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Orlando Sentinel

Puerto Ricans Stream Into Central Florida

By Maria T. Padilla

May 24, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

The growth of Puerto Rican and other Hispanic groups, along with the Asian community, kept Central Florida’s melting pot bubbling during the 1990s.

Census figures released Wednesday show Puerto Ricans solidified their dominance among Hispanics, while Mexicans and Cubans doubled their populations.

Meanwhile, Filipinos led the expansion of Central Florida’s Asian population, which grew by 78 percent.

Local figures show that one of every three Puerto Ricans in the state now lives in Central Florida. In fact, there are more Puerto Ricans in Orange County than there are in all but nine of the 67 municipalities on the island itself.

"Wow," said Olga Otero, 62, who is Dominican. "Everywhere you go there are Hispanics."

Puerto Ricans maintained their dominance among Hispanics in Central Florida, making up a little more than 50 percent.

In Otero’s Hibiscus Point subdivision off South Semoran Boulevard, all but a few of the 50 homeowners are Puerto Rican.

That helps explain how Central Florida has come to have a population of 162,555 Puerto Ricans, more than half of whom live in Orange County. In Osceola County, the Puerto Rican population jumped 278 percent, the highest in the region.

Overall in Central Florida, the Puerto Rican community grew by 182 percent.

Ever more multicultural

But other ethnic groups are creating a mix of Hispanic cultures in the Orlando area. Not only are Puerto Ricans moving here, but Mexicans, Cubans, Filipinos, Chinese, Vietnamese and Koreans are, too. Each of these groups grew by more than 50 percent in the past decade.

Now, more Puerto Ricans and Vietnamese live in Orange than in any other Florida county.

"It’s an international flavor," said Roberto Castro of Orlando, describing what this metropolitan area has become.

Mexicans, for example, now number more than 40,000, up 130 percent. They make up nearly 50 percent of Hispanics in Lake County, the only Central Florida county where Puerto Ricans do not predominate among Hispanics. Mexicans now make up 14 percent of the region’s Hispanics.

"This is a microcosm of what the reality is," said Mexican Consul Martin Torres, alluding to illegal immigration that might not be reflected in the official count.

The Mexican government established a consulate in Orlando in 1995, a sign of the increase in the population.

Meanwhile, the Cuban population, long the state’s dominant Hispanic group, nearly doubled in Central Florida to more than 22,000.

The group appears to be fanning out to such counties as Lake and Osceola. Although Cubans’ numbers in these counties still are small, the totals rose by more than 150 percent.

Cuban percentage drops

Cubans in Central Florida are multiplying at three times the statewide rate. Even so, Cubans fell to 7 percent of all Hispanics in the region, compared with 10 percent in 1990.

That doesn’t surprise Castro. The sandwich-shop owner had earlier predicted the Cuban population didn’t top 30,000.

He believes more Cubans are moving north from Miami, which is the center of the state’s Cuban population. "Miami is the New York of the South," he said. Cubans are seeking more tranquillity and better quality of life in Orlando, he said.

In addition, about 25,000 Cubans emigrate from the island to this country every year, said Dario Moreno, professor at Florida International University in Miami. Some have made their way to the Orlando area, as have a number of other Hispanics.

Other Hispanics total almost 94,000, or 29 percent of all Hispanics in the region. This may reflect Dominicans, Colombians, Venezuelans and other Central and South Americans. But other Hispanics also is a tricky census category.

The majority are people who didn’t identify their Hispanic nationality, which means they can be Puerto Rican, Mexican and Cuban as well. Other Hispanics total 1 million people statewide.If not for Hispanics and Asians, there would be little ethnic mix in Orlando. The area would resemble the rest of the South, where whites and blacks provide most of the color.

Growing so fast’

The region’s nearly 60,000 Asians make the area even more diverse. Filipinos are the second-largest and second-fastest-growing segment, comprising 10,000 people, up 107 percent.

"I know that we are growing so fast," said Lita Martija, who heads the Filipino Chamber of Commerce and is trying to establish a Filipino trade office here.

Filipinos, who make up 17 percent of all Asians in Central Florida, recently unveiled a bust of national hero Jose P. Rizal at downtown Lake Eola’s International Plaza, a testament to their growing clout. Rizal helped the Philippines revolt against Spain.

Chinese are another group whose Central Florida presence is becoming more pronounced and whose numbers have climbed enough to establish an annual Chinese New Year parade through downtown.

Nearly 8,500 Chinese live here, half in Orange County. For 20 years, the Chinese have maintained a language school in Orlando, which recently moved from Colonial High School to Edgewater. The school has 150 students.

Even though Filipinos and Chinese outrank the Vietnamese, Orange County has the distinction of being home to the largest number of Vietnamese in the state.

About 7,500 Vietnamese live in Central Florida. Of those, 83 percent are in Orange County. Vietnamese, many of whom arrived as refugees, have the highest Asian profile in the region, attributed to the Vietnamese business district off East Colonial Drive.

But Koreans also are becoming more visible, judging by the number of Korean churches that have cropped up. There are about 30 in the Orlando area, a reflection of the Korean population of 5,000, which is up 78 percent.

Nearly a quarter or more of the state’s Korean and Vietnamese populations live in Central Florida.

Asian Indians on rise

These groups are dwarfed by Asian Indians, who number 16,000 but who also comprise more than one ethnicity.

Asian Indians, who include East Indians and people from Pakistan, grew by 174 percent.

The Muslim and Hindu temples established in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties are evidence of this population growth and a sign of a true melting pot.

Liz Gibson and Katy Miller of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Maria Padilla can be reached at or 407-420-5162.

Copyright © 2001, Orlando Sentinel

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