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Young Puerto Ricans See Governor's Election As A Chance For A Change

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Puerto Rico will choose a new governor this week. The election comes after years of economic and social turmoil on the island. NPR's Adrian Florido reports that many young Puerto Ricans see this election as a chance to start plotting a better path forward.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Puerto Rican politics have long been dominated by two parties that differ on one major question - whether the U.S. territory should seek statehood. This year the pro-statehood candidate for governor is Pedro Pierluisi, who used to represent the island in the U.S. Congress. His opponent is Carlos Delgado, the mayor of a small city on the northern coast. Polling indicates one of these two men will win the election in a close race. But Alondra Llompart plans to vote for neither, partly because she is tired of the fight over statehood, even though there's also a referendum on status this year.

ALONDRA LLOMPART: We haven't become a state in all these decades. We have to start by fixing our own problems before we can do something bigger. Before we can change everything, we have to change the small things.

FLORIDO: Llompart is 22. Puerto Rico has been in a recession since she was 8. Her life has been full of goodbyes for people who have had to leave to find work, part of a mass exodus from the island.

LLOMPART: Most of my family, unfortunately - to Florida, to Texas. And you're just kind of trying to hold onto the few people that do stay and kind of hope that they never leave. And it is really sad.

FLORIDO: Llompart says that this week she is voting for Juan Dalmau from the party supporting Puerto Rico's independence. And for legislature, she'll support candidates from a new party, Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana, or Citizens' Victory. It's inspiring many young Puerto Ricans because it's doing something no viable political party has ever really done before - deprioritizing the statehood question. This is Victoria Ciudadana's candidate for governor, Alexandra Lugaro, in a debate last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDRA LUGARO: (Through interpreter) For decades, our politics have been centered around what status we want with the United States. But our two main parties have not resolved that issue or improved our education, justice or health systems or improved public safety.

FLORIDO: Jonathan Lebron-Ayala is a journalist and political analyst, and he says it's not surprising that a platform focused on rebuilding a decimated Puerto Rico would appeal to the island's youth.

JONATHAN LEBRON-AYALA: The younger generation - we are los hijos de la crisis.

FLORIDO: The children of the crisis, growing up in a recession on an island that, in just the last four years, has gone into bankruptcy, had massive cuts imposed by a federal control board, Hurricane Maria, earthquakes, a pandemic.

LEBRON-AYALA: We are exhausted.

FLORIDO: That exhaustion and anger were the fuel behind last year's massive, youthful protests that forced the then-governor to resign. Lebron says the growth of this new political movement is a continuation of those protests, in which many people demanded a move away from the traditional parties.

LEBRON-AYALA: We're going to see a major change not in this election but maybe into 2024 or 2028 because the numbers in the general demographics with these two old parties are very, very weak.

FLORIDO: It'll take time, he says, because the island's party system remains strong. But cracks are showing, Lebron says, and that is unprecedented. Omar de Leon, a chemistry student at the University of Puerto Rico, wants to be part of that change. Just look at the mess Puerto Rico is in, he says.

OMAR DE LEON: A lot of things are falling apart, and it's visible everywhere, really. Nothing works. It's frustrating.

FLORIDO: He says he didn't vote during the last election. He felt jaded with both of the main parties.

DE LEON: But this year I feel like there are more options, so that's kind of my motivation. I feel like there might be a chance to actually change things.

FLORIDO: He wants to stay on the island, and he wants his friends who've left to come back. He says that's what he'll be thinking when he casts his ballot.

Adrian Florido, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DO MAKE SAY THINK'S "AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.