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Orlando Sentinel

To Get Ahead We Have To Get Along

by Maria T. Padilla

December 13, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

NEW YORK CITY -- It`s possible to go home again; just don`t expect the old neighborhood to be there. So it is that in the Puerto Rican neighborhood of New York called El Barrio, where I grew up, Mexicans are becoming more numerous.

There are Mexican restaurants, groceries and money-wiring businesses. Throughout the city, you see taco trucks selling hot food to hungry workers.

The old Catholic church is as likely to pay homage to la Virgen de la Guadalupe -- the Virgin Mary for Mexicans -- as to Puerto Rican`s Virgen de la Providencia.

The neighborhood public library, originally founded by Jewish newcomers, has been handed down to Irish, Italians, Puerto Ricans and now Mexicans.

Of course, that`s expected in such places as New York, where immigrant masses have huddled for centuries. But it`s also happening here in Florida and in other states. Hispanic groups once found solely in one region are fanning out to other Hispanic turfs, or to areas that haven`t had a Hispanic presence at all.

Arkansas, North Carolina and Georgia are seeing Hispanics where there were none. Florida, long associated with Cuban refugees, now is home to more than 250,000 Puerto Ricans -- not to mention tens of thousands of Colombians and Nicaraguans. Central Florida, where the state`s largest concentration of Puerto Ricans live, also is home to nearly 50,000 Mexicans, the region`s second-largest Hispanic group.

Mexicans are starting businesses in such cities as Ocoee and Winter Garden. In fact, Mexicans predominate among Hispanics in Lake County -- the only Central Florida county where that is so.

It didn`t used to be this way. Time was when Mexicans principally lived in Texas, Arizona and California. Puerto Ricans were found on the Eastern Seaboard, with a sprinkling in Illinois and Ohio. Dominicans were in New York and New Jersey, while Cubans lived in Florida and New Jersey.

Now, though, it`s clear that Hispanics soon will be all over the U.S. map. It`s intriguing to think about what the final numbers from the 2000 Census will reveal, although we`ll have to wait until next year to find out.

Of course, living in the same communities doesn`t imply that Hispanic groups get along. Old gripes die hard, but that`s fodder for another column.

It does mean that -- like it or not -- groups are going to have to get along to get ahead, because they have no choice.

It also means that anyone who wants to focus on Hispanics will have to get smarter about whom they`re targeting.

Some have committed egregious faux pas. During the election campaign, for instance, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bill McCollum proved that he didn`t know his audience.

In a campaign speech to Hispanics in Orlando, he mentioned Colombians, Venezuelans, Bolivians, Cubans and Mexicans. Not once did he say something about Puerto Ricans.

Other speakers followed the same line. Finally, Puerto Ricans in the audience could stand it no longer, shouting "{spexclam}Somos Boricuas!" We`re Puerto Ricans -- as if to say, "We`re here. Don`t you see us?"

Asked about it later, McCollum, who is familiar with Puerto Rican issues after 18 years in Congress, said, "I should have addressed that here today."

So when next you visit a familiar stomping ground, pay attention. Could be that the old neighbors have moved on -- and surface appearances may not be what they seem.

Maria Padilla can be reached at 407-420-5162 or at

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