Cleveland's Puerto Rican community reacts to suspect in kidnapping case, discusses citizenship

CLEVELAND - We're looking into the Hispanic community, which is not only being impacted by the unfathomable kidnapping case, but many were also offended by a false report that the suspect, a Puerto Rican, was not a United States citizen.

Ariel Castro, 52, is accused of holding three missing Cleveland women captive in his Seymour Avenue house for a decade. One of those women, Amanda Berry, escaped on Monday and call police, who found Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight also inside the house.

So in an effort to provide more information on this subject of "Puerto Rican citizenship," NewsChannel5's Stephanie Ramirez and Joe Pagonakis spoke to Cleveland's Hispanic leaders about misconceptions and how it pertains to the Cleveland kidnapping.

They reported on this story together, first speaking to Jose Feliciano, Chairman of the Hispanic Roundtable, a group that works to empower Latinos.

"It kind of hurts and it quite frankly, makes me mad," said Feliciano, speaking honestly about the misconceptions of Puerto Ricans not being considered United States citizens.

Feliciano said he believes it is an issue that runs very deep among Puerto Ricans, not just in Cleveland, but around the world.

"My father, who served seven years in the United States military, would turn over in his grave if he learned of the fact that people did not think he was a United States citizen," Feliciano said.

History documents say Puerto Ricans have been fighting for the United States ever since 1917, the year Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship. So why is there still this misconception?

Chief executive officer of a social service organization, the Eastern Neighborhood House, Zulma Zabala also spoke to NewsChannel5 on Thursday.

"I think the misconceptions come from the ignorance of not knowing that history and perhaps making assumptions that we may be Mexican, or Salvadorian or one of my other brothers and sisters who are not citizens of the United States."

"If we don't have those discussions," said the Hispanic Alliance's Juan Molina Crespo, "the ignorance about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans is going to continue for generations. "

Now with the Cleveland kidnapping, there's a different spotlight on the Puerto Rican community. How are Cleveland's Hispanic leaders responding to this?

"It's hard not to feel that you're part of it, even though we have nothing to do with this person, this monster," said Ramonita Vargas, Executive Director of the Spanish American Committee.

"There are individuals in all ethnicities, in all races, from all walks of life, that do bad things.... but we don't own that," Crespo said.

These Hispanic community leaders said what is more important is the healing process that has begun, not just in Cleveland's Hispanic and Puerto Rican communities, but in all of northeast Ohio.

"In moments like this instead of signaling who's this and who's that, how do we make sure that we stay together as a community? How do I make sure that I know my neighbor so that I know that if I have to watch someone's child coming from school? I would do that. So I think it's critical as a community that we allow these unfortunate situations to be lessons to ourselves that we need to be connected," Zabala said.

It's all part of a healing process Crespo told NewsChannel5, is being led by example.

"We need to celebrate life clearly, the lives of these three brave young women. We also continue to inspire hope, like their families have taught us. They taught us that there's nothing stronger than hope," said Crespo.

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