TAMPA — As Americans across the country prepared for their Memorial Day celebrations on Sunday, Colombian-Americans took part in their own patriotic duty: voting for a new Colombian president.
About a dozen supporters of candidate Juan Manuel Santos rallied across the street from the Tampa Scottish Rite Masonic Center in Town 'N Country, one of 10 voting sites in Florida.
Angela Sarmiento, a 22-year-old college student who lives with her parents in FishHawk Ranch, was among those waving a Colombian flag and orange Santos signs while passing motorists honked their horns.
Sarmiento, who voted Sunday for the first time, said she and her family were celebrating both the elections and Memorial Day, pointing to the American flags adorning the Masonic Center.
Sarmiento moved to the United States 10 years ago with her parents, who left the country to escape violence and the tough economy. Her father, Luis, now sells advertisements for Hispanic magazines and her mother, Dexy, works in a day care center.
"We do care about our country. It doesn't matter where we are," she said.
More than 60,000 Colombian-Americans in Florida were eligible Sunday to vote for a successor to President Alvaro Uribe.
Florida has more Colombia voting sites than any state in the country. The Tampa Bay area has more than 2,880 eligible voters, about twice as many as the presidential elections four years ago, said a spokesman for the Colombian Consulate.
A key issue in this year's election: How the country's leader will handle relations with neighboring Venezuela and its leftist president, Hugo Chavez.
"We want a free Colombia. We don't want it communist," said Patricia Velazquez, who has lived in the United States for 25 years. She drove to Tampa from Wesley Chapel to cast her vote for Santos, the former defense minister and close ally of Uribe, who has led Colombia for eight years.
"We don't want Colombia to be like Venezuela. Nothing," Velazquez said.
Lina Zuluaga traveled from Spring Hill with her husband and three children to cast her vote for Germán Vargas Lleras. The hourlong drive was well worth it to participate in the democratic process, she said.
"I'm not going to let another person choose for me. I want to choose my president," she said. "It's important for all democratic countries."
Lleras and Santos are two of nine candidates vying to replace Uribe. Santos won the most votes in Sunday's election, but voters will go back to the polls again for a runoff June 20.
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.