Latinos in Central Florida: The power of the Puerto Rican electorate

Story highlights

  • It's estimated that about half a million Puerto Ricans live in Central Florida
  • Some observers consider them swing voters who could shift back toward Republicans

(CNN)In the past 15 years, the Latino population in Central Florida, a key electoral region, has grown more diverse with a noticeable rise of migration of people from Puerto Rico. They've joined immigrants from Cuba, Mexico, Dominican Republic and Colombia along the Interstate 4 corridor.

About 1 million Puerto Ricans live in Florida, according to 2014 census data. And a report by the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York shows more than half a million Puerto Ricans live in Central Florida alone.
    In Kissimmee, the majority of Hispanics are from Puerto Rico.
    "They come from the big political craziness in Puerto Rico. What I think is they want to just take a break here," says Luis Figueroa, a young real estate agent who left Puerto Rico nine years ago. Figueroa is involved in politics in Kissimmee and is thinking about launching a bid for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives as a Republican.
    "I think that if we unite and we commit to vote, we can change the governor of the state, we change the president of the nation, but if we don't go out and vote, it's pointless," he adds.
    Overall, Puerto Ricans are 41% of the Latino population in Central Florida, while Mexicans have surpassed the population of Cubans since 2000. Today, Cubans are about 13% of the population. But despite its growth, the percentage of Puerto Ricans as part of the electorate has not changed significantly. The center's study shows that Puerto Ricans were 51% of the Latino electorate in Central Florida in 1990 and in 2014, they accounted for 52% of the electorate.
    This is because of the decline of the Cuban electorate in Central Florida (from 20% to about 13% of Latino eligible voters between 1990 and 2014) and the influx of immigrants from Central and South America, according to the center's study.

    An economic boost

    That migration has help the local economy.
    That includes places such as Plaza del Sol, a Spanish-style marketplace that revived the old Osceola Square Mall, thanks in part to Hispanic entrepreneurship.
    Karina Oyola, owner of a tax preparation business, moved her office to the mall more than a year ago and already is thinking about expanding. Oyola says she hears political conversations constantly in the mall.
    "Now there's a little bit more understanding, but some still don't give the importance that it deserves," she says. Oyola is from Peru. She says voting there is mandatory, and people are fined if they don't vote. She says an immigrant's voting patterns can be influenced by previous political experience.
    She employs Sulay Sanchez, an immigrant from Colombia, who moved to Kissimmee less than two years ago after living in New Jersey for 15 years. She says politics are now more part of her life.
    "My daughters were born here, and you grow roots here in this country and now you know more about this country than the one you were born in," she says.
    Colombians are the fifth-largest group of immigrants in Central Florida. Jose Alvarez has seen the growth of the Latino community in the region over the past 19 years.
    He moved to Kissimmee from Miami and is now a city commissioner. He believes Hispanics need to engage at all levels in the political process.
    "The Hispanic community tends to vote in the general election," Alvarez says. "So, when they go to the general election, they don't see their candidate, and what happened is their candidate lost in the primary."
    Alvarez switched parties from Republican to Democrat shortly after moving to Kissimmee. He says he was mainly Republican because that's what he learned from his parents. The center's study shows Latinos comprised 14% of the total registered voters in Central Florida in 2014, and 45% of them were registered as Democrats, 17% were registered as Republicans and 36% were registered with no party affiliation.

    A reversible trend?

    Some 83% of Puerto Ricans in Florida voted for Barack Obama in 2012. But Alfonso Aguilar, director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles based in Washington, believes that is a trend that can be reversed.
    "Puerto Rican voters are swing voters. The majority have been identified as independent. They did vote for Barack Obama in the last election by wide margin, but they have supported Republican candidates. They supported Marco Rubio when he ran for the Senate; they voted in big numbers for Jeb Bush when he ran for governor," he says.
    Although there has been a sizable growth of Latinos from Latin America, Puerto Ricans are an important part of the politics calculation in the state this election year.
    The center's study says that the turnout rate and voter preference of Puerto Ricans in Central Florida may be of extraordinary importance to the result of the state's election in a tight race.
    Figueroa credits the Democratic Party for the inroads it has made in this community, but he believes his party has to do better on important issues to Latinos.
    "First thing we need to do is set aside from this craziness law that we want to put in immigration. We cannot deport 12 million people. That's craziness, that's madness."
    He says to gain the trust of voters, he will run on his own agenda should he decide to launch a bid for a state house seat.
    As for most politicians, it is increasingly clear that the road to victory -- state or nationwide -- crosses Central Florida.