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More Puerto Ricans Are Making Their Homes In Florida?

UM Conference Will Highlight Puerto Rican Community Issues


April 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

From Wynwood to Westchester, Perrine to Pembroke Pines, Homestead to Orlando, more Puerto Ricans are making their homes in Florida.

The numbers may be difficult to believe because there aren't many outward signs. There is no Little San Juan. There is no Puerto Rican radio station. There is a festival in Broward County but not in Miami-Dade.

But in the past 10 years, census figures show, Puerto Ricans have doubled their presence in the state and in Broward, where they are the largest Hispanic group. Though there are about 30,000 more Puerto Ricans in Miami-Dade County -- where the population grew by a scant 10 percent in comparison -- they are the second-largest group of Hispanics after Cubans.

Still, many local Puerto Ricans feel invisible. That's why some of them have organized a conference at the University of Miami this week on issues facing the island and the stateside community -- to raise awareness and start a dialogue among themselves.

''It wasn't difficult to find many great reasons to do it in Miami,'' said Frances Negrón-Muntaner, a writer and filmmaker and brain behind the Puerto Rican Vacilón Conference today and tomorrow at UM's Storer Auditorium.

''Florida is becoming the fastest-growing Puerto Rican state in the country. There is a very significant influx of Puerto Ricans moving to Florida, and I think that influence has not been recognized by a lot of the institutions,'' she said.

''It's really hard for us because we don't have a Little Haiti, we don't have a Little Havana,'' said Raúl Duany, chairman of the Puerto Rican Professional Association of South Florida, an organization known as PROFESA, with a network of 1,400 associates.

``We have a big community dispersed all over the place. So that makes it hard to have that visibility and also hard for empowerment, because we don't really dominate an area.''

Though Miami's Wynwood neighborhood has long been considered a Little San Juan, many Puerto Ricans have moved to the suburbs as their economic conditions improved. It's still the cradle of Puerto Rican leadership, however: the Eugenio Maria de Hostos Senior Center, the Dorothy Quintana Community Center, ASPIRA, the Borinquen Health Care Center and the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, to name a few.

Wynwood is also home to Roberto Clemente Park, Eneida Hartner Elementary and Jose de Diego Middle School.

But the residents and clients they serve are increasingly not Puerto Rican, activists and community leaders say.

''There's not that need to stick together. We are American citizens, and we blend together with all the other communities. There are no common causes like the Cubans and the Nicaraguans have,'' said Janitza Torres-Kaplan, executive director of the Rafael Hernádez Housing and Economic Development Corporation.

Esther Couvertier, the director of the De Hostos Senior Center, said less than half the center's clients today are Puerto Rican. ''When we started it was a majority, but now there are more Cubans and other nationalities,'' she said.

The Borinquen clinic has seen the same phenomenon, said president Gamaliel Rivera. Today, nearly 40 percent of the clients are Haitian, he said. And Hispanics, who represent another 55 percent or more, are equally split between Cubans and Puerto Ricans, with an increasing number of Dominicans showing up for healthcare.

Census figures also back up the Puerto Rican exodus from Wynwood -- even as the overall Hispanic population there grew from just over 50 percent to nearly 60 percent. In 1990, 28 percent of the Hispanics in the working-class neighborhood were Puerto Rican. According to the 2000 census, that figure is now 17 percent.

It's a migration to the suburbs.

Since 1990, the Puerto Rican population in Miami has decreased by 8 percent. Miami Beach lost 14 percent and North Miami lost 10 percent. Meanwhile, there have been big increases in Pembroke Pines -- where there are four times as many Puerto Ricans as there were in 1990 -- and Coral Springs and Hollywood, which both tripled their Puerto Rican populations in 10 years.

''I don't know that the draw is any different than for any other particular group,'' said Terri Castellano, chairwoman of the Latin Chamber of Commerce of Broward County.

''When you live in a community you enjoy and that really embraces diversity, you tend to tell people about it,'' Castellano said. ``I think that's how Miami-Dade County realized a significant difference in terms of the Cuban community, and I think the same is true for Broward and Puerto Ricans.''

But she said the Puerto Ricans she knows in Broward and Palm Beach counties do not feel the same identity crisis as some have expressed in Miami-Dade.

''We all celebrate our heritage, but we also look at the bigger, broader picture, that we as Hispanics united have a bigger voice than we do as a specific group,'' Castellano said.

In Miami-Dade, the moves have been to West Kendall, the Country Club area near Aventura and the Hammocks.

Migration patterns on a national and international scale will be one of the topics -- the others are economic and political globalization, the status issue and cultural nationalization -- discussed in a series of panels presented by more than 20 scholars, including some from the University of Puerto Rico, Princeton, Rutgers and George Washington University.

''Here in South Florida, for example, when we talk about Hispanic issues and Hispanic communities, we sometimes leave out people from Puerto Rico,'' said Robert M. Levine, UM professor of history and director of UM's Center for Latin American Studies. But the growing influx will not allow for the community to be ignored much longer, he added.

''We're going to be facing the fact that we really don't know very much about the needs of this community,'' he said.

To that end, the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration regional office for South Florida has started a search for boricuas far and wide, to identify their needs and concerns. Florida is the only state with two Puerto Rican government offices.

''This office is tasked with uniting the community,'' said Manuel Benitez-Gorbea, director of the office, which works sort of like a consulate except for immigration issues.

Maurice Ferre, former Miami mayor and the keynote speaker at the conference's lunch today, said that when people talk about Florida's Puerto Rican community, they think of the Orlando area, where the community is more visible.

But the South Florida community is just as big, he said.

``For a long time now I've been saying that the Puerto Rican community is a lot larger than anyone recognizes. They are not seen because they are, for the most part, professionals who move in and out of the community with ease and blend into the general community because they are as much American as they are Puerto Rican.''

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