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Kidnap saga puts spotlight on Cleveland's Puerto Rican community

Ariel Castro appears in court for his initial appearance in Cleveland, Ohio, May 9, 2013.
Credit: Reuters/John Gress
Ariel Castro appears in court for his initial appearance in Cleveland, Ohio, May 9, 2013. Credit: Reuters/John Gress

CLEVELAND | Fri May 10, 2013 1:20am EDT

(Reuters) - Puerto Ricans came to Cleveland in the 1950s, drawn to a booming post-war America. Word quickly spread back home about the well-paying jobs at the steel and auto plants that were once the backbone of this Midwestern industrial city.

The family of Ariel Castro, the man charged with kidnapping three women and raping them in captivity for nearly 10 years, was among the first wave of immigrants to settle Cleveland's Puerto Rican community.

His case has drawn attention to a lesser-known part of the Puerto Rican diaspora, more often associated with larger communities in New York, Orlando, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Puerto Rico, with a population of around 3.7 million, is a former Spanish colony that is now a U.S. territory. Its people can migrate freely to the United States, giving the tiny island an outsized influence in Hispanic American culture.

A tightly knit group mostly from the same southern region on the Caribbean island, Puerto Ricans in Cleveland have cheered Monday's rescue of the women. They also worry it will cast a long shadow over their community.

"No one shouted louder than I did when they announced the girls were found," said Wanda DeLeon, a 27-year-old homemaker. "But I am already anticipating the stares."

A judge has ordered Castro, a 52-year-old former school bus driver, held on a $8 million bond. He is charged with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape. An Ohio prosecutor said on Thursday he would seek additional aggravated murder charges related to the forced miscarriages that police say Castro inflicted on one of the women.

The emergence of Castro as the suspect in the case stunned many Cleveland Puerto Ricans. The Castro family is well-known in the community and Castro's uncle, Julio Cesar Castro, runs a mom-and-pop grocery store, or bodega, seen by many as a symbol of the city's working-class Puerto Rican neighborhood.

Jose Feliciano, a prominent Cleveland lawyer whose parents also migrated from Puerto Rico in the 1950s, described Julio Cesar Castro as a "beloved" man who often helped new immigrants.

"He has given away more food from that bodega," Feliciano said. "If people were short on rent or needed cash to get their car repaired, they knew they could always count on him for a loan or credit."

Julio Cesar Castro, known by his nickname Cesi, said he had grown distant with his nephew in recent years. "In the last five or six years he separated from me," he said. "I don't know the reason. He appeared to be one thing, and was something else."

STEEL AND CARS

The first Puerto Rican families arrived in Cleveland seeking work at factories for companies such as Republic Steel and automakers Chevrolet and Ford whose plants helped transform Cleveland into the sixth-largest city in the United States at the time.

"The city was teeming," Feliciano said. Some Puerto Rican workers were even recruited because of a labor shortage.

Over the past several decades, as its manufacturing industry dwindled, Cleveland has seen a dramatic decline in its population from 1 million people to less than 400,000 today.

The number of Hispanics, who account for nearly 10 percent of the city's population, has increased in recent years, with the vast majority coming from Puerto Rico, said Cleveland City Councilman Brian Cummins.

Many, like the Castros and the Felicianos, are from Yauco, a small southwestern coffee-growing town with few jobs. Others are from the nearby city of Juana Diaz.

The tragedy has heightened sensibilities about the perception of the Puerto Rican community, highlighted by city prosecutor Victor Perez's announcement of the kidnapping and rape charges against Castro.

"As the chief prosecutor for the city of Cleveland, born and raised in Puerto Rico, I want everyone to know that the acts of the defendant in this criminal case are not a reflection of the rest of the Puerto Rican community here or in Puerto Rico," he said.

The abductions have also brought attention to the economic toll the recent recession inflicted on the Puerto Rican community.

In west Cleveland, home to the Puerto Rican neighborhood and where the three women were found, many houses sit with their windows boarded up or covered by "No Trespassing" signs.

"The people are really hurting in this community," Cummins said.

The case has been followed closely in Puerto Rico. Gina DeJesus, who went missing in 2004 and was rescued with Amanda Berry and Michelle Knight, also is Puerto Rican and has family ties to Yauco.

News commentators in Puerto Rico, meanwhile, voiced concern the case could reflect badly on the territory and its people.

Some took issue with media reports that highlighted Castro's Puerto Rican background, pointing out that many reports noted a Puerto Rican flag flying in front of the house while an American flag also hung outside the home.

Veteran newscaster Carmen Jovet asked on a morning radio program: "Why is the fact that he is Puerto Rican important at all?"

(Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Frances Kerry and Paul Simao)

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