When hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans came together to demand former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to resign following leaked chats that revealed political corruption and a series of sexist and homophobic messages, Frances Santiago wanted to stand in solidarity with her people. Living in Kissimmee, Florida, she wasn’t able to protest with her country folk on the archipelago but she demonstrated symbolically by placing her red, white and blue Puerto Rican flag outside of her home.
Now, the Central Florida Boricua is facing a battle against her own community leaders. Three weeks after putting up the flag, the homeowner received a letter from the Rolling Hills Estates Homeowners Association requesting her to take it down.
Santiago, an Army veteran who served 14 years as a medic, including two tours in Iraq, says she refuses to remove the flag.
“I fought for this, to be able to do this. So, I don’t see a problem with flying my flag here,” the woman told Orlando-area news station WFTV.
According to HOA bylaws, all flags are outlawed. However, the board made an exception for US flags, sports flags and flags used to honor first responders and fallen officers. Considering these edicts, Santiago is unsure why the group is asking her to remove the flag, as Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States.
“Puerto Rico is part of America. What’s the big issue with us having our flag there,” she said.
HOA president Norma McNerney told WFTV that she’s not asking the Santiago family to remove the flag because it’s from Puerto Rico; however, she did not comment on the island being the colonial property of the US and, thus, meeting the association’s criterion.
“We treat all owners the same. If you travel through our community, you will see the only flags are those regulated by the state,” McNerney said.
Puerto Ricans have historically been banned from displaying their flag.
While many tease that Boricuas exhibit their bandera on anything and everything, from their cars and house goods to their clothes and accessories, owning a Puerto Rican flag wasn’t legal until 1957. Nine years prior, on June 10, 1948, la Ley de La Mordaza, better known as the gag law, made it a crime to own or display a Puerto Rican flag, sing a patriotic song or speak or write of independence. The legislation, signed into law by Jesús T. Piñero, the United States-appointed governor, aimed at suppressing the growing movement to liberate Puerto Rico from its colonial ties to the United States. Anyone accused and found guilty of disobeying the law could be sentenced to ten years in prison, be fined $10,000 or both.
Additionally, in Kissimmee, which locals nicknamed “Little Puerto Rico” because of its vast Puerto Rican population, there has been pushback from community members who are not pleased with the demographic changes. City-Data forums warn people interested in moving to Central Florida to beware of Puerto Ricans, who commenters refer to as “roaches,” “criminals,” and the N-word, while news of attacks against Boricuas has become more common. Florida is home to more Puerto Ricans in the contiguous US than any other state. Most of the population resides in the Orlando-Kissimmee area. The region has been the top destination for Puerto Ricans escaping the financial crisis since 2008 and displacement following Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. But it is also the prime journey stop for diasporic Puerto Ricans from New York, Chicago, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Massachusetts. The area is among the largest and fastest-growing Puerto Rican communities in the country.
As such, Central Florida Boricuas have rallied around Santiago. An online petition created by the Florida Puerto Rican group Alianza for Progress is asking the HOA to cease their discriminatory practices against Santiago and is already close to meeting its goal of 1,600 signatures. At the time of writing, it is short just 51 names.
Santiago and her husband Efrain have insisted that they have no intention of bringing the flag down.
“[The flag] will stay there and we’ll deal with it; we’ll exhaust every avenue possible,” Efrain said. “We have our house, you see, up to standards. We’re not doing anything wrong. We’re not doing anything to our neighbors by flying our flag.”
While the Santiagos haven’t presently been issued any fines for the violation, they said they do have a lawyer and are prepared to take this fight to protect their freedom further. “I’m proud of my roots, who I am, [where] I come from. We’re not offending anyone. None of the neighbors were offended with us putting the flag there,” Efrain said.
Read: The Governor Of Puerto Rico Was Caught In A Chat Using Grotesque Homophobic And Sexist Language And The Entire Island Is Calling Him To Resign In Massive Protests