Puerto-Ricans-In-Kissimmee
Image via courtesy Frances Santiago

After 14 years of military service, the veteran has found her place in Kissimmee, Florida, where she stands up for the rights of her fellow Puerto Ricans.

Frances Santiago saw in the U.S. Army an opportunity to fulfill her dream of studying medicine. She is now a veteran — and a mother of four — that stands up for the rights of her fellow Puerto Ricans from her new hometown, Kissimmee.

After graduating from the Manuel Méndez Liciaga High School near her hometown of Aguadilla, she decided to undertake a military career with the intention of studying pediatrics.

“In the army, I entered the medical field and specialized in medical emergencies, the army’s combat doctors. When I enlisted, the recruiter told me I didn’t have much to worry about, as I’d be stationed in a hospital instead of being in the front lines,” says Frances.

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Trusting the recruiter’s words, she enrolled without even asking her parents for permission. Three years later, she ended up being sent to war. Needless to say, this decision was far from what she expected.

Frances was activated for the Iraq War. From 2004 to 2005 she was stationed in a military camp in Balad, and from 2006 to 2007 in Baghdad.

“I was ready because it was a new experience, and I liked being in the Army. During the first mobilization, I was assigned to a hospital, the first-aid station of a camp in Iraq. I worked with the Air Force in their ambulances. It was the equivalent of 911 at the base,” the veteran explains.

Frances remembers she and a partner in the military police were the only women in the platoon. There were eight women in the company altogether. 

“It was a good experience. In the beginning, as we were part of an infantry unit that had just assumed military police duties, fellow soldiers did not believe in working with women. But when they saw how we worked, they accepted us,” Frances says. 

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What comes after war?

Frances became a nurse after 14 years of military service where she was able to finish her studies. When she returned to Puerto Rico, she worked several jobs. She was a paramedic in ambulances, a nurse within the Agency for Emergency and Disaster Management (Aemead, following its initials in Spanish), and a phlebotomist at the Mayagüez VA Clinic.

In 2013, Frances retired due to several health conditions. Her time was freed up to care for her youngest son Eric, a six-year-old who has autism.

As a mother of four, she takes care of her two children from a previous marriage as well as her husband’s two children. The family moved to Kissimmee, Florida, in 2017. Frances and her family boarded the last plane to leave Puerto Rico on September 5, 2017, a few hours before Category 5 Hurricane Irma hit the island. Fourteen days later Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico.

“Due to the boy’s medical needs, we had contemplated buying a house in Florida and were in the process of doing so. That Friday, we were supposed to close on the house. When I arrived in Florida, Irma made landfall. Everything was closed, and we spent 15 days in a hotel. I closed on the house the day Maria hit Puerto Rico.”

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The Santiagos have adapted well to Florida’s life. Having experienced racism against Latinos is their only complaint.

“The Puerto Rican community here is large. In my neighborhood, we have Cuban, Dominican, and Venezuelan neighbors, but unfortunately, there is a lot of racism. It doesn’t matter where someone is from: white people think we all come from the same country. You notice the racism in community leaders,” said Frances. 

“Many of our neighbors are retirees from many states. We have a new big-box store in town, and many Puerto Ricans work there, so many people speak Spanish within. Some have complained, even saying ‘speak English, not Spanish, or go back to your country,’” explains Frances.

What it takes to be a Puerto Rican activist in Florida

The Santiago family made headlines in Florida and Puerto Rico last summer after Frances and her husband Efraín claimed discrimination from the homeowners association of their neighborhood, Rolling Hills Estates when they asked the family to remove a Puerto Rican flag from their porch. The flag was displayed in support of protests against former Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló, who resigned on August 2 after an internet-chat scandal.

Frances and her husband assured they did not intend to offend anyone by displaying the flag of their homeland. The homeowners association alleged that only the United States flag, and some sport-team flags on sporting-event days, were to be allowed. They insisted if the Puerto Rico flag was to be displayed, they would also have to allow flags from all countries on porches.

“The association had a vote on the matter; only three members participated in the voting. They gave us a deadline to remove the flag. We took it down right on the deadline. We are working on a bill with the local Alianza for Progress. With the coronavirus situation, we have not been able to continue working to give residents more flexibility — so homeowners associations don’t interfere as much with people’s lives. That includes displaying the flag because it’s a matter of freedom of expression. The project was presented to the court in Tallahassee, and we were waiting for a response, which was delayed by the quarantine,” Frances concludes.