Boricua Boom: Can Puerto Ricans Become The New Cubans Of South Florida Politics?

Oct 24, 2016

Before Wynwood was the heart of hipster Miami, it was a Puerto Rican enclave. So Puerto Rican community leaders and business owners recently gathered there at Jimmy'z Kitchen for a campaign fundraiser.

“We’re here tonight to help this brother,” Miami-Dade College social sciences chairman Victor Vazquez told guests as they ate beneath a painting by Puerto Rican artist Ronnie Olabarrieta.

"This brother” was a soft spoken Puerto Rican political novice, Robert Asencio.

Asencio, a Democrat and former Miami-Dade Schools police captain, is running for state representative from District 118 in West Miami-Dade County. If he wins he’ll be the first Puerto Rican elected to the state legislature from South Florida in 50 years.

“It’ll certainly be a great milestone,” says Asencio. “Hopefully through my election we’ll be able to unify Puerto Ricans, our community, a lot more.”

RELATED: Boricua Boom: Will Puerto Ricans Change South Florida's Latino Landscape?

The Asencio fundraiser itself was an unusual display of Puerto Rican political unity in South Florida. But perhaps more significant: Ascencio could defeat a Cuban Republican, former Miami Congressman David Rivera.

Rivera has more name recognition. But ethics investigations and other legal problems give him more negatives. (WLRN reached out to Rivera for comment, but he did not respond.) Another reality: District 118 is 80 percent Latino; but while a decade ago that meant Cuban Republicans, it doesn’t anymore.

“I thought most of the district was predominantly Cuban,” says Asencio. “That’s not the case. It’s representative of the rest of South Florida. It’s a blend.”

I used to think most of my district was predominantly Cuban. That's not the case anymore. It's representative of the rest of South Florida today. It's a blend...Hopefully, my election could unify Puerto Ricans, our community, a lot more. –Robert Asencio

A blend that includes Central Americans, South Americans – and Puerto Ricans, who feel they stand the best chance of rivaling Cubans as a leading Latino force in South Florida politics. One that would be a lot more Democrat.

“Now the Puerto Rican community is feeling its oats,” says Vazquez. “Our numbers have been increasing for a long time, and that's going to change the political landscape.”

Puerto Ricans – or Boricuas, as they call themselves – are South Florida’s fastest-growing Latino group. Economic crisis in Puerto Rico is pushing migration to Florida – and the state now has more than a million Puerto Ricans. A third of them live in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade Counties.

South Florida is seeing more Puerto Rican pride parades, hearing more reggaeton during Puerto Rican heritage nights at Marlins Park and eating at more Puerto Rican restaurants like Casa Borinquen in Pembroke Pines.

But can South Florida Puerto Ricans turn that population growth into political clout? Although Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Ricans on the island cannot vote for President. But they are U.S. citizens – so they can register to vote as soon as they arrive on the U.S. mainland.

Asencio (center) with campaign donors at his Wynwood fundraiser.
Credit Tim Padgett / WLRN.org

Thanks to a new registration drive, up to half a million Florida Puerto Ricans – most of them Democrats – are estimated to be signed up for the Nov. 8 presidential election.

“It’s my first vote in Florida,” says Delfina Catala, a mortgage banker who left San Juan last year and came to Tamarac. When Catala got here she was stunned by Donald Trump’s harsh talk about immigrants and Latinos.

“It’s sad or disgusting to hear him when he talks about the Latinos,” she says. “I realized pretty quickly that Puerto Ricans need to get more involved in politics here.”

Puerto Ricans are in fact involved in politics in Florida – that is, in Central Florida, which has a larger and longer established Puerto Rican community. It’s turned historically Republican cities like Kissimmee Democrat – and in Orlando, Democrat Darren Soto could be elected Florida’s first Puerto Rican congressman next month.

Still, things remain different in South Florida, where Puerto Rican Democrats face a tough obstacle: Republican Cubans, who’ve dominated Latino politics here for decades.

PASSIONATE ISSUE

“You have to take into account that Puerto Ricans are different from Cubans,” says Maurice Ferré, who was mayor of Miami from 1973 to 1985.

Ferre is Puerto Rican, but his grandfather was Cuban. Despite Ferre’s own success, he wonders if Puerto Ricans are politically driven enough to become South Florida’s new Cubans.

“The Cuban political character is more aggressive and ambitious.”

Newly arrived Puerto Rican - and newly registered voter - Delfina Catala with U.S. and Puerto Rican flags at her home in Tamarac.
Credit Tim Padgett / WLRN.org

Puerto Rican activists point out Cubans here have always had a passionate issue to unite them: communist Cuba. But they say Puerto Ricans now have their own galvanizing cause: the economic crisis in Puerto Rico – and Washington’s handling of it.

That includes Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s decision not to help Puerto Rico get bankruptcy protection. Rubio, a Cuban Republican, is up for re-election next month – and Puerto Ricans like Miramar industrial engineer Angie Flores want to hold him accountable.

“Terrible, that was very bad from him,” says Flores. “He turned his power against us like he didn’t care.”

Rubio argues bankruptcy protection might cost U.S. taxpayers. Either way, South Florida Puerto Ricans are hoping to influence this election: the U.S. Senate race, a presidential election – and their first Boricua state legislator in half a century.

Politically, that might be hipster even in Wynwood.