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Orlando Sentinel

If Hispanics Want A Voice, They Must Vote

By Mark Pino, Sentinel Columnist

May 16, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

It's a straightforward political formula, V=P. That's votes equal power.

The more votes, the more power.

It's a power that Osceola's Hispanic community is still trying to tap.

It's a power that many current leaders give lip service to because it hasn't manifested itself.

But like the tides, it is only a matter of time before the churning surf changes the lay of the land. It's a power that's already lapping at the edge of political landscape.

And it's a power that could tip the scales one way or another in this year's elections. In a state where every vote counts, Hispanics have clout -- if they turn out and vote.

Registering Hispanics and getting them to the polls is the goal of a massive voter-education and registration drive that is the mastermind of the government of Puerto Rico.

Right off the bat, some people are going to be suspicious of the effort. Others will be angry about an effort to motivate Hispanics, mainly Puerto Ricans living on the mainland, to do something so basic.

Those folks are threatened because they know votes mean power.

Votes give voice to people. Hispanics in the country need a voice. Cubans form a part of that voice already. As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans -- more than 3 million on the mainland -- form another part of that bloc. And in Florida, they could help decide who sits in the White House.

If only everyone could hear Mari Carmen Aponte, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. The arm of the Puerto Rican government is leading the effort to register 300,000 new Hispanic voters. They're close, and count 37,000 -- enough to decide a national race -- new voters in Florida.

Aponte is a passionate apostle for getting out the vote. As citizens, she said, Puerto Ricans have a duty to vote and give voice to Latinos living here who don't have that privilege. I've never heard anything that stirring from local leaders.

The "Que Nada Nos Detenga!" campaign -- Spanish for "Let Nothing Stop Us!" -- is a nonpartisan effort. Both parties win if Latinos vote, though Puerto Ricans have traditionally tended to vote for Democrats. But that doesn't always hold true. In Central Florida, John Quinones of Kissimmee was elected to the state House as a Republican.

Quinones was one of only a handful of elected officials at last week's event. Osceola Sheriff Charlie Aycock, Public Defender Bob Wesley and state Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, were the only non-Hispanic officeholders I spotted.

I don't know if you would call it a snub, but members of Osceola's Anglo power structure were missing. That doesn't come as a surprise to me, though leaders openly court Latino support -- when it's convenient.

Still, Hispanics haven't shown they are a force in local politics. Only one Hispanic has been elected to local office. (I put Quinones in a different category, because he holds state office.) The late Robert Guevara broke the barrier when he was elected to the County Commission in 1996. But if he was the Jackie Robinson of local politics, nearly 10 years later there has been no Willie Mays -- or others -- to follow him.

That will only change when Hispanics recognize the power that voting brings.

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