The Orlando skyline is gray and gloomy the Tuesday morning that Carlos Baerga arrives from Puerto Rico.
A few moments after getting off a plane at Orlando International Airport, the 20-year-old and his mother have stopped for some cafecito and a bite at one of the area's best-known Boricua restaurants, Melao Bakery. In mere hours, they uprooted their life in the mountainous municipality of Jayuya to join the mass exodus of Puerto Ricans who are fleeing from the financial crisis on the island to the U.S., especially to Central Florida.
"I've been here before, so I kind of already knew what it would be like," he says as he looks out the window toward the rain. "But I'm already feeling a little homesick."
By the end of 2014, 64,000 Puerto Ricans had migrated from the commonwealth to the mainland, and the amount of empty homes rose to 22 percent, according to the island's Institute of Statistics. Thousands continued to leave into 2015 as Gov. Alejandro Padilla declared that the territory had $72 billion in "unpayable" debt and was close to an economic death spiral.
"What we have seen in the last two years is a shift toward desperation," says Dr. Luis Martínez-Fernández, a history professor at the University of Central Florida. "People are saying 'Let's leave next week, forget about the house' or 'I'll find a job when I get there.' This crisis doesn't seem to have a solution any time soon."
As the situation worsens, Congress has opposed pleas from Puerto Rican representatives and activists to allow the colony to use bankruptcy protections permitted for states. It's important to note here that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and although we allow them to enroll in the military and fight in our wars, they're not allowed to vote for U.S. president. Or have a voting representative in Congress. Or receive the same amount of Medicare and Medicaid funding. The list is pretty long.
In the midst of this turmoil, some local Puerto Rican politicians in Central Florida's Ninth Congressional District saw a bright spot. More migration into the district, which stretches south from east Orlando to encompass Osceola County and ends near the Yeehaw Junction, presents a body of new voters who could help the Florida diaspora become a stronger force in Washington. But growing lungs for a voice isn't easy, and Florida's congressional redistricting debacle and problems with Puerto Rican voter registration could make it harder.