I am a member of the Puerto Rican diaspora and a first-time voter as a Floridian. In my admission, there is a palpable skepticism that while present for some time, resurfaced in the recent Ron DeSantis-Andrew Gillum CNN debate, and the predictable (and unpredictable) polarizing nature of Donald Trump as the midterm elections near on November 6.
As I have watched the debates and listened to the pundits stress the importance of this possible game-changing gubernatorial election, I am not convinced that we as audience members possess the critical media literacy or the understanding of the differences within and between communities and voting blocks to empathize with the other. Consider this my appeal as a concerned citizen.
In the aftermath of party primaries, GOP candidate DeSantis warned Florida voters about the perils and pitfalls of the potential to “monkey this up” by not only electing an African-American opponent, but by advocating for his campaign, and voting for him. While the Florida Democratic party denounced such claims as “disgusting,” imploring voters to dismiss the “racist dog whistles,” Gillum appeared on a variety of media outlets to defend his platform and Floridians, appealing to the better nature of our humanity—the very spirit of democratic inclusion and access.
In so doing, one of the topics he addressed on Primetime with Chris Cuomo was the crisis faced by Puerto Ricans and the Puerto Rican diaspora in the aftermath of Hurricane María and in lieu of Hurricane Florence.
Many relocated to the state in search of opportunity, aid, family, jobs, and the delivery of a promise predicated on their United States citizenship. In light of death tolls highlighting the estimated 2,975 lives lost during Hurricane Maria (1,833 perishing during Hurricane Katrina) and the lone congressional hearing dedicated to the natural disaster, I am forced to reflect as a new voter on the mundane nature of racism and racial history that we consume on a daily basis not only in this country, but in the state.
Whether driving around or visiting flea markets: Confederate flags, bed comforters with said flag, bumper stickers, and gun shops permeate our consciousness (keeping us warm in the privacy of our homes), the latter of which echoes a sea of voices on Stand Your Ground laws. As others and I consume these symbols, I ask myself, is this truly a debate and commentary on how Gillum is to the left of the left ideologically, an alleged socialist platform, while his opponent is to the right of the right?
The coded language is but a distraction for the bombardment of images, the material reality of race felt and experienced on a daily basis. We are collectively colored by our experiences and dismissed when a President suggests his administration went above and beyond in doing a great job (the “unsung success”), when he effectively practices his jump shot by hurling paper towels our way, a not so subtle reminder of where we stand and how divided we are.
Is this coded language, shrouded in the symbolism of the Confederate flag and the South, a question of heritage, or the inheritance of the residual affect of history? Florida, Katrina, or Puerto Rico, we’ve seen this story before. Puerto Rico is after all a colony of the United States.
As a commonwealth of the United States and citizens on the periphery, Puerto Rico “belongs to, but is not part of the United States.” Those in Puerto Rico and throughout the diaspora live within, yet outside the belly of the beast (that is the United States), unless we relocate stateside, a point tangentially echoed by the Speaker of the Puerto Rican State House of Representatives, Carlos “Johnny” Mendez-Nuñez’s recent op-ed offering in The Miami Herald, where he ardently promotes Puerto Rican statehood as the fundamental topic of concern that sways the Puerto Rican voter. Thereafter, our collective citizenship becomes tangible, a form of currency that translates into representation via the electoral process.
As United States citizens who speak a language that unite us with those who are undocumented and detained at the border, we understand difference and being othered. We feel the xenophobia of the contemporary political landscape. We understand how race (and its performance) can be weaponized by racist robocalls. We understand how racism has always lied dormant, only to surface at a moment’s notice (see Jeffrey Toobin’s critical commentary regarding Trump’s treatment of Puerto Rico). And we stand in solidarity with those African-Americans in Florida excited by the prospects of this election, in addition to empathizing with those who were displaced irrespective of race, in the aftermath of Katrina.
I see and hear the voice of racism and Southern politics, and yet I will happily participate in the democratic process. I will see you at the polls. Which of those potential voters (across class, race, gender, party affiliation, political ideology, and other identities) will join me, a member of the Puerto Rican disapora, in those efforts? Let us change the tune, and dance to a different song.
Wilfredo A. Gomez is a first-time Florida voter. He tweets from @BazookaGomez84.