When Mass Shootings Happen, How Survivors Learn To Cope

The attack in San Bernardino that left 16 people dead, including the shooters, came just five days after the shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. Though these instances of mass gun violence involved different attackers with different motives, all such events leave behind witnesses who have to find a way to understand what they’ve seen and then move beyond it.

On this week’s For the Record: the survivors. NPR’s Rachel Martin talks with two people who lived through shootings that still haunt them.


Interview Highlights

Paul Temme of Prairie Village, Kan.

In April of last year, Paul Temme went to work out at the gym at the nearby Jewish Community Center. He pulled into the parking lot and started to collect his things to get out of the car.

“At that time I’d heard some loud banging and I didn’t know what that was,” he recalls. “It didn’t frankly occur to me that it was a weapon.”

After witnessing a shooter kill two people, Paul Temme says, ” … I’ve sometimes thought that more of us should see this … Because it’s appalling to me that there aren’t more people crying out.” Courtesy of Paul Temme hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Paul Temme

Then he heard a woman call out that a man was shooting. Temme got out of the car and saw the shooter take the life of a 14-year-old boy Reat Underwood. Underwood’s grandfather, William Corporon, had taken him to the JCC for a singing competition, when man named Frazier Glenn Cross Jr. shot and killed both of them.

Paul Temme ran back to his car to get his cell phone and he called the police.

“They asked me to report what I surmised what was the condition of the victims and what kind of assistance was needed,” he says. “So I went back to the vehicle … and I reported that at that time a young man had come out of the building and he was a medic. He came equipped with a knapsack and he was trying to pull the boy out of the vehicle and resuscitate him. It was around that time also that I’m afraid the mother arrived.”

After answering questions from authorities, Temme went home. He doesn’t remember a lot of details about what he did the day after the shooting.

“I haven’t given this a lot of thought, but as I recall I went to the office,” he says. “If it wasn’t Monday I certainly went back to the office on Tuesday. But I didn’t … I wasn’t motivated to stay at home.”

A memorial at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kan., honors three victims of the area's April 2014 shootings.

A memorial at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kan., honors three victims of the area’s April 2014 shootings. Julie Denesha/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Julie Denesha/Getty Images

While his coworkers reacted with sympathy, Temme says, “Truly if they asked me I wouldn’t have answered, I wasn’t going into it. And as I think you can probably already tell that even 18 months later, I’m not very forthcoming about it, I don’t talk about it.”

That day changed Temme and how he navigates his world. He says he watches news of other shootings obsessively, but worries about how his constant consumption will affect him.

“I do spend an inordinate amount of time staying up on it. It’s hard I think,” he says. “I sometimes think to myself I should completely stop reading the news. I should completely cut myself off.”

But he doesn’t cut himself off and he has decided that there is value in talking about what he witnessed.

“It’s something that I think no one should have to experience. No one should have to see. And it’s not something that I can describe and keep my composure,” he says. “But at the same time I’ve sometimes thought that more of us should see this, more of us should see an episode like this and see the horror of it. Because it’s appalling to me that there aren’t more people crying out.”

But he also tries to shift his focus by working with a local arts organization and advocating for disadvantaged kids in the court system. And he continues to look for the good.

“I have wonderful people in my life,” he adds. “I see good things happen around me. You know, there’s good things around us.”

Sarah Bush, Eagle Mountain, Utah

Sarah Bush is 16 years out from the shooting that changed her life. She was a sophomore at Columbine High School in Colorado when the massacre happened.

On the two-year anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, students stand before a memorial for the 13 people killed.

On the two-year anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, students stand before a memorial for the 13 people killed. Michael Smith/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Michael Smith/Getty Images

“I still have nightmares, they don’t haunt me as much as they used to and I’m sad to say I’m used to waking up feeling that fear,” she says.

Now, she says every time there’s news of another mass shooting the fear creeps in again.

“You know, when it will be in my home town again?” she says. “When will it be my kids at school?”

At 8 years, her oldest of five children is just old enough to start asking questions about news stories he hears people talking about.

“I don’t shelter him but I also don’t use the detail that an adult might use,” she says. “I just say simply there was a bad guy that hurt a bunch of people.”

Bush hasn’t been alone through this. Her younger sister was also at Columbine on that day, and the experience has brought them closer together.

“We’re still best friends, we live five minutes from each other. And every year on the anniversary of the shootings we get together and we’ll do something fun,” she says. “We’ll go get a pedicure, we’ll have a girls’ night out, we’ll stay at a hotel somewhere. But we always try to make it a positive experience to try and turn the karma of that day, turn it to something good instead of focusing on that one bad day.”

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Police In London Say They Are Treating Tube Stabbing As 'Terrorist Incident'

Police in London say that are treating a knife attack in the city’s subway system as a “terrorist incident.”

According to the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command, the man, who is believed to be 29 years old, stabbed three people, one of them, a 56-year-old man, sustained serious injuries.

NPR’s Peter Kenyon reports that witnesses said they heard the alleged attacker shout “This is for Syria,” as he tried to stab people. Britain recently joined an international coalition bombing Islamic State targets in Syria.

In a statement, the police’s counter terrorism chief Richard Walton urged the public to “remain calm, but alert and vigilant.”

“The threat from terrorism remains at severe, which means that a terrorist attack is highly likely,” said Walton.

A video posted online shows police apprehending the man. A bystander shouts: “You ain’t no Muslim bruv.”

As The Guardian reports, the phrase has been picked up on Twitter by users who “say it is the perfect riposte to attempts to spread violence and terror in London – disowning and sidelining the attacker.”

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Transform Words With An Additional Letter In This Week's Puzzle

Sunday Puzzle.

Sunday Puzzle. NPR hide caption

toggle caption NPR

On-air challenge:

I’m going to give you some 5-letter words. For each one, change the middle letter to two new letters to get a familiar 6-letter word.

Ex. FROND —> FRIEND
1. EARLY
2. TULIP
3. MOURN
4. BROTH
5. LATCH
6. JUROR
7. SCOWL
8. FUTON
9. DEITY
10. EGEST
11. GUSTY
12. HOUSE
13. ORGAN
14. PANDA
15. SLOTH
16. DECOR
17. ALIVE
18. VISOR

Last week’s challenge, from listener Adam Cohen of Brooklyn, NY:

Take the name of a well-known actress — four letters in the first name, nine letters in the last. Insert a letter between the second and third letters of the first name. Remove the last two letters of the last name. The result is a two-word phrase that means “freedom.” Who is the actress, and what is the phrase?

Answer: Cate Blanchett (carte blanche)

Next week’s challenge:

Name a state capital. Drop one of its letters. The remaining letters can be rearranged to name of another major city in the United States. What is it? There are two different answers, and you should find both of them.

Submit Your Answer

If you know the answer to next week’s challenge, submit it here. Listeners who submit correct answers win a chance to play the on-air puzzle. Important: Include a phone number where we can reach you Thursday, Dec. 3rd at 3 p.m., Eastern.

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This Week In Football

Rachel Martin talks to Mike Pesca, host of Slate’s The Gist podcast, about football’s Carolina Panthers. They’ve had an eventful year on and off the field.

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How 'Resilience' Is Misunderstood When Talking About Racism

Rachel Martin talks with Parul Sehgal of the New York Times about the use of the word “resilience” as something to aspire to and how it’s become a coded way to shame people who speak about injustice.

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A Bad Night's Sleep Might Do More Harm Than You Think

What if you could never get a good night’s rest? Some low-income people around the world face that challenge. A team of researchers is investigating whether sleep deprivation keeps some in poverty.

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Babyface Remembers Slow Dancing, Old Crushes And His First Song

Return of the Tender Lover, Babyface's new album, his first solo collection of originals in a decade, is out now.

Return of the Tender Lover, Babyface’s new album, his first solo collection of originals in a decade, is out now. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the artist

Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men, Eric Clapton and Toni Braxton — those are just a few of the major artists that Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds has written and produced for over the years. The 11-time Grammy winner is well known for his traditional R&B ballads, and on his latest solo album, he sticks with the subject he knows best.

“When you think about it, kids don’t know anything about slow dancing. You don’t go to a club or to a house party and slow dance; that doesn’t happen anymore,” he says. “There are those of us that still like a good love song, and like to feel good about love — and not necessarily heartbreak, but just feel good about what love can do for you spiritually. And I just wanted to make a feel-good record in that way.”

Babyface joined NPR’s Rachel Martin to talk about the new album Return of the Tender Lover — and along the way, traced his relationship with music all the way back to his first big crush. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

Rachel Martin: Do you remember slow dancing?

Babyface: I was always too afraid to slow dance. But I do remember watching people slow dance. I was the guy on the sidelines. At the school dance, I was usually in the band, playing.

Can I just ask a super-personal question? What is the big love of your life right now, besides music?

The big love of my life. That’s a hard question, because there’s a lot of loves in my life. There’s my wife, Nikki. There’s my daughter and my boys. A couple years ago I lost my mom, and when someone that important leaves this world, it leaves you with this feeling of wanting to grab every moment with those that are around you, and appreciate it.

There are days when I think of my mom, and I think of just sitting inside the house — I don’t have to be in the same room, just knowing that she’s in the other room. To sit there and know that feeling that she’s there, that’s what you miss. It’s moments that are not necessarily big moments. They’re actually small moments that seem huge right now.

What did you learn about love from your mom?

YouTube

She didn’t talk about it — she showed me. She showed me in how she was there for everything. We had six boys, and no matter what was going on in our lives, she was there. And it was difficult, because she had to raise us pretty much by herself, ’cause my dad passed away when I was, like, 10 years old. So she was stuck with raising six boys, and all the drama that comes with that.

That’s a lot of boy energy. I’m the mom of two boys, and that seems like a lot.

And it wasn’t easy. But she was there for every one of us. And so, you can say “I love you” all day long, but nothing says “I love you” like someone being there and showing that they care, and knowing that when you turn around, they’re supporting you.

You write really strong, powerful songs for women to sing. You have done that a lot in your career, whether it’s Beyoncé or Mary J. Blige. Does some of that come from your mom?

I think it has to. I mean, I was always kind of sensitive to that, I guess. I was always falling in love at a very young age — kindergarten, is when I can remember. There was always a crush. And when I was in sixth grade, I started picking up guitar, so I started wanting to write about it and sing about it. And that’s kind of how it all started.

Do you know where any of those women are now?

Yeah, I got in touch with one of the main girls, who was the sixth-grade crush. Which was really important to me, because she was the girl that kind of made me want to pick up the guitar and start writing a song. And I wrote a song, and I had a crush on her for a couple years. It’s a long story; it’s what I like to call my first kiss and my first diss, all in the same moment. But it was powerful in that sense. And I guess it talked to my soul, musically, so I would write these terribly sad songs for a long time.

I don’t suppose you remember any of them?

Of course. The first song I wrote was “The Bitter Taste of Life.”

Can you sing a little of it?

I need my guitar to sing it. Sorry.

It’s OK, I’ll let you pass. What’s challenging about writing a love song? Don’t you risk falling into cliches, lyrically? How do you find new ways to talk about it?

I think it’s not really difficult to write about love. We’ve been saying the same thing over and over for so many years. But it depends on how honest it is, and how good you make it feel. You can say “I love you” in a trillion ways, and it can always sound different or feel different. And that’s obviously proven, because we’ve all been doing it for so long.

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A Potential Act Of Terrorism Tests A President — And Americans' Nerves

President Obama, photographed from the Rose Garden, delivers a prime-time televised address marking the the end of combat mission in Iraq from the Oval Office in 2010.

President Obama, photographed from the Rose Garden, delivers a prime-time televised address marking the the end of combat mission in Iraq from the Oval Office in 2010. Susan Walsh/AP hide caption

toggle caption Susan Walsh/AP

Inevitably, as news breaks of yet another international or domestic event — an explosion in Texas, a train derailment outside Philadelphia, a Molotov cocktail thrown into a nightclub in Egypt, a shooting in Colorado or California — there’s one question never far from Americans’ lips: “Is it terrorism?”

Even many who don’t want to generalize wonder, “What do we know about the shooter — was he or she Muslim?”

This is reality after the Sept. 11th attacks. Thousands of Americans, even a decade after 9/11, were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of that date. And every time there’s word of yet another shooting, even for those who have never been diagnosed with PTSD, there are flashbacks.

It’s with this tense background — not long after 130 were killed in Paris and 14 were killed in San Bernardino, Calif., in which a married couple of American Muslims, who the FBI believes were potentially inspired by ISIS — that President Obama will address the country in a prime-time address from the Oval Office Sunday night to try and calm nerves.

Underscoring its importance, this will be just Obama’s third Oval Office address. The other two were about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the end of combat operations in Iraq.

Sundays in America mean church and professional football. Obama will squeeze in his address — expected to last between just 10 and 15 minutes, according to White House staff — between games. The president’s speech is scheduled to begin soon after 8 p.m. EST, which is sandwiched right between the late afternoon slate of football games, which end around 7:30 p.m. EST and Sunday Night Football beginning at 8:30 p.m. EST between the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Obama, who refers to ISIS as ISIL, will talk “about the steps our government is taking” to address make sure the homeland is safe, according to a statement released Saturday night from White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. The president will “update” on the investigation in San Bernardino, and he “will also discuss the broader threat of terrorism, including the nature of the threat, how it has evolved, and how we will defeat it,” per the statement.

“He will reiterate his firm conviction that ISIL will be destroyed and that the United States must draw upon our values — our unwavering commitment to justice, equality and freedom — to prevail over terrorist groups that use violence to advance a destructive ideology.”

But the speech also comes at a time when Obama needs to show leadership on terrorism. His numbers on handling of foreign policy and ISIS and terrorism, specifically, have plummeted since ISIS’ rise last year. Immediately following the Paris attacks, Obama seemed all-too-eager to weigh into domestic politics and the 2016 Republican primary race.

“When I hear folks say that maybe we should just admit the Christians but not the Muslims,” Obama said, “when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which person who is fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution, that’s shameful. That’s not American. That’s not who we are.”

And following the shootings in California, which came days after another shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, Obama’s immediate response was to focus on guns — like this was a typical mass shooting.

“The one thing we do know is that we have a pattern now of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world,” Obama told CBS Wednesday. “We should never that think this is something that just happens in the ordinary course of events, because it doesn’t happen with the same frequency in other countries.”

His response evolved, however, as details of the shooters began to emerge.

“It is possible that this was terrorist related,” Obama said, “but we don’t know. It’s also possible that this was workplace-related.”

But just over 24 hours later, the FBI announced it was officially investigating the shooting as a terrorism case.

“There’s a number of pieces of evidence which has essentially pushed us off the cliff to say we are considering this an act of terrorism,” said David Bowdich, the FBI agent in charge of the Los Angeles office.

NPR’s Carrie Johnson reported that one of the shooters, Tashfeen Malik, pledged allegiance to ISIS on a Facebook page. ISIS said in a radio broadcast that two of its “followers” had carried out the attack. And while officials have said there were contacts between the shooters and some on the U.S. government’s international radar, there’s no evidence that the attacks were part of a coordinated international plot.

“There’s no indication that they are part of a network,” FBI Director James Comey said at a news conference Friday, noting that the husband-and-wife duo had been apparently self-radicalized.

What began as what seemed like yet another mass shooting — the deadliest in America in about three years, since the killings at an elementary school in Connecticut — “turned into a global investigation into the deadliest terrorist assault in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001…,” the New York Times points out. (Thirteen people were killed in the 2009 Fort Hood shootings.)

That requires a president to be out front. With even more known, expect Obama Sunday night to be more definitive than he’s been. Obama’s job is to reassure that he and the federal government are doing everything they can to keep the country safe. He will likely talk about American ideals in that pursuit, but given the expected brevity of the speech, don’t expect it to go too far beyond the facts.

This attack means, according to data maintained by the New America Foundation, 45 people have been killed by “homegrown extremists” since 9/11 — three fewer than the 48, who have been killed by “deadly right-wing attacks,” which the New York Times describes as “antigovernment, racist and other nonjihadist extremists.”

Paris and San Bernardino have thrust international terrorism to the forefront of the 2016 presidential election. Republican voters have seen it as a top issue for almost a year, pushing aside discussions of privacy after the Edward Snowden revelations.

Ted Cruz on Thursday, before knowing all the details of the San Bernardino shooting, said it’s possible it was “radical Islamic terrorism here at home” and means “we are at a time of war.”

It’s the kind of conviction that is playing well in the GOP primary and moving the foreign-policy needle in Republicans’ direction.

Democrats worry that negative perceptions of Obama’s handling of foreign policy could hamstring their chances of holding onto the White House. It’s one reason Hillary Clinton, the leading candidate on the Democratic side, was quick to say Thursday night — hours after Cruz and before the FBI — that it was “becoming clear” San Bernardino was “an act of terrorism.”

It’s those threats of another international plot, of another 9/11, that trigger Americans’ worst fears.

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With New Nordic Emojis, Give Your Texts That Finnishing Touch

  • Hide caption

    Bus Stop: “Finns respect the privacy and personal space of others, and expect the same in return. We tend not to sit down next to anyone if another seat is available. When talking to a Finn, don’t stand too close — unless you want to see a Finn slowly edging backwards.”
    Courtesy of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland
  • Suomi Mainittu!: "The feeling when someone mentions Finland abroad. Finns are always excited when someone — anyone — mentions Finland abroad. When you come to Finland, be prepared to tell what you think about Finland and Finns."
    Hide caption

    Suomi Mainittu!: “The feeling when someone mentions Finland abroad. Finns are always excited when someone — anyone — mentions Finland abroad. When you come to Finland, be prepared to tell what you think about Finland and Finns.”
    Courtesy of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland
  • Headbanger: "The feeling of banging your head. In Finland, heavy metal is mainstream. There are more heavy metal bands in Finland per capita than anywhere else."
    Hide caption

    Headbanger: “The feeling of banging your head. In Finland, heavy metal is mainstream. There are more heavy metal bands in Finland per capita than anywhere else.”
    Courtesy of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland
  • Hide caption

    Kaamos: “The feeling of sunless days. Finnish winters are long and dark. In Lapland, the sun doesn’t rise at all between December and January. In Finnish, this sunless period is called ‘kaamos.‘ “
    Courtesy of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland
  • Woolly Socks: "The feeling of granny-made warmth. The woolly socks are like a national costume to Finns. They are comforting when ill, they offer warmth when skiing. A great all-rounder — which is made even more soul-nurturing if your grandmother has knitted them herself. They can also be worn with flip-flops."
    Hide caption

    Woolly Socks: “The feeling of granny-made warmth. The woolly socks are like a national costume to Finns. They are comforting when ill, they offer warmth when skiing. A great all-rounder — which is made even more soul-nurturing if your grandmother has knitted them herself. They can also be worn with flip-flops.”
    Courtesy of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland

There are emojis to represent virtually every state of being — including, now, the state of being Finnish. To celebrate the run-up to Christmas, the government of Finland has come up with its own set of emoji that capture the particular nuances of Finnish culture.

“We do kind of a Christmas calendar every year, and we were thinking we want to do something this year that works better on mobile and maybe talks to a little bit of a younger audience,” Petra Theman, the director for public diplomacy of Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tells NPR’s Rachel Martin.

So, what better than a bunch of emojis to tell the world what it means to be Finnish? That means, among other things, headbanging, knitting socks, cordially maintaining your personal space — and, yes, occasionally getting your tongue stuck to a frozen pole.


Interview Highlights

On the headbanger emoji

I’m not really sure if this is 100 percent true, but at least in Finland, we’ve seen a study that says that we have more metal bands per capita than any other country in the world. Basically the fact that we even have a metal band for children, that should kind of already seal the deal.

On the sauna emoji

Sauna — that’s even a Finnish word. … For us, it’s a sacred thing. It’s just something that’s very important for us. That’s the only way to really clean yourself and really make yourself clean spiritually and physically.

On the emoji showing Finns standing at a bus stop, staunchly maintaining their personal space

I’m so sorry! I mean, we would like to be more like you Americans, but we’re not. That’s basically what happens. There’s a picture that’s been pretty viral in Finland that is a true picture about Finns standing and waiting for a bus. So that picture is really captured from a true photograph.

On her favorite emoji

Petra Theman says her favorite from this crop of emojis is the one called Stuck. “That’s a feeling every Finn knows,” she says. “Your parents told you, ‘Do not do that,’ and then you do that anyway.” Courtesy of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland

I have a favorite that’s called Stuck. It’s a small child, stuck with his or her tongue in a metal pole. That is a feeling every Finn knows. Your parents told you, ‘Do not do that’ and then you do that anyway. …

Oh, you have no idea how many times [I did that]. And then I was stuck! And the only way to loosen the grip, so to say, when your tongue is stuck on a frozen metal pole, is to pour warm water on it.

And there is a terrible trick — I’m not sure if I can tell this on the radio — but there is a terrible trick that every Finn knows when you’re a child. And that is, if you do that, you’re stuck and your parents are not close, only your friends, you can ask your big brother to pee on your tongue. Yeah, I’m sorry.

So that’s a secret trick I’m now sharing with you.

On what she has enjoyed about the project

They’re quirky. I like that we were able to do government emojis that don’t only talk about our strengths, but also a little bit about our vices and I think that’s the way it should be.

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As Florida's Puerto Rican Population Booms, Political Parties Move In

Even though Puerto Ricans lean Democrat, “what you’re starting to see is the Republican party introduce their economic message to the Puerto Rican population,” said GOP political analyst Frank Torres. Asma Khalid/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Asma Khalid/NPR

It used to be that when political experts would pontificate about “Latinos” in Florida, they were talking about Cubans. But those days are over. There are now more than one million Puerto Ricans in Florida (1,006,542 to be exact).

The state’s Puerto Rican population has exploded in a relatively short timeframe. In 1980, there were fewer than 100,000 Puerto Ricans in Florida, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center. Over the last three decades, the population has grown steadily. Recently, because of the island’s economic crisis, migration has cranked into overdrive. These days, there are about 1,000 Puerto Rican families relocating to Florida every month, according to the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration regional office, which operates as a sort of consulate for Puerto Ricans in central Florida. The office keeps tabs on how many people move to town and what services they need.

The reason all this migration is important politically is that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, so they can register to vote as soon as they step foot on mainland soil. And, many of them are choosing to settle in central Florida — historically, the swing region of this swing state.

(Residents of Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories cannot vote in the November presidential election).

Early arrivals

Betsy Franceschini remembers how rare it felt to find a fellow Puerto Rican in Orlando when her parents moved here in 1979.

“I remember my father getting real excited when in Kmart somebody would speak Spanish and he was like ‘oh my God, there’s somebody here that speaks Spanish,'” recalled Franceschini, regional director for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration.

Nowadays, you can walk up to a lechonera and order Puerto Rican-style pork and rice in Spanish. Then drive down the road, and attend church services in Spanish. And then, drive a little further and pick up groceries at the Publix Sabor — all in Spanish.

But, in addition to changing the food and the culture around here, Puerto Ricans have the potential to change the politics.

A majority of Puerto Ricans identify with the Democratic party — 57 percent; that compares to just 22 percent who lean Republican, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

But, Franceschini said, she’s noticing an interesting trend among the new arrivals.

“There is a great amount of Puerto Ricans that are registered independent,” she said.

And, that means both Democrats and Republicans are trying to reach them.

“Puerto Ricans in central Florida are voting majority Democrat. Now what you’re starting to see is the Republican party introduce their economic message to the Puerto Rican population,” explained GOP political analyst Frank Torres. “The barricade between Republicans making progress is immigration,” he added, “Puerto Ricans don’t fall underneath the immigration umbrella but they see that relationship and how it’s being handled by the GOP as sort of a hint of the way other policies would be handled by that party.”

David Velazquez of the conservative LIBRE initiative said rather than pitching a particular candidate, his group is playing the long game — knocking on doors in Hispanic areas and offering services like English classes or financial literacy courses, while selling a message about the economy.

David Velazquez of the conservative LIBRE initiative said rather than pitching a particular candidate, his group is playing the long game — knocking on doors in Hispanic areas and offering services like English classes or financial literacy courses, while selling a message about the economy. Asma Khalid/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Asma Khalid/NPR

The toxic immigration rhetoric is a risk even conservative Latino activists realize.

“Puerto Ricans — they feel like they are immigrants in their own country,” explained David Velazquez, deputy Florida director of the conservative LIBRE Initiative, an organization funded by the Koch Brothers.

Turning an economic exodus into political victory

So Velazquez and the LIBRE Initiative are trying to focus on economic policies. They’re not pitching a particular candidate; instead, they’re playing the long game — knocking on doors in high population Hispanic areas and offering services like English classes or financial literacy courses, while selling a message.

“We think that a limited government equals more opportunities for people to start a business to rise up and have success in the country,” explained Velazquez, as he knocked on doors in the overwhelmingly Puerto Rican neighborhood of Buenaventura Lakes in Osceola County.

Phillip Arroyo, a Democrat, believes Puerto Rico needs financial help — but he's skeptical Republicans will offer an answer.

Phillip Arroyo, a Democrat, believes Puerto Rico needs financial help — but he’s skeptical Republicans will offer an answer. Asma Khalid/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Asma Khalid/NPR

And, that philosophy is resonating with some Puerto Ricans, like Juan Salgado.

“I like the Republicans, cause I prefer small government,” said Salgado, who moved to Orlando two years ago.

Salgado is a lawyer by training, but it’s been hard to find a steady professional job in Florida.

“I used to work in the U.S. post office, but it was a contract,” said Salgado “After February, they cut the contract, so right now, I’m unemployed.”

Salgado says the number one issue for him this election is the economy, but he’s also deeply concerned about a more unique problem.

“I’m really worried about the situation in Puerto Rico,” he said. “It’s really bad.”

Salgado says if a candidate came up with a solution to Puerto Rico’s economic crisis, he would be more inclined to vote for him.

His old law school classmate from the island, Phillip Arroyo, agrees Puerto Rico needs financial help — but he’s skeptical Republicans will offer an answer.

“The Republican party is totally anti-Latino, anti-minority, that’s not an exaggeration these days with Donald Trump’s crusade of ignorance,” Arroyo said.

Arroyo moved to Orlando last year, and he’s been a Democrat for years. He chaired the Young Democrats of America chapter on the island.

“I can see the inequality in terms of the way the Puerto Ricans on the island are treated and the way Puerto Ricans here are treated,” Arroyo said.

Arroyo wants more than a short-term economic solution to Puerto Rico’s debt problems, he wants a political solution. He says it feels like the island is stuck in a colonial relationship, and his priority this election is a change in Puerto Rico’s political status.

“The fact that Puerto Ricans [on the island] can’t vote for president, do not have equal representation, I think it’s a disgrace,” said Arroyo. “Puerto Rico is deprived of the democracy that’s preached here,” he added.

Arroyo is frustrated that the 2012 referendum calling for statehood was ignored.

“If you’re not willing to give Puerto Rico full equal rights, give them independence, but don’t exploit them,” he said.

Voter education

There’s a realization from both parties that Puerto Ricans will be important on election day, and there are big efforts underway to register them to vote.

On a recent weekend, Mi Familia Vota co-sponsored a social services fair for newly arrived Puerto Ricans. Families could enroll in health care, learn about job opportunities, and, of course, register to vote.

Just after signing up to vote, Tatiana Cesario, 24, said she didn’t choose a political party; in fact, she doesn’t know much about any of the candidates, and isn’t even sure if she’ll vote. Cesario moved to Florida in June with hopes of becoming a flight attendant.

Her political situation may illustrate one of the biggest hurdles for newcomers — basic voter education. Puerto Rico has completely different political parties, local elections are held only once every four years, and election day is a public holiday.

“In Puerto Rico, politics is a fiesta,” said Rafael Benitez, a Democratic activist, “There are caravans, there is music. And, here, here, you don’t have that, you don’t have that fervor.”

Benitez wants to recreate that fervor — caravans and all — come election day in Orlando; he’s convinced Puerto Ricans are natural Democrats.

“We have a long way to go, but if we could get registered and ready to vote, I’d say half of the Puerto Ricans that are here, I think that it will greatly benefit the Democratic party,” said Benitez.

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