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Florida's I-4 Corridor: Puerto Ricans & Unaffiliated Voters of Osceola County, A Political Force

Photo: Concilio.
Photo: Concilio.

Small, Puerto Rican flags dangle over dashboards at a busy intersection in Kissimmee. The sound of salsa echoes from the parking lot of popular supermarket where a lunchtime rush of people heads in for arepas, arroz con pollo, and other tasty delights.

“There’s a lot more people here now,” says Emma Ramos.

She and her husband John Colon used to live here. They first came for cheap rent and quiet. Today, they come for good food.

“Before there was a whole lot of rundown buildings. No business," says Ramos. "There’s a lot of infrastructure. It doesn’t look the same,” Colon adds.

He came to Osceola County from Puerto Rico in 1995 during one of the recent major waves of migration. He, like many, got a job in tourism, working for Disney World where his Spanish came in handy. Since then, thousands of other Puerto Ricans have followed. Colon and Ramos vote split tickets but lean Republican. This time, not so much for the presidential race.

“We’re not voting for Trump," says Ramos. "Trump is an embarrassment," Colon adds. "Yeah, I cannot vote for Trump. I can’t support what he stands for. I cannot support what comes out of his mouth. It’s diversity. There is no diversity in his mind. There’s one group," Ramos continues.

71-year-old Millie Knoebel remembers when the county was one group: white, rural, and working class.

“Cow town, in the country,” she reflects.

Her family had a small farm out in St. Cloud with strawberries, green beans, peas, and okra.

“When I was growing up you could tell the difference where one city started and the next began where now it’s kind of all mashed together with houses and things like that. It’s more touristy now,” she thinks.

Knoebel leans Republican but often splits her vote between parties. Religious values are important to her this election. When it comes to the presidential race she’s keeping her politics to herself. But she does say she’s not proud of the candidate she’s voting for.

“I don’t believe you can believe either one of them at this point.”

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have stumped in Osceola County at least once this election season in an effort to target the area’s largely contrasting groups: whites and Latinos—many young.

That is no surprise for Osceola County supervisor of elections Mary Jane Arrington.

"We have the largest percentage of no party affiliation in the state. We’re at 32 percent of our registered voters in the county have chosen to be associated with no party at all."

And Democrats outnumber Republicans.

With fewer than three weeks before Election Day, her staff is busy counting up applications from new voters and address changes from longtime ones. She has seen one of the largest pushes possible to register voters, mainly from third party nonpartisan groups geared toward new arrivals from Puerto Rico. This election will be their first chance to cast a ballot for president—something they cannot do on the island.

For University of South Florida politics professor Susan MacManus, Osceola is leading the rest of the state in getting Puerto Ricans registered and active.

"Puerto Ricans have gotten into state legislative politics successfully. They’re in the power structure in Osceola," she says.

And that could grow.

According to the Hispanic Federation, Puerto Ricans are on track to become Florida’s largest Latino demographic.

How they vote in this election could influence the whole state.