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Don't forget about Puerto Rico's push for statehood

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Posted at 5:05 PM, Mar 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-25 10:54:11-04

KISSIMMEE, Florida — Earlier this week, headlines swept across major news outlets about the debate over D.C. statehood. Congress had a hearing with advocates claiming the District of Columbia is as close as ever to becoming the 51st state.

But if you visit Kissimmee, Florida, a different debate over statehood is taking place. One involving Puerto Rico.

CENTRAL FLORIDA'S INCREASED POPULATION

One in about every three people living in Kissimmee, a town just outside Orlando, are Puerto Rican.

Melao Bakery, one of the more popular Puerto Rican bakeries in town, is the perfect place to go if you want to debate the pros and cons of Puerto Rico becoming a state.

The island has been a territory of the United States since 1898 and a majority of Puerto Rico voters approved statehood in November 2020.

"Do I want to see it? Yes. Do we need to see it? Yes, and I think it can happen," Peter Vivaldi, a longtime advocate for Puerto Rico, says as he enjoys his Melao coffee.

"D.C. statehood has nothing to do with Puerto (Rico) statehood. In D.C., you can still vote for president of the United States," Vivaldi said.

"In Puerto Rico, they aren’t able to vote for president yet presidents make decisions for Puerto Rico," Vivaldi added.

WHY IT'S URGENT AND MORE LIKELY

Vivaldi makes the case that Puerto Rico's case is stronger than Washington D.C.'s.

For one, some conservative senators like Marco Rubio of Florida are supportive of statehood.

Washington D.C. has very few prominent Republicans backing their push.

Additionally, Vivaldi says economic and humanitarian conditions are on the line.

"There are a lot of poor people in Puerto Rico," Vivaldi said.

OLD LAWS AND HURRICANE RESPONSE

One of the biggest issues facing Puerto Ricans is the Jones Act, a 1920 regulation mandating goods come to the island via a U.S. ship.

While that policy benefits the American shipping industry, Vivaldi says it hurts Puerto Rico residents because the cost is passed onto them.

Apart from the economy and voting rights, advocates say it's also about humanitarian response during hurricanes. Some believe if Puerto Rico was a state, help from the federal government during recent hurricanes would have been more robust.

"I came from Hurricane Maria," Marie, one woman studying English in a Florida church group, said.

"I lost everything in my neighborhood," Marie added.

STILL CONTROVERSIAL

While there is no doubt support for statehood, it still remains controversial for some.

In Congress, a bill has been introduced to put Puerto Rico on a path toward statehood, just like D.C.

However, it is far from a priority for congressional leaders.

Additionally, during the November 2020 referendum, 47% of Puerto Ricans voted against statehood.

Even some at Maleo victory feel that way.

"The reason I wouldn’t like to be a state, we don’t want to lose our culture," Norma Guttierez, a woman who was born in Puerto Rico but now lives in the United States, said.