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Latin American Immigrants Flood Miami

September 7, 2001
Copyright © 2001 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

MIAMI (AP) -- There's a neighborhood here where Honduran, Dominican and Salvadorian restaurants are kept busy, a marquee promotes an upcoming performance by a Nicaraguan ballet and customers line up at a deli that only sells products from Spain.

Welcome to Little Havana.

The heart of Miami's Cuban community is now a diverse cross section of Latin America as Cuban migration slows and scores of other Hispanics seek out Miami as a new home.

While Miami's Hispanic population was 90 percent Cuban about 30 years ago, latest census figures show nearly half of Miami-Dade County's 1.3 million Hispanics do not consider themselves Cuban.

``As Cubans got better jobs and made more money, they moved to other areas and newly arrived immigrants who are struggling have taken their place,'' said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.

While Cubans remain prominent in Miami business and politics, growing numbers of Hispanics are making their mark on the city, bringing with them their tastes in food, music, dance and culture.

``You have a Latin and business sector here, a welcoming culture, and the possibilities of employment even if you don't speak the language,'' said Max Castro, a senior research associate at the University of Miami's North-South Center.

According to 2000 census data, Hispanics made up more than 1,291,000 of Miami-Dade County's total population of some 2,253,000. Cubans made up 650,600, while Central Americans comprised 129,000; South Americans were 154,000; Puerto Ricans at 80,000; Mexicans at 38,000; and Dominicans at 36,000.

Dulce Gomez said she left the Dominican Republic 10 years ago searching for prosperity. After five years in Puerto Rico, she moved to Miami and took over her cousin's restaurant, El Padrinito Cafe.

She said her business literally adds more flavor to the neighborhood, with cooking that uses heavier seasoning than traditional Cuban fare, including a fish soup ``that will raise the dead.''

She immediately noticed the mix of nationalities coming through the door.

``I would see six or eight tables and everybody was a different nationality,'' Gomez said. ``That made me feel very good.''

Non-Cuban Hispanics still have some difficulty fitting in with the more powerful Cubans, said Maria Eugenia Pinedo, a Colombian native who works as an immigrant advocate.

But other Hispanics tend to bond, even if they had differences in their homelands, she said.

``The Venezuelans and the Colombians -- over there we don't get along because we've always had problems at the border, but here we are partners,'' Pinedo said.

The Cuban community is by no means moribund. The city and county mayors, the city manager, police chief and the majority of the city commission are Cuban-Americans.

That force was on display again last month when organizers of the Latin Grammys -- many of them Cuban-Americans -- moved the show to Los Angeles because they feared Cuban-exile protesters.

Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, said Cubans in Miami are more powerful today than 30 years ago despite their declining numbers in the area.

``The Cuban community remains a strong voting block,'' he said. But he added, ``We have a responsibility to act like those in power and that requires an ability to be inclusive ... When you are in power what you do is give participation to other voices.''

Other Latin Americans in Miami hope to grab some of that political influence Cubans now enjoy.

``We are getting involved in politics. We are organizing ourselves,'' Pinedo said. ``We want more participation, we are doing citizenship drives.''

From his family owned flag shop on Calle Ocho, the main street through the neighborhood, Bill Ledlow has watched the transformation of Little Havana.

``We're the last of the Mohicans, so to speak,'' he said, noting that white business owners are very rare in the neighborhood. But it also means people from all over Latin America stop in to buy flags.

``You just missed an El Salvador,'' he said before turning and pointing at two other customers. ``There's a Panama and a Mexico.''

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