Father José Rodríguez, vicar of the Jesus of Nazareth Episcopal Church in Orlando, Florida, does not mince words in describing what has happened with the process of creating new electoral districts in his state after the 2020 Census.
“It’s an absolute failure,” Rodriguez notes. “Governor DeSantis is treating us like this is a plantation and he is a mini-king. In my opinion, his policies marginalize and kill minority communities.”
Quickly, Rodriguez apologizes for “coming on so strong” with his words. “I have no other words to explain what we are seeing.”
Just hours after the interview with the priest, the Florida Senate approved a congressional district map that was unilaterally created by Governor De Santis’ office.
In a special session, called by DeSantis after vetoing the map designed by legislators – who had already been criticized for diminishing the voice of certain minority groups in an effort to maximize Republican districts – the Senate vote was all in favor: 24-15.
The map presented by DeSantis divided Central Florida’s African American and Latino, especially Puerto Rican, communities, and as a result significantly reduced the progress Democrats had made as a result of the 2020 census numbers.
In the case of African Americans, the plan cuts that community’s representatives in half.
De Santis’ plan, which will probably also be passed by the lower house of the Florida legislature, eliminated two of the four districts held by African-Americans: that of Congressmen Al Lawson of Tallahassee and Val Demings of Orlando.
According to Henry Mendoza, director of community outreach for the church led by Rodriguez, the map also “broke into pieces” the city of Kissimmee, one of the centers of the Puerto Rican diaspora in Florida.
Rodriguez added that De Santis’ map also targeted a district in Seminole County where a Democratic congresswoman of Vietnamese descent had snatched a seat from a Republican.
“With the changes, she’s not going to be a candidate again since the district went Republican in DeSantis’ plan,” the priest said.
The governor, an admirer of former President Trump who is said to aspire at some point to the presidency, has been waging a battle to “diminish the voices of diverse populations, especially African Americans and Latinos,” Rodriguez said.
The Puerto Rican-born priest, who is the vicar of a church whose activism is legendary in Central Florida, said Governor DeSantis’ policies have and will continue to hurt communities of color in the state.
Aside from redistricting, the vicar cites actions the governor has taken toward the pandemic and vaccines as another example of what has harmed minority communities.
“He let us die in the pandemic, he denied us resources, he took away the vaccine and now he wants to take away our voice: if he doesn’t kill us he wants to take our voices,” he said, noting that De Santis went against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations to say that children should not be vaccinated in the state.
Although the churches (Christ the King and Jesus of Nazareth) do not engage in partisanship, Rodriguez said they can defend their community from what he called a violation of their human rights. “We are going to focus on voter registration,” he added.
The churches he leads have been in the Orlando area for more than 60 years and were founded with a social justice mission, he explained. They had African American priests even before segregation and in the years of the great Cuban migration, they offered shelters for those refugees, as well as those who arrived in 2017 following Hurricane Maria.
Aside from this, they run a food bank – a “bodeguita” – offering “comida criolla” (Puerto Rican food) in what is otherwise a food desert with little access to fresh food.
“And we love Jesus, that’s why we do all this,” he noted.