a terrible thing in America, with nowhere to go when hurricane-force winds whip through Central Florida in summer afternoons. Homelessness means no place for refuge from the scorching Florida sun, a burning reminder of why they call Florida, “the Sunshine State.” Homelessness means scavenging garbage cans for food because you have no money to buy your own. Homelessness means begging at a busy intersection for cash as cars full of apathetic people honk and speed past you. Homelessness means you cannot vote because you do not have a physical address, meaning you cannot belong to any legislative district to hold accountable for lack of affordable housing, public shelter, or laws preventing people from feeding you.
Next, language training is integral to our transition to the United States because English is the dominant language here and, if we want to do well here, we will need to learn it fluently. Rarely is it possible to succeed in America without a good command of the English language. Money issued on free or low-cost courses will help Lorenzo “pick-up” English quick, so he can get back into his chosen field fast. Lastly, professional licensing accommodations will help displaced Puerto Ricans get back into their chosen fields by eliminating or accommodating them for the needed testing or educational requirements.
Voting for officials in Washington to ensure that FEMA housing assistance will be reinstated so that all displace Puerto Ricans across the nation will not have to worry about becoming homeless due to Hurricane Maria. Vote for state and local politicians who advocate for spending money on language learning programs, so Puerto Rican refugees will have an opportunity to learn English so, should they choose to stay, can have a chance at opportunity in this great nation.
Lastly, vote in those who want to make it easier for Puerto Rican professionals to continue their professions in places like Orlando, or Miami so they will not have to fall into poverty. These programs will help Lorenzo become a licensed paralegal in Florida and help him learn about common law and its differences from Puerto Rican civil law. Coming out in strong numbers this November sends a strong message to politicians all over that if you do not care about our plight—you will lose your job in the next election.
Lastly, there’s Lydieliz Zambo, a thirty-four-year-old single mother of two. Lydieliz worked at a doctor’s office in Carolína doing medical billing and coding. After Hurricane Maria came and ravaged Puerto Rico, Lydieliz lost her home to the storm, her kids had no school to go to since the blackout left their school abandoned. Lydieliz’s job was left in ruins in addition to the lack of power to work the computers she needs to work. So Lydieliz decides to move to Orlando for a better life. So, her kids can go to school. So Lydieliz can get her life on track. However, when she comes to Orlando, she realizes that there is no affordable housing in the city. Her family has no place for her to stay, even temporarily. Lydieliz takes FEMA money to live in a motel until she gets her situation straight. She is a Spanish speaker in a largely English nation and Lydieliz has two kids to raise in a nation that makes single parenting the hardest job in the world for a Latina. Lydieliz must work at a barbeque restaurant to make enough money to take care of her kids, hopefully enough to find a permanent place to live.
Lydieliz finds that, unlike Puerto Rico, she will not make enough money to meet all her expenses. She will need food stamps to make sure her kids do not starve. She must take the bus to work because she used up her savings to come to America. The Jones Act makes the chore of shipping her car to Florida a $3,000 effort. What does Lydieliz really need? She needs to get her car here to Florida at low cost and she needs help finding a new job in her chosen field: medical billing and coding. Voting can make those two, seemingly impossible, things happen.
Vote for candidates who openly advocate for repealing the Jones Act, so Boricuas, and Puerto Rico itself, will not be constricted by $3,000 shipping costs when comparable trips to Jamaica or Virgin Islands costs $1,500. Florida is a swing state, politically that means that this state does not reliably vote for either party. Both presidential candidates vie for Florida’s vote every election. Puerto Ricans are in a unique position to swing Florida to their choosing. If we let those politicians in Washington know that these issues are important to us—they will abide by our requests. Making Lydieliz’s shipping costs for her car much cheaper. And helping Lydieliz find work as a medical billing and coder. These goals may seem impossible but that’s what voting does: makes the impossible happen.
You may find it hard to understand how November’s election has to do with Victor, Lorenzo, and Lydieliz’s stories but they are the key to the success of our people after exile from our home. Vote to look out for Boricuas! Vote to elect fellow Boricuas since so few of us, represent us. Vote Boricuas into all public offices, from judge to state attorney, from state representative to attorney general! If you are not yet registered to vote: do it! The deadline in Florida is October 9th. Some areas of the state even have Spanish ballots.
Voting on the November 6th General Election will make sure that our voice is heard, that our demands are met, that our community is respected and in control of its own destiny. Voting will convince Washington to grant extra FEMA housing assistance to the thousands in Florida and everywhere else living in motels as look for permanent employment. Voting will force Tallahassee to fund affordable housing in Tampa, Orlando, and Miami where it is most needed. Making sure Lydieliz will not have to worry about a roof over her kids’ heads as she begins looking for work. Voting will bring job programs for displaced Puerto Ricans, so Lorenzo, can find a high skill, higher income, job in Central Florida. Voting will give us a voice, a voice that speaks for us in a time where forces are active to keep our kids, like Victor, poor and marginalized. Voting will make sure we have one of us, representing us. Again, the Puerto Rican community faces challenges that will take more than a vote to fix, however as the ancient Chinese saying simplifies, “a thousand-mile journey begins with a single step.” Let us begin by voting to make the impossible happen this November.