Kissimmee, Florida

Maria Lopez Reeves stares out the minivan window at a series of unfamiliar storefronts.

"I hope we're going the right way," she tells her husband, David.

He shrugs and replies in Spanish, "Si no es por aqui, es por alla." If it isn't this way, it's the other way.

They're trying to find a Pentecostal church, where the service is scheduled to start in a matter of minutes.

Maria is anxious. She grew up with people who were more laid back about punctuality. But here, other churchgoers might stare if they're late, and Maria wants to make a good first impression. She needs a new spiritual home.

Maria glances at the clock and shifts in her seat.

"I wonder if this pastor is on Puerto Rican time or American time," she says.

David makes a U-turn and heads in the other direction.

This sprawling stretch of highway in central Florida is at the heart of a political battleground. The population in Osceola County has ballooned in the past decade -- fueled largely by an influx of Latino residents who've helped turn a region that once leaned Republican into a wild card that both presidential candidates want to win.

The county, just south of Orlando, was once known for its old Southern cow towns. Now, residents call parts of the area "Little Puerto Rico."

Maria is one of Osceola County's newest residents, and she's among the undecided voters who could play a key role in shaping the state's election results.

More than three months of searching have brought the 59-year-old Puerto Rican, her husband and their Chihuahua, Chique, to a three-bedroom house here.

Towering trees, swampy wetlands and fields dotted with grazing cows are just a few minutes away. But in this subdivision, small, orderly lots form cul-de-sacs where the houses are mostly shades of beige, with occasional pops of pale pinks and yellows. At her front door, Maria has placed a mat and a wreath that say "WELCOME." But it doesn't feel like home.

Half-emptied cardboard boxes are scattered in every room. The couple sleeps on a stack of three mattresses because they can't find all the pieces of their bed frame. The air seems dusty. Even the Chihuahua has been sneezing.

Maria hasn't met her neighbors. For every well-manicured lawn, there's another overgrown yard with patchy grass and foot-high weeds. Clear signs, she says, that the houses are in foreclosure.

In April, the couple sold their manufactured home in Orlando. Renting here wasn't their first choice. They'd always owned their home before. A decade ago, they had a four-bedroom house with a backyard pool.

But this time, when they wanted to find a place to retire, they learned their credit wasn't good enough to get approved for a mortgage.

For months, they have been eking by on their savings. Now, they're overbudget.

"If we have $50 left over every month, we'll be lucky," Maria says. "People shouldn't have to be living like this anymore."

David, a 57-year-old diabetic and longtime long-haul truck driver, has been out of work since December, when a sudden surge in health problems forced him to take time off from the road. Maria has relied on government disability benefits since severe asthma forced her to stop working as a nurse decades ago. But monthly Social Security checks aren't enough to keep up with the seemingly endless spiral of medical issues. Mounting bills for doctors appointments and medicines are a daily reality.

Despite President Barack Obama's campaign promises, Maria says making ends meet has been harder the past four years. While banks and car companies got bailouts, she says she saw cutbacks in the food stamp funding she receives as part of her disability benefits.

"If anything, we were penalized during these past years," she says.

Maria describes herself as a lifelong Democrat. But she says she doesn't trust Obama and no longer feels strongly about the party she once fervently supported.

"I feel let down. Our party wasn't there for us."

She wonders whether Republican hopeful Mitt Romney would push for the financial help she needs and promote the moral values she supports.

"Will Republicans do more for me now?" she asks. "I'm listening very attentively."

Inside the rental house, a Spanish-English Bible sits on the coffee table. Beside it is a copy of televangelist Joel Osteen's latest book, "Every Day a Friday: How to Be Happier 7 Days a Week."

Maria has given herself a 365-day deadline -- a year to tackle their medical problems and fix their credit.

"At least for the next 12 months, we'll be here," she says.

She believes the presidential election could have a big impact on where they go next.

Maria and David rush through the doors of Living Water Fellowship. An usher hands them programs advertising a welcome event for newcomers after the service.

"Be a part of something bigger," it says.

Loud music swells through speakers from a stage at the front of the Pentecostal church. No one seems to notice Maria and David slipping into seats near the back.

Maria has worshipped at Assemblies of God churches for nearly three decades. But at this one, she spots something different right away.

The pastor is wearing blue jeans. So is much of the congregation.

At the last church Maria attended, the pastor always wore suits. Women were discouraged from wearing pants.

"How many of you grew up in very traditional, legalistic churches?" Pastor Terry Howell asks the congregation during his sermon.

Maria raises her hand.

"You've been set free," the pastor says.

He tells the congregation that he and his wife -- who is also a pastor at the church -- have been married 38 years. He urges older couples to help younger ones who are struggling.

Maria grabs David's hand.

Her first marriage ended in divorce. She calls David her "diamond in the rough." Together, they pray before meals. They banter in Spanglish. Often, he says exactly what she's thinking.

They wed more than 18 years ago, first at a courthouse in Florida, then at a church in Puerto Rico four days later. They've since renewed their vows five times -- once in Las Vegas, at an Elvis chapel.

During this church service in Kissimmee, keyboard chords boom as singers onstage belt out "Jesus is the center of it all."

Maria stands up, sings along and sways, waving her hands in the air.

Dozens of flags from around the world hang from the rafters. There's an American flag in the middle, with the Puerto Rican flag by its side.

As the pastor speaks, Bible verses flash on a giant screen overhead.

"So many times we preach this rosy message," Howell tells the congregation. But he stresses that being Christian won't stop followers from suffering. He says it will help them survive.

"Understand this," the pastor's voice booms, "the fire will come, but you won't be swallowed up."

Many times Maria has walked through the fire:

When the steroids she takes for asthma made her body swell.

When her eardrums burst, leaving her legally deaf.

When a doctor told her that he doubted Medicare would cover the surgery she needed to hear again.

When David's own health problems forced him to stop working.

When they burned through their savings, searching for a place to live.

When she found a photo of her estranged daughter and cried.

When neighbors heard her speaking Spanish and glared.

Faith and family values, she says, have given her strength.

"You're going through the same problems the world goes through," Howell tells the congregation.

Maria says, "Amen."

Home from church, David kicks back on their light mauve, leather living room couch and turns on a big-screen TV purchased during better times.

On the screen, a local newscast shows U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat, shouting into microphones at an Orlando campaign stop. She describes Florida as the election's "biggest battleground state."

Political ads and campaign coverage begin early here -- and, it seems, never stop.

Wasserman Schultz belts out a warning for older residents:

"Our seniors deserve the chance to hear from Congressman (Paul) Ryan and Mitt Romney on why they want to shred the health care safety net that is Medicare and pull it out from under our seniors."

A few minutes later, sitting at the small kitchen table she just bought from a thrift store, Maria admits that Romney's vice presidential pick has her worried.

She was hoping he'd select Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican senator who grew up in Miami, the child of Cuban immigrants.

She doesn't understand why Romney went with Ryan. The night before, she did a Google search to learn more about the Wisconsin congressman. On Wikipedia, she read about his proposals to privatize parts of Medicare as part of his 2011 "path to prosperity" budget.

Ryan has said his approach aims to help the nation's finances while preserving benefits for seniors, but Maria isn't convinced.

She and David are already struggling to get by on $19,000 a year, she says. Warnings that Ryan would gut Medicare weigh heavily on her mind.

"Romney just went --- boom -- down on my list," she says.

But she's anything but excited about the alternative.

Maria voted for Obama in 2008. Her heart was with Hillary Clinton. From her home, she made calls trying to sway primary voters to support the former first lady's candidacy.

"Then I got a little bit passionate," she says, "because I wanted a woman to win."

She's still such a strong supporter of Clinton she keeps a "Hillary for President" bumper sticker on the back of the couple's silver minivan, below a sticker for a Christian radio station, a Jesus fish and a baby waving a Puerto Rican flag.

In 2008, Maria says she cast her ballot for Obama because of Clinton's endorsement.

Now, she says family values are one of several factors pushing her away from the Democrats and making her consider voting Republican.

Obama has gone "way, way overboard" on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, she says.

"If a person wants to be gay, that's fine, that's their lifestyle," Maria says. "I don't want it being imposed on me, or my family, or children."

Marriage should be between a man and a woman, she says. The goal should be having a baby.

Abortion also riles her, especially because there are so many families who want to adopt.

Maria likes Romney's values -- particularly his stance against Roe v. Wade -- but she's not sure about his religion.

"You know, he believes in God, and he believes in Jesus. The rest of his religion, I'm not for," she says. "It's like a cult."

Her own family is fractured. She hasn't seen her 36-year-old daughter in five years.

Maria was a tough parent when her daughter was a teenager. She says their relationship never recovered.

"I'm hoping that eventually she'll see that I wasn't a bad person," Maria says.

She and David dreamt of adopting, but their plans fell through.

They kept the baby furniture, just in case.

For days, Maria and David have been wondering about a tiny roadside restaurant near their new neighborhood. The parking lot always seems packed. Inside, dozens of license plates hang above the counter, each emblazoned with the name of a different city in Puerto Rico and the phrase "Isla del Encanto." Island of Enchantment.

"I like that," Maria says as she walks in for the first time.

Maria was born on the island but moved to Miami with her mother when she was 3 weeks old. Her father had shelled out $8,000 to buy the family's first house.

Growing up as a Puerto Rican in the Miami suburb of Hialeah during the end of the Jim Crow era wasn't easy, Maria says. By the letter of a law passed in 1917, they were U.S. citizens. But it didn't always feel that way.

Her father had darker, caramel-colored skin. Her hazel-eyed mother's skin was light.

Drinking fountains were labeled black and white. Maria didn't know which one to use.

When the family went on road trips, her father filled the back seats with empty cans so they wouldn't have to make any pit stops. If they stayed in a hotel, they picked a room as far from the manager's office as possible. It's a painful memory that flashes through her mind whenever she hears about states such as Arizona and Alabama passing their own immigration laws.

"We tried to assimilate the American way," she says.

But others on their street noticed, even when they laid low.

"The neighbors looked at us as being black and white, when we weren't," Maria says.

One time, through the window, Maria watched flames shoot from a wooden cross ablaze on their front lawn.

She remembers seeing her father march angrily down the street. Later, she learned that when neighbors told him his family wasn't welcome, he stood his ground. "We're here," he said. "And we're here to stay."

Maria was in her 20s when she first moved to the Orlando area. There was only one Spanish radio station in Kissimmee, and the signal was so weak you could barely hear the sound. The only Spanish grocery store shut down after its owner died.

Now, three decades later, there are too many stores to count and plenty of restaurants.

In the corner of this one, beach scenes from the island pan across a flat-screen TV. Maria and David point to places they visited on their honeymoon.

They order rice, roasted pork and plantains. Maria sips on a coconut soda.

She likes living in a part of the state where she can find Puerto Rican food and speak Spanish without getting strange looks. She's proud of the headway Hispanics have made in local politics, and she's hopeful that many will turn out to the polls in November.

But she doesn't see herself as a typical Puerto Rican. She can slip into a Southern twang on command just as easily as she rattles off Spanish sentences. She loves Paula Deen's recipes as much as she loves beans and rice.

She criticizes some local Puerto Ricans for being such militant Democrats that they seem "too married to one side of things."

Maria likes to look at both sides, then make up her mind.

Some Puerto Ricans see her as being "too Anglo," she says.

"I tell them, 'Being Puerto Rican doesn't mean you were raised on the island. Over there, you had it easy,' " she says. "'Try living here since birth, trying to have people look at you as a citizen, not a third-class citizen.' "

On a tiny stage, a man plays a guitar to Caribbean beats. The music makes Maria think of the summers she spent learning to dance with cousins in Old San Juan. Her shoulders start to sway.

"When you go to Puerto Rico, it's like you're back home again," she says. "It's like you never left."

But they leave the restaurant disappointed.

"The price wasn't bad," David says, "but the food was lacking … "

"Flavor," Maria chimes in.

They agree they won't go back.

The next day, Maria and David drive down Kissimmee's main tourist drag, past a sprawling strip of motels, souvenir shops and roadside attractions. Some have boarded-up windows and signs outside that say "For Sale."

It's an area that some locals would avoid. But theme parks and chain restaurants aren't what persuaded them to come here.

They are heading to the town that Disney built.

When they were searching for a rental house, Maria knew she wanted to live near the tony planned community of Celebration because of its state-of-the-art hospital.

On the outside, Celebration Health is designed like a Mediterranean resort, with flower-filled courtyards and red tile roofs. Inside, the CAT scan machine is shaped like a sand castle. Patients can smell aromatherapy ocean scents as the piped-in sound of waves surrounds them.

To Maria, it seems more like a hotel spa than a hospital.

She was surprised the specialist she wanted to see there would accept her. Maria says her age, weight and asthma make her a high-risk patient. Add in Medicare, and many doctors are skittish.

Maria says she's visited doctors who skirt by on the bare minimum when they see Medicare patients.

"They will stand at an arm's length," she says. "They will not go up to you, because they're not being paid to do that. ... They'll write a script, and give it to the patient and they're gone."

She fears Medicare cutbacks could make things even worse.

"I'm tired of going to physicians that just don't care," she says.

Once she learned the doctor in Celebration would take her, and her insurance, she was sold.

If the wealthier residents of the Disney-developed town have access, Maria asks, "Why can't we?"

At the doctor's office, the distant call of seagulls and rustle of a gentle breeze fill the waiting room as an ad on the television shows an island golf resort.

David stares at the waiting room's wood floors, then points at Maria's ankle. "Enchada," he says. Swollen.

Maria leans back in the chair and closes her eyes. David holds her hand.

The television, set on HGTV, shows a young couple in Austin, Texas, searching for their first home.

A nurse calls Maria's name.

Dr. Eduardo Parra-Davila begins the appointment with a question.

"How have you been since the last time I saw you?" he asks. "Are you still having a lot of issues?"

Maria responds in Spanish.

"Tengo un dolor bien fuerte," she says. I have a very strong pain.

Medical problems have haunted Maria her whole life. When she was 3 weeks old, she had her first asthma attack. More than 25 years ago, she contracted pneumonia, a lung collapsed and she went into cardiac arrest. Doctors placed her on life support. It took her nearly a year, she says, to work up enough strength to hold a coffee cup.

A decade ago, her eardrums burst. Left legally deaf, she received a cochlear implant -- initially denied by a doctor who didn't think Medicare would pay for it. Now, piercing pain on her right side keeps her awake at night. Lying on a heating pad hasn't helped. Sometimes, when she tries to eat, food lodges in her throat. Her eyes begin to water. She cannot swallow and can barely breathe.

The doctor says tests have confirmed that she has two hernias -- one in her diaphragm and one on her left side. He doesn't know what's causing the pain on her right side.

"La cirugia se tiene que hacer ya," he tells her. The surgery must be done right away.

After he leaves the room, Maria looks stunned.

David rushes to her side, rubs her back and kisses the top of her head.

"It's gonna be OK," he tells her.

"Well, at least I get to stay here in the Ritz Carlton," she says.

The scheduler suggests a date that's less than 10 days away. Maria asks for more time so they can settle into their house.

She is worried about David.

Before she comes back for surgery, she wants to buy him some frozen vegetables he can prepare easily. And she plans to freeze a giant container of chicken noodle soup.

David says he wants to get her an adjustable bed to help her recovery.

He doesn't know how they will pay for it.

That night, at Walmart, David asks Maria to buy bread.

She refuses. Bread at Walmart costs $3.89. With a coupon from Publix, she says, she can get two better loaves for less.

Maria weaves through the crowded store, glancing around nervously. This is the closest Walmart to their new neighborhood. The aisles are labeled in English and Spanish but nothing looks familiar.

She suspiciously eyes fellow customers. To her, it feels like the sort of Walmart where she shouldn't have brought her purse.

She crisscrosses from one end of the store to the other, unsure of where to find the items on her list.

The first thing she needs is a vacuum. Both she and David have been having trouble breathing. The rental house had to be remodeled after the previous residents trashed it, and she fears lingering construction dust is making them sick.

Maria picks out the cheapest vacuum on the shelves, then crams her cart with mostly store-brand groceries.

After checking out, Maria tells David she wants to go to a nicer Walmart on the other side of town next time.

But another major shopping trip will have to wait. She has spent nearly all of her food stamp money for the month. For the next two weeks, she will have to get by on $36.

Two days later, Maria and David hurry to a nearby bank branch. They've been slapped with a $35 fee for overdrawing their checking account.

In a partitioned office, they explain that they're renting a house in the area.

"Do you like it?" the banker asks.

Maria doesn't answer.

"Estamos mudando y se me paso una cosita anoche," Maria says. We're moving, and something slipped by me last night. "Can you waive the fee?"

David notices a flash of color on the banker's dark wood desk. Beneath her computer monitor is a business card holder with a bright orange beach scene that says "Puerto Rico."

"I like that," David tells her.

The banker helps them set up a new savings account for overdraft protection, waives the $35 fee and hands Maria a brochure for first-time homebuyers.

"Someday you want to buy a house," it says. "Right now you have a million questions."

A local banker is someone who you can ask questions, face to face. Politicians, Maria says, are a different matter.

Back home, in the living room of her half-assembled rental house, images of Obama and Romney flash across the TV screen as they give rapid-fire stump speeches around the country.

Even when the presidential candidates are passing through Florida, they seem far away from the life she lives.

"If I had one wish, I'd sit down with both of them," Maria says. "Cut the B.S. Let's just talk."

She would take them to the grocery store and tell them how much it costs her to buy a decent loaf of bread.

She would show them how quickly her Social Security check disappears.

She would tell them about the foreign countries she's researched where retirees can live affordably, with generous help from their governments.

"I don't think anybody wants to leave their country," she says. "But if we don't see anything better coming our way, we may be forced to go."

Financial and health problems make Maria uncertain about what the next year has in store. But she knows she will vote in November.

She scours websites for information on the candidates. She leans in to hear the television when she sees their faces appear during campaign ads and news reports.

Maria has placed a magnet from the Living Water Fellowship church on her refrigerator.

She says she is praying for guidance about what to do next.

A year from now, she wants to have a home.