We Count: Untold voters stories

‘Trying to get on with our lives’

Decades ago, Puerto Ricans brought change to one Rust Belt city on the shores of Lake Erie. Today, the city of Lorain is providing a lifeline to a new wave of Puerto Ricans, who could influence the politics of a presidential battleground state — *if* they vote.

LORAIN, Ohio – Nearly four years ago, Suzette Sanchez traded the sun, sand, sea and high cost of living in her native Puerto Rico for the gray skies and grit of this Rust Belt city.

It may have been the best decision of her life.

We Count: Untold Voters Stories

As America prepares to make its choice in the 2020 elections, CNN ventured into the lives of voters around the country who are often overlooked in the traditional narratives about politics. As Hispanics are poised to become the largest minority voting bloc in American elections, we explore the Puerto Rican vote in an unlikely spot: the Rust Belt town of Lorain, Ohio.

Sanchez, 45, quickly landed a job and became a homeowner. And after Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017, Sanchez’s adopted community became a refuge for her extended family as they fled the devastation, a place for her younger brother and his wife to start over.

Similar tales have played out all across this old steel town on the shores of Lake Erie. The hurricane evacuees who have settled here represent just the latest wave of Puerto Ricans to call Lorain and this strip of northeast Ohio home, arriving decades after the first “Boricuas” moved to the region for jobs in the steel industry.

They’re making their new homes in a swing state that has a reputation for making or breaking elections. After backing President Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012, Ohio went for Donald Trump in 2016. And Trump lost Lorain County to Democrat Hillary Clinton by just 131 votes.

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Suzette Sanchez, 45, left her native Puerto Rico nearly four years ago. Today, she’s a case worker at El Centro, a nonprofit in Lorain, Ohio.

President Trump’s relationship with Puerto Rico – a place he has labeled “one of the most corrupt places on earth” – has been tenuous from the start. Eight months after the President was sworn in, Maria barreled into the US territory, leaving thousands dead and ravaging the island’s infrastructure and economy. And, in the years since, Trump has feuded bitterly and publicly with government officials critical of his administration’s disaster response.

It’s hard to track exactly how many Puerto Ricans have arrived and remained in northeast Ohio in the more than two years since the hurricane. As many as 5,000 may have relocated to the Cleveland area – 30 miles east of Lorain – in the immediate aftermath of the storm, says Magda Gomez, who helped start the Bienvenidos a Cleveland project to support the newly arrived islanders. She also oversees diversity and inclusion efforts at a local community college.

But, should they turn out, this new group of transplants could make its mark on the 2020 election. Puerto Ricans, like those who hail from other US territories, are American citizens at birth, free to live wherever they like in the United States. They cannot cast ballots in the general election for the president while living on the island but can do so as soon as they establish residency in any US state.

In the months after the storm, Lorain’s El Centro de Servicios Sociales, the community-service nonprofit organization where Sanchez works as a case manager and interpreter, served more than 320 families from Puerto Rico, says its director, Victor Leandry.

El Centro is a hub for Lorain’s Latino community – providing a place for English-language classes, parenting courses and information about medical care, housing and voting.

“We keep telling them, it’s your right to vote,” Sanchez says of the center’s outreach. “We are teaching them that they have a voice.”

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Locals line up during a food bank drive at El Centro in November 2019.

Largest bloc

Nationally, Latinos are poised to a play big role in the election.

This year, some 32 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote – accounting for a little more than 13% of eligible voters and overtaking African Americans to become the largest minority voting bloc in the country for the first time, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Everyone within the diaspora in our communities – whether we are in Chicago or in Lorain or in Allentown or in Orlando – we know that 2020 is a moment we have to seize,” says Erica Gonzalez, executive director of Power 4 Puerto Rico, a coalition of groups representing Puerto Ricans across the country. “The potential is there.”

But Gonzalez and Mayra Macías, executive director of Latino Victory – an organization aimed at creating greater Latino participation in politics – say there’s no guarantee that Latinos will vote in the numbers they represent without early and persistent outreach by candidates, political parties and outside groups.

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A mural depicting Puerto Rican and US flags is seen in Lorain.

“Demography is not destiny,” Macías said. “Just because those numbers are there doesn’t mean they will actualize into political power, unless we are creating an infrastructure to engage the Latino community.”

Turnout among Latinos surged to a record high for midterm elections in 2018, when 40% of eligible Latino voters cast ballots. But that still lagged behind turnout among non-Hispanic whites (57.5%) and African Americans (51.4%).

Trump’s allies say the Latino vote is not monolithic, and his reelection campaign is determined to find pockets of support among Puerto Ricans who now live on the mainland, despite the President’s fraught history with some of the island’s elected leaders.

Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the joint Trump-Republican National Committee reelection operation, said Republicans will emphasize “shared values” on issues such as school choice with Latino voters.

“If we win 1 or 2 points more than we did in 2016 that puts” states like Ohio “out of reach” for Democrats, he said.

Shared history

Nearly 30% of Lorain’s residents are Hispanic – driven largely by a Puerto Rican population that first arrived in large numbers in 1947 as part of a concerted recruiting campaign by the National Tube Co.

The company, part of US Steel, faced intense competition for workers during the city’s steelmaking heyday, so it hired a Philadelphia firm to relocate Puerto Ricans to the then-bustling industrial town.

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The US Steel Corporation plant sits across the street from El Centro.

After the recruitment drive ended, waves of islanders kept coming and more families established roots here.

In the decades since, production at steel plants has slowed or stopped entirely. A Ford assembly plant shut down in 2005. But Puerto Rican culture endures in this city.

In heavily Latino South Lorain, for instance, Roman’s Groceries advertises “Spanish-American Foods” and a large mural near the entrance pays homage to the island’s history. A 10-minute drive away, Mi Casa restaurant serves up pollo guisado and fried yucca to a busy lunch crowd.

And last fall, El Centro’s annual block party – held across the street from an idled steel plant – was alive with Daddy Yankee’s reggaeton music and the squeals of children attempting to scale a mobile climbing wall.

There’s grim poverty on these streets, too.

On a blustery fall afternoon, nearly 200 people – Latino, black, white – snake through El Centro’s brick building and parking lot, collecting eggplants, fresh eggs, sacks of sweet potatoes and cans of Manwich sloppy joe mix at the once-a-month food pantry the organization hosts with the Second Harvest Food Bank.

Roughly 1 in 4 Lorain residents lived in poverty in 2018 – more than double the national rate, according to the most recent estimates from the US Census Bureau. Bus service isn’t widespread, making it hard for those without transportation to navigate the city and find jobs, Sanchez says.

But for all the poverty here, Lorain has offered a critical lifeline to Puerto Ricans who have left the island.

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Suzette Sanchez, originally of San Juan, Puerto Rico, meets with colleagues before a food bank drive at El Centro, where she is a case worker.

Sanchez, for instance, left in the summer of 2016 – worn down by the soaring cost of living in the San Juan metropolitan area and declining public services. Even working 60 hours a week in advertising sales, Sanchez says, she couldn’t afford to buy a house and still pay all her other bills. Physician shortages meant waiting as long as six months for a medical appointment.

In Lorain, where her husband has relatives, she bought a home on the east side of the city for $18,000 that she’s rehabilitating. Her mother and adult daughter relocated to Lorain before the storm. Sanchez’s husband, Gabriel, who needs a liver transplant, is getting medical care. Her son, Diego, is in middle school and adjusting to the new environment.

“My quality of life is 100% better,” Sanchez says.

An economic disaster

Back in Puerto Rico in 2017, Sanchez’s younger brother Victor Sanchez and his wife, Enid Colon, rode out Hurricane Maria at home in Bayamon, a community southwest of San Juan.

Their sturdy, one-story concrete home survived the storm, but the family could not withstand the economic blow that followed. They lived for months without electricity or running water.

Victor Sanchez, 43, is disabled after three back surgeries and cannot work. Colon, 56, was a salesperson at Sears, and her hours dwindled to three a week after the storm. Their home was appraised at $80,000, Sanchez says, but they owed the bank $120,000.

After months of anxiety, they decided to leave the island. They declared bankruptcy and started over in Lorain at his sister’s urging.

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Traditional Puerto Rican vejigante masks sit in storage at El Centro.

Today, they rent an immaculately maintained apartment a block from the lake for $500 a month. Colon is working on an assembly line at a Tysons Food plant in nearby Amherst. Sanchez’s new doctors, meanwhile, plan to experiment with neural stimulation to ease his crippling back pain.

“We are trying to get on with our lives,” he says.

Across town, a similar story has unfolded for the family of Carmen Santiago Vargas. Santiago Vargas, who moved to Lorain in 2016, sheltered her mother, sister and niece after Maria blew apart their homes and lives in Adjuntas, a mountainside town in central Puerto Rico.

Her niece, Grace Santiago Rivera, 23, says she lost her job as a waitress and cook after the storm. The supermarket where her now-husband worked went out of business.

So they began anew in Lorain in late 2018 and last year welcomed a baby daughter, Kelsy.

But Santiago Rivera has not yet registered to vote and has mixed feelings about Trump. She says doesn’t care for his hard-line approach to Mexican immigrants, but she and her aunt both say they want to reserve judgment on the President.

“I don’t know him; I don’t know his ideals,” Santiago Vargas says of Trump. “Every night, I ask God to guide everyone who wants to guide the country.”

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Carmen Santiago Vargas volunteers at a food bank at El Centro.

Suzette Sanchez says many of the newly arrived Puerto Ricans just “don’t have the time” to engage in politics. “They have to invest all the time in knowing how they are going to survive, how are they going to eat.”

Sanchez, who also helps the county elections board with translations, avoids any discussion of partisan politics.

Her brother has no such reservations. Within months of arriving last year, Victor Sanchez cast his ballot in municipal elections in Lorain. He voted early in the Democratic presidential primary and supported former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has since ended his campaign.

Bloomberg “ran New York like a champ,” Sanchez says. He believes Bloomberg was well-positioned to help his home island navigate its continuing recovery from the storm and the series of earthquakes that this year damaged thousands of homes in southwest Puerto Rico and disrupted life yet again for a swath of the population.

The eventual Democratic nominee is likely to get his support in November, when he votes for president in a general election for the first time. He’s already decided that Trump won’t get his vote.

The President “is not a good person,” he says.

“He treats the Puerto Rican people like trash. The people in Puerto Rico, el pueblo … need the help,” Sanchez adds. “Forget about the government and just help the people.”

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Stickers at El Centro remind residents to vote.

Credits

  • Additional footage: Jonathan O'Bierne
  • Supervising Video Producer: Jacque Smith
  • Photo Editors: Brett Roegiers, Heather Fulbright
  • Story Editor: Jessica Estepa
  • Digital design and development: Sean O’Key