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Orlando Sentinel

Census Sees Latin Quilt

By Pedro Ruz Gutierrez

July 26, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

Music celebration.

Flags from Dominican Republic, Chile, Peru, Panama and Puerto Rico fly over Hispanic music lovers at the Central Florida Fairgrounds. Close to 30,000 Hispanics gathered for the day-long concert celebrating the first year of Hispanic radio station La Nueva 98.1 FM.

They escaped drug lords, guerrillas, violent crime and economic instability to seek a better future in the United States.

Many are professionals who had to leave everything behind.

For some, it was an easy decision: life or death.

For others, it was simply a promise of a better life.

They represent the latest wave of immigrants to Central Florida -- mostly from Latin America -- whose numbers swelled in the past decade.

New Census 2000 figures released this week show Latin American groups are diversifying Central Florida's Hispanic population as some nationalities doubled, tripled or quadrupled their numbers since 1990.

But their official population still pales in comparison with Central Florida's large Puerto Rican, Mexican and Cuban populations, which together account for 70 percent of Central Florida's 322,708 Hispanics.

Other groups, including 28,170 South Americans and 11,625 Central Americans, are slowly gaining recognition.

Cubans -- who nearly doubled in Central Florida to 22,528 from 12,961 in 1990 -- are still the state's single largest Hispanic group with 833,120 people.

But some Hispanic leaders, as well as researchers, are skeptical of the slower-than-expected growth rates among certain groups, including Colombians. They point to illegal immigrants, a fear of government, a transient population and a confusing census form as reasons why the numbers aren't higher.

Glad to be here

The Cardonas of Villavicencio, Colombia, arrived too late to answer the census last year, but they count themselves lucky all the same.

Leftist guerrillas kidnapped Federico Cardona, a 71-year-old cattle rancher, for nearly a month because they disliked his political views and attempts to organize peasants on his land. They tried to abduct him three times before finally snatching him a year ago.

Aided by his 28-year-old son and attorney, Victor Hugo Cardona, the elder Cardona was safely returned to the Red Cross and immediately began planning his exit from his beloved Colombia. The family liquidated as many properties as possible before arriving in Orange County's Waterford Lakes community last fall.

The transition has been very tough, said the once-energetic farmer who would rather be tilling his soil or tending his cattle rather than learning a new language and culture.

But he knows his son's future is here.

"For young people, this is paradise," said Victor Hugo Cardona, a lawyer who moved to the United States and manages his law firm in Bogota by phone and the Internet. The younger Cardona plans to study paralegal services here and dreams of joining a law firm.

Lost in the statistics

Some of the same factors that brought the Cardonas to the Orlando area have appealed to other Latin Americans, who sometimes go unnoticed.

Brazilians are a hard group to categorize for demographers because they fall into a gray area. Some Brazilians, who consider themselves Latin Americans, incorrectly may have counted themselves in the "other Spanish/Hispanic/Latino" class.

That's what happened to Brazilians Waldecy Dias, 56, and Nadejda Dias, 47.

The couple left their claustrophobic high-rise apartment overlooking the metropolis of Sao Paulo in the early 1990s for a townhouse in Orange County's Dr. Phillips area. Their youngest son, 13-year-old Alex, speaks fluent English and Portuguese and will start eighth grade at Southwest Middle School next month.

The Diases, who entered the United States with investor visas in 1992, said they were drawn to Orlando because of business opportunities and a lower crime rate.

In Brazil, the Diases said, crime was out of control.

"We went 40 days without leaving the apartment once," said Nadejda Dias, a psychologist mugged three times at gunpoint.

Two of their older sons still are in college in Brazil, where they help run the family's trucking business. They hope their sons, too, will settle in Orlando.

Meantime, Waldecy Dias and his wife manage Towncar Transportation, a limousine service in Orlando that caters to tourists, and a cleaning-service company for hotels and offices.

More Dominicans arrive

One person who did not dispute the newly released data is Rafael Calderon, a Dominican journalist who hosts the daily Informativo Dominicano program on 1220 AM radio.

The approximately 11,000 Dominicans counted last year in Central Florida did not surprise Calderon, although he initially expected up to 15,000 Dominicans to show up in the census. Their numbers more than tripled since the 1990 count.

Evidence of Central Florida's Dominican presence abounds in south Orange County and Kissimmee, where many grocery stores or restaurants formerly owned by Puerto Ricans or Cubans are now in the hands of Dominicans.

"It surprises me. Wherever I look, there are stores and businesses owned by Dominicans," said Calderon, who was raised in New York City.

Unlike the recent arrivals of other Latin Americans such as Colombians and Venezuelans, Dominicans are migrating from northern U.S. cities to Orlando in search of better schools and warmer weather, said Calderon, who is lobbying Dominican authorities to set up a permanent consulate in Orlando.

Seeking opportunity

Another South American nation with a sizable representation in Central Florida is Venezuela, whose numbers nearly quadrupled from 1,100 in 1990 to 4,094 last year. That's about 10 percent of the state total of 40,781 Venezuelans.

The figure is not surprising. Highly skilled professionals have been leaving the South American country in droves after its oil-rich economy weakened in recent years and left-leaning President Hugo Chavez scared away many investors.

University of Central Florida business student Miguel Bañuls, a 23-year-old native of Caracas, is not an investor. But his is a story of perseverance and hard work.

Bañuls arrived in Orlando five years ago with a suitcase and $500 in his pocket. He bagged groceries at $4.75 an hour and soon rose to be one of the youngest Winn-Dixie managers in the Orlando area.

He put himself through Valencia Community College and is now finishing his third year of business-administration classes at the University of Central Florida.

"The more I worked and more strenuous the job, the more I realized I had to study," said Bañuls, who filled out the census form but knows of others who did not.

Bañuls is determined to graduate -- fulfilling a promise to his mom, who died this past Mother's Day.

"In this country, he who wants can," said Bañuls, who values the social mobility and opportunities in the United States.

Statistics questioned

Edgar Silva, president of Central Florida's Colombian-American Civic Council, was stunned to hear that only 13,417 Colombians were counted in Census 2000 in Brevard, Lake, Osceola, Orange, Seminole and Volusia counties.

Silva, who arrived in Kissimmee from Long Island, N.Y., seven years ago, suspects the government figures are wrong.

Still, the numbers show that Colombians more than doubled their presence in the area since 1990, when 5,681 were counted.

"They are not exact numbers," said Silva, a Mears Transportation tourist-shuttle bus driver recently elected council president. Silva said he has seen a steady exodus from Colombia to Central Florida -- especially in the past three years as the civil war intensified.

Silva and other community activists estimate at least 50,000 Colombians may be in the area stretching from Daytona Beach to Tampa. Statewide, the census totaled 138,768 Colombians, but some experts estimate that figure may be closer to 240,000.

Some academic researchers, in fact, take Silva's criticism further.

John Logan, who heads the University of Albany's Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research, is one.

Logan, who developed his own estimates, said the census could be off by as much as 40 percent to 50 percent in its count of Hispanic groups.

The census form, he said, was far too confusing when seeking the population count of people identifying themselves as "other Spanish/Hispanic/Latino."

This made it difficult for many people to identify themselves as belonging to a specific nationality.

Roberto Ramirez, a census statistician, said the bureau is aware that "significant" numbers of Hispanics fell into the broad category without specifying national origin and is studying why.

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