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Puerto Ricans in U.S. protest debt crisis with a dash of rhythm

By Daniel Trotta and Bernie Woodall

NEW YORK/FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., May 1 (Reuters) - Frustrated with the Puerto Rican government, hedge funds and the Control Board tasked with sorting out the island's debt crisis, some Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland protested on Monday the best way they knew how: with music and dance.

The eve of a debt-cutting agreement that could allow creditors to sue the U.S. territory over defaults happened to fall on May Day, when Puerto Ricans aired their grievances at New York City's Union Square along with an array of leftist causes. But they did it in Puerto Rican style, using rhythm as an antidote to hardship.

The island's government, shouldering $70 billion in debt it cannot pay, and its bondholders were trying to reach an agreement about how much and which debt it would pay back.

Some people blamed the government of Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo "Ricky" Rossello. Others directed their ire at Wall Street. A few called for either independence or statehood, saying the island's status as a U.S. territory led to the crisis.

"Ricky, Ricky, Ricky: It's time to go!" went one refrain, set to a "plena" beat with Afro-Caribbean percussion instruments.

Sara Espino, a 27-year-old flight attendant, said she saw hundreds of "Boricuas" migrating to the U.S. mainland each week on flights from San Juan to New York.

"It's sad. We don't want to come here. Our hearts are in Puerto Rico, but the money is here," Espino said.

Nearly 400,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to the mainland United States in the past several years, and there are now more Puerto Ricans living on the mainland than on the island.


Eva Sotomayor, 24, who moved from the island two years ago because of the crisis, said the creditors on Wall Street should settle for less than what they are owed because they had dictated terms for so long under what she called a "colonial" arrangement.

"It's not the people's fault, yet they're the ones who are paying" with cuts to social services such as education, she said.

Puerto Ricans at least have a safety net unavailable to other Latin Americans. They can move freely to the United States and, once there, are eligible for public benefits.

There are 5.4 million Puerto Ricans living in the mainland United States, compared with nearly 3.5 million on the island, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Net migration to the mainland reached 65,000 people in 2015, up from 28,000 in 2010.

Florida and New York have seen the bulk of newly arrived Puerto Ricans, along with Texas, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Luis DeRosa, president of the South Florida Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, was born in New York and has lived in Miami for 20 years.

"This debt is years in the making. Part of the situation is that elected officials didn't have the foresight, or the control, to realize that the more you borrow, the more you owe," said DeRosa, whose father and wife's family still live in Puerto Rico.

"Unfortunately, at the end of the day, it is the middle class, the working class of Puerto Rico, who are stuck with the bill and it’s just too much to handle all at one time." (Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York, Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Additional reporting by Robin Respaut in San Francisco; Editing by Peter Cooney)