MANY Americans are hazy about the legal status of the 3.5m Puerto Ricans who live on the island. A survey in late September by Morning Consult, a pollster, found that just 54% of Americans know that people born there are fellow citizens. There is greater awareness of islanders as one of America’s largest immigrant groups, above all in New York, home to a million Puerto Ricans, sometimes dubbed “Nuyoricans”. That image of migrant workers in gritty urban barrios—think “West Side Story”—is itself out of date. Since 1990 legions of Puerto Ricans living in northern states have migrated or retired to Florida, drawn by sunshine, cheap homes and jobs. In the past decade they have been joined by islanders fleeing economic stagnation and high crime, who have dispersed widely, creating communities as far afield as Texas and Ohio. There are about 5m Puerto Ricans on the mainland now, a fifth of them in Florida—more than remain on the island. They will cheer President Donald Trump’s promise of debt relief. If it actually happens.
The eve of Mr Trump’s visit to the island found volunteers taping up cartons of baby supplies, soap, toothpaste and other necessities at El Maestro, a boxing gym and community centre in the Bronx. Founded by a reformed gang boss, Fernando “Ponce” Laspina, to keep local kids off the streets, the gym borrowed the nickname of a pro-independence leader. A large mural portrays the Puerto Rican nationalists who mounted an armed attack on the House of Representatives in 1954, and a cockerel attacking an American eagle. Iris Dipini, an engineer who has lived on the mainland for 19 years, calls Hurricane Maria a politically revealing disaster. “If we were a state, I believe the US would be more worried because we’d have representatives in Congress and could vote. If we were a sovereign republic we’d own our own ports and airspace. So it’s a political disaster as well as a natural disaster,” Ms Dipini says, drawing on a thin cigar as an uptown train passing overhead shakes the gym.
Though New York’s Puerto Rican population has been shrinking for years, the city is still braced for an influx after the hurricane. Rubén Díaz junior, the elected Bronx borough-president, notes predictions that hundreds of thousands of islanders might leave, and hopes they are wrong. Even a tenth of that number would put a “real strain” on schools and housing, he says. Mr Díaz, a Democrat, expresses fears of an indebted, depopulated island falling prey to “vultures” from Wall Street and the world of high finance, bent on privatising its assets.
Among Puerto Rican politicians in states like New York, such hard-left arguments are both common currency and largely without consequence for national politics. Puerto Ricans on the mainland have traditionally voted in low numbers, and those who were politically active lacked clout as long as they lived in safely Democratic states. Any big Puerto Rican migration to Florida, the country’s largest swing state, could matter much more, however—especially if newcomers arrive with a grudge against Mr Trump.