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Puerto Rican Wakeup Call Central Florida: A New Promised Land Migrants, Their Descendants Challenge Definitions Of Who Is A Puerto Rican More Than One Way To Be Puerto Rican
Puerto Rican Wakeup Call
By Doreen Hemlock
July 21, 2002
Blending in easily has its price: You can get lost in the mix. That's the challenge facing Puerto Ricans in South Florida, a group more than 160,000 strong that trails only Cubans among Hispanics but remains largely overlooked in the tri-county area.
As U.S. citizens, with no burning issue to galvanize them, Puerto Ricans are struggling to raise their visibility and influence in South Florida to reflect their growing numbers and common concerns: their cultural heritage, their Caribbean island and a better life for their families.
"We're the sleeping giant," said Aurora Ortiz, 39, who leads a Puerto Rican cultural group in West Palm Beach. "It's just a question of time before we wake up."
While Colombians, Mexicans and other Latino groups get media attention over immigration issues, Puerto Ricans -- U.S. citizens since 1917 -- blend in, traveling between the United States and their "Island of Enchantment" as freely as motorists cross Florida's county lines.
Tens of thousands who arrived in South Florida since 1985 came via New York, New Jersey and other Northern states, where their parents and grandparents moved generations ago and where they grew up speaking English.
"There are so many Nu-yoricans here, that we have to give them a new name: Flori-ricans," joked New York-born Wilfredo Morales, 45, of Southwest Ranches.
Nor do Puerto Ricans publicly protest authoritarian regimes in their homeland the way Cubans and Venezuelans often do in theirs.
"For better or worse, Puerto Rico is a stable island, with a stable government," said New York-born Luis de Rosa, 45, president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Miami-Dade County.
"Our issues are American issues: housing, safe neighborhoods, good schools for our children, medical care for our families," de Rosa said. "And because of that, we get lost in the shuffle."
The fast-growing group shares at least one distinguishing cause: concerns about Puerto Rico, including the island's ambiguous relationship the with United States.
Puerto Rico this week commemorates 50 years as a U.S. commonwealth, a status supporters call the "best of both worlds" and detractors call a glorified colony.
If Puerto Rico were a state, its population of almost 4 million residents would merit seven or eight representatives in the U.S. House and two U.S. senators. As a commonwealth, it has only one U.S. House member, with limited voting power.
Community activists say if the 3.4 million Puerto Ricans living in the United States could boost their clout, they could influence members of Congress to pay closer attention to Puerto Rico, as well as to issues affecting Puerto Ricans in the states.
Staking an identity
That's why Minerva Casañas-Simon, 46, an aide to Broward County Commissioner Ben Graber and head of the Puerto Rican Democratic Club of Broward, is busy registering voters.
"We go unnoticed in South Florida because we're not politically active," she said.
Yet Puerto Ricans in the tri-county area -- so far -- have been less politically engaged than they are elsewhere.
On the island, residents are passionate about political parties that center on the relationship they want the island to have with the United States: statehood, commonwealth or independence. Voter turnout often tops 85 percent in island elections.
But that passion doesn't translate neatly into the U.S. political parties, which focus on broader issues.
Voter turnout among Puerto Ricans living in the states is about 40 percent, according to the Puerto Rico government, which also has launched a voter registration drive in the United States.
Puerto Ricans in South Florida also tend to be middle class and bilingual, in contrast to the poorer Spanish-speaking population that flocked to the New York area during the 1950s. Those immigrants organized to fight discrimination and sought help from labor unions and government for better pay, housing, education and community programs.
Nor have Puerto Ricans settled into enclaves the way Cubans have in Miami's Little Havana or Venezuelans have in Weston, the south Broward town dubbed "Westonzuela."
"We don't have a barrio here" that serves a political hub, said Casañas-Simon, who moved to South Florida seven years ago after 17 years in the North.
And as relative newcomers, arriving mostly during the 1990s, they haven't had time to get immersed in U.S. politics in South Florida, said Puerto Rico-born Raúl Duany, 33, who attended high school in Miami and moved back five years ago to serve as spokesman for the U.S. Army's Southern Command.
"Much of the community has only been here for two [presidential] elections," Duany said.
Preserving the culture
Many "Flori-ricans" are appealing to Puerto Rican identity and heritage as their strongest unifier to raise the community profile.
"We're so Americanized, and that's one of our concerns: losing our Puerto Rican culture," said Ortiz, a bilingual executive secretary who heads the Puerto Rican Cultural Society of West Palm Beach.
Her 9-year-old group sponsors a Puerto Rican dance troupe, helps the needy in Palm Beach County, and this year inaugurated a Puerto Rican clubhouse.
New York-born social worker Morales took his cue from New York's annual Puerto Rican Day parade, which draws crowds in the hundreds of thousands.
Morales started an annual Puerto Rican parade in Broward County five years ago. This year's is planned for Oct. 11 in Fort Lauderdale as part of a larger Americas festival. He also dreams of starting a Puerto Rican cultural center.
"We're the world's most diverse people," said Morales, describing Puerto Ricans as a unique mixture of native Taino, European and African blood.
What appears to be the best organized and widespread push for unity comes from the 2-year-old Puerto Rican Professional Association of South Florida, known as PROFESA and nurtured by Duany. It offers seminars, fund-raisers, a newsletter and other programs to strengthen and showcase local Puerto Ricans.
A recent awards ceremony recognized such heavyweights as Héctor Pesquera, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Miami; Maurice Ferré, who was Miami's mayor for 12 years; and Victoria Hernández, who chairs the youth outreach program ASPIRA of Florida Inc.
Duany sees Puerto Ricans gaining far more high-level posts in South Florida in the future because of high education levels. A random, online survey conducted for PROFESA this year found 82 percent of respondents had a bachelor's degree or higher.
Still, activists concede it will take time for Puerto Ricans to make their presence known.
"We have the strength in numbers," said Duany. "Now, we have to integrate as a community and get our message out -- that we're Americans, bilingual, bicultural and an asset to the United States."
Central Florida: A New Promised Land
July 21, 2002
ORLANDO -- Past cattle grazing the humid fields, past a Georgia farmer who drove his truckload of watermelons here in hopes of selling them to rich suburbanites, lies the largest Puerto Rican neighborhood in central Florida.
Here, on the southern edge of Orange County between Orlando and Disney World, quiet cul-de-sacs of single-family homes cup golf fairways. Herons stalk ponds and wetlands. The vast Meadow Woods development, the centerpiece of an area that is home to more than 4,000 Puerto Ricans, is tranquil and seemingly empty on a hot summer afternoon, as people retreat to their air conditioning and screened-in swimming pools.
Here, more than 40 years after Andres Montanez left Puerto Rico for a new life on the U.S. mainland, the 65-year-old Connecticut man has come to seek a second new life for his retirement, one of comfort and serenity. Montanez, of Bloomfield, is impressed with Florida and Meadow Woods' newly minted suburban homes and streets.
People take care of their property here, says Montanez, house hunting with family. Unlike Hartford, there's no crime here, they maintain. People treat their neighbors right. It never gets cold, of course. And the social life here, marvels Montanez's son, a self-described "professional bachelor."
"If I can do it, I will," says the father.
Central Florida has become a new promised land for thousands of Puerto Ricans, nearly 50 years after the first workers left the island for the farms and factories of the Northeast. Thousands of people each year leave the Northeast and the island of Puerto Rico for central Florida counties, such as Orange, Osceola and Seminole.
Not everyone who comes here likes it. Not everybody stays. Even for "Nuyoricans" who have lived their whole lives on the mainland, the adjustment can be harsh. The distance is incalculable between the sprawling suburban developments of central Florida and the congested urban barrios of the Northeast, places like Park Street in Hartford and East Harlem in New York City that Puerto Rican migrants colonized and made their own from the 1950s through the 1970s.
In a split one expert likens to cell mitosis, Puerto Ricans are cleaving into two distinct clans as they make another migration - one that is building a more middle-class, suburban and ethnically integrated culture in central Florida. Many are leaving behind a life in the Northeast where Puerto Ricans tend to be a more urbanized, poor, segregated and family-fractured group.
Census data even suggest that Latinos in central Florida, including Puerto Ricans and other groups, are less likely to see themselves as racial minorities than in the Northeast.
"In the Northeast, you have a historical connection with the African American community in terms of living in either similar or bordering neighborhoods, and having gone through being socialized as minorities along with African Americans," said Felix V. Matos Rodriguez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York. "That hasn't existed in Orlando and in Osceola County."
Unlike a New York or a Hartford, where the power structure of the Latino community was set years ago, central Florida is like an unplanted field for the more than 85,000 Puerto Ricans who arrived here, through migration or birth, since 1990.
Luis E. "Mundo" Gonzalez, 59, moved to the Orlando area from Hartford a decade ago. Even now, the maintenance supervisor for Dollar Rent A Car earns roughly what he did 15 years ago in Connecticut. But here, he owns an airy house on a suburban street in Union Park outside Orlando, one of the largest Puerto Rican neighborhoods in Orange County.
"Overall, people tend to do better here. The income is less, but people take more pride. One of the things is, you have your own little piece -1/8of land-3/8," Gonzalez said.
The house, the cars and the shiny Harley-Davidson in the garage reflect a change that goes beyond money, Gonzalez says. "If I'd have stayed in Connecticut, even if I'd had a job that paid me three times as much, I don't think I'd have a house."
For other members of the Gonzalez family who came south from Connecticut in recent years, Florida has given them new aspirations for themselves and their children. They feel changed inside, as though the suburban house and yard in Florida have made them foreigners to the tough city streets they grew up on in Hartford.
Puerto Rican Suburbia
Hartford remains the most Puerto Rican large city in America. Puerto Rican populations are large and growing in a number of northern cities, including smaller cities like Allentown, Pa., Providence and Springfield, and big cities like Philadelphia.
But no area is growing like Orange County, where 10 percent of the population is Puerto Rican. Orange County had the biggest Puerto Rican population growth of any county on the U.S. mainland during the 1990s, adding about 52,000 people, nearly twice as many people as second-place Broward County on Florida's east coast, an analysis of the 2000 Census shows.
The Meadow Woods development anchors the largest Puerto Rican enclave in Orange County. With its middle-class, could-be-Peoria suburban character, the development could hardly be more different than the aging apartment buildings and poor city streets of northeastern cities like Hartford.
The Puerto Rican middle class didn't get here by accident. Many were sold on the move by aggressive real estate agents - a modern echo of the recruiters who brought the first migrants from Puerto Rico to work on the mainland after World War II.
Landstar Homes, the developer of Meadow Woods, hawks its Orlando homes in newspaper ads and monthly sales seminars in Puerto Rico.
"A lot of them pitch lifestyle - better jobs, more jobs. A better way of life is what they're trying to sell," said Dollie Temples, director of sales for Landstar. Many other Puerto Rican buyers come from the Northeast, she said.
The homes in Meadow Woods are designed to appeal to Latinos, with generous use of ceramic tiles, for example, she said. Landstar's sales staff speaks Spanish. To spend time in the company's $199,900 "Coronado" model unit one recent day was to hear a procession of families marveling at the five bedrooms, 3 bathrooms and sparkling built-in pool - exclusively in Spanish.
"Not everybody is doing well," Jessica Lopez, who moved from Puerto Rico to Orange County nearly 16 years ago, says on the attractive porch outside her home in Meadow Woods.
With the distance of a safely landed migrant, Lopez says the Florida lifestyle is not for everybody.
"Some people come here from Puerto Rico and return because in Puerto Rico, the people are lazy," Lopez said. "When you want to progress, you stay here. But if you don't have ambition, you go back because to live here is hard. You need to work."
A Family's Journey
Luis Gonzalez's father, Efigenio Gonzalez, left Puerto Rico for Connecticut in 1953, on the leading edge of the great migration to the mainland. He sent for his wife, Paula Torruella Gonzalez, as soon as he could. Like thousands of other Puerto Ricans, he toiled for many years in Hartford's factories, including Underwood typewriter.
Efigenio and Paula had 13 children. Four of their five sons served in the military, two in Vietnam and one in Desert Storm. By the 1980s, the Gonzalez family had five generations in Hartford.
But by the early 1990s, Efigenio and Paula were living on Seyms Street in the North End of Hartford, not far from the poor and crime-ridden Bellevue Square housing project. When their daughter Esmeralda Reyes brought them for a 50th wedding anniversary visit to Florida 14 years ago, the couple was taken by Orlando's warm climate and other charms.
"They liked what they saw. It was clean; it was nice," Esmeralda said. "We got a few dollars together, and they got this little house."
In the decade since, the family's center of gravity has shifted south. Sons and daughters moved to Florida to be close to their parents, had children of their own, who in a few cases then had children of their own - one small example of why central Florida's Puerto Rican population has grown so much.
Now the Gonzalez family has five generations - and about half of Efigenio and Paula's 51 grandchildren - living in Florida.
Oscar and Abigail Rivera - Abigail is Efigenio and Paula's granddaughter - moved to Orange County in 1996, bringing little but $500 in cash, the contents of their moving truck and a desire to change their lives.
Abigail, 25, had grown up in and around Bellevue Square in Hartford. "You can't get any more ghetto than that," she says. "I know I still have it in me; I know I do." She became a mother before she was old enough to drive; she and Oscar also have another son.
Oscar's first job in Florida was in a bakery, earning $5.75 an hour. His first paycheck was $163. He bought a six-pack of beer and sat drinking it, wondering if they had done the right thing. Abigail started at McDonald's.
But they kept working. Now both of them work full time for the Orange County parks, and Abigail has become assistant manager of the McDonald's, her second job. They bought a small house, a fixer-upper, for $65,000 on a cul-de-sac in Union Park. There's a lot of work to be done on the house, but Oscar, 34, figures it's worth a lot more now.
Owning the house is worth more to them than equity.
"I can say I have something for myself. I had to go out there and sweat and work hard for what I have," Abigail said. "I want to teach my kids you have to go out there and bust -1/8your-3/8 butt for what you have."
When they have returned to Connecticut for visits, Hartford has seemed a little alien and menacing, with its empty lots and old buildings.
"It looks so old," Abigail said of a recent visit. "This looks so weird, so nasty."
Little Puerto Rico
Other family members, however, hardly see a promised land in Florida.
Carmen Reyes, Esmeralda's daughter, sees more racial prejudice than in Connecticut - and because of the lack of social services, a less caring society in general.
Because of the automobile-dependent sprawl of Orlando, it's tougher to get Efigenio, 82, and Paula, 80, to doctor's appointments, and the lack of Spanish speakers in the health care system makes medical visits more stressful as well, say Carmen and Esmeralda.
"They are very prejudiced," Carmen Reyes said of Anglos in many less-diverse communities on the edge of metropolitan Orlando. "It's very hard for minorities to get a job."
She may go back to Hartford.
Across town, Esmeralda's brother Felipe Gonzalez, 40, lives in a neighborhood people call "Little Puerto Rico" because so many people have moved here from the island and from the North.
But you generally have to go indoors to see it. The sign outside the local Winn-Dixie, the Sunbelt grocer, says "The Beef People" like any other store in the chain.
But inside, a singer croons in Spanish on the intercom, and signs on the wall say VERDURES as well as VEGETABLES. Gonzalez brings a guest past the shelves of Puerto Rican coffee, and gleefully points out the Latino dishes at the deli counter.
"I love this!" he says.
He never lived in Puerto Rico, speaks English without an accent, and works a white-collar health benefits administrator job. And this, he says, is the mix he wants.
"Being in Florida has given us an opportunity to open up to a different world, for our kids to see that not only do Latinos make it in life, but black people make it; white people make it," Gonzalez said.
Migrants, Their Descendants Challenge Definitions Of Who Is A Puerto Rican
By Matthew Hay Brown
July 21, 2002
Fifty years ago, Puerto Rico became a U.S. commonwealth and embarked on a path of political transition and economic ascension. Today, the island's people -- whether there or here on the mainland -- see both positive and negative changes.
She was just 7 years old when her family left, but Nélida Pérez doesn't have memories of Puerto Rico so much as snapshots -- the river near their one-room home, the red dresses she and her sisters wore to the airport, someone getting locked in the bathroom on the plane they took to New York.
Clearer in her memory is the long, narrow railroad apartment they all shared in Brooklyn, being pulled away from her mother for the first time to sit in a classroom taught in a strange language, the different-looking and sounding children in their neighborhood.
The eight members of the Pérez family -- father Carlos, mother Milagros and their six children -- were among the hundreds of thousands who moved from Puerto Rico to the United States in the late 1940s and 1950s. This migration of mostly rural, poor laborers and their families, encouraged to leave by island politicians focusing on industrialization and welcomed by mainland businesses eager for cheap labor, would reshape both places. The movement back and forth continues to the present, 50 years after Puerto Rico became a commonwealth. Today, the 8 million U.S. citizens who identify themselves as Puerto Ricans are divided almost evenly between the island and the mainland, where communities can be found up and down the East Coast and out to the Midwest. For a half-century, they have battled discrimination in housing, education and hiring to grow in number and influence on the mainstream United States.
The contribution of Puerto Rican workers, managers and business owners to the U.S. economy during the last half-century measures in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Artists from Tito Puente to Jennifer Lopez and athletes from Roberto Clemente to Robbie Alomar are only some of the most celebrated figures in a vanguard that also includes writers, painters and intellectuals who have broadened the cultural life of the mainland.
The hundreds of thousands who lined Manhattan's Fifth Avenue June 9 for the National Puerto Rican Day Parade demonstrated the community's growing political power there. There are now three Puerto Rican members of Congress in addition to the island's non-voting delegate, and non-Latino politicians with large Puerto Rican constituencies have increasingly advocated island causes.
As they grow more numerous and influential on the mainland, migrants and their descendants are challenging definitions of just who is a Puerto Rican.
"It's an incredibly complex community," says Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, director of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños at Hunter College in New York. "You have third-generation Puerto Ricans in the United States whose connection to the island is minimal, but who are very much Puerto Rican in the way they understand themselves and conduct their daily lives. You have Puerto Ricans on the island who have never migrated and are never going to migrate. You have to make room for the complexity of all of these different experiences within the umbrella of Puerto Ricanness."
When, after World War II, island and mainland officials collaborated quietly on plans to lure laborers from rural Puerto Rico to urban New York, Carlos Pérez González would have been the sort of worker they had in mind.
A World War II veteran with an eighth-grade education, he worked seasonally as a sugar-cane cutter in Barrio Bhomamey outside the western town of San Sebastian while his wife, Milagros Martinez Jiménez, took in embroidery piecework. They lived with their five children -- a sixth had died in infancy -- in a wooden, two-bedroom, zinc-roofed dwelling with no water or electricity, and grew fruits and vegetables and raised chickens to survive.
Milagros was pregnant with another child when Pérez left for New York in late 1952. After the baby was born in early 1953, Milagros brought the rest of the family north.
More than 550,000 Puerto Ricans, fully a quarter of the island's population, migrated to the mainland from 1947 to 1960. The Puerto Rican government set up an office in New York to match workers with farm and factory jobs on the mainland.
"Of course, politically, they couldn't overtly say they were pushing people away," Matos says. "But the New York office became a sophisticated operation to encourage and manage migration."
As he showed them into the railroad apartment they would share in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Pérez gave his children a little speech.
" 'You are now in the United States of America, of which we are part, and you are to speak English,' " his oldest daughter, Teodula, remembers. " 'I want to hear English.' "
"Everything was so fascinating," says Teodula Vazquez, who was about to turn 11. "I was excited, because my dad was so excited for us."
Pérez moved from job to job, working in an electroplating shop, a bread factory, a box factory. In between jobs and on weekends, he sold piraguas from a cart, drove a hot-dog truck, tried to pick up fares as a gypsy cabdriver.
The family grew to nine children, raised in a traditional Puerto Rican home, with island food and Spanish music and rules that kept the girls from dating. All succeeded in school. Seven would graduate from college, and several would earn advanced degrees. Among them, they include a psychologist, a social worker, a pair of high-school counselors, a historical archivist, a nurse and a police officer.
Their success is hardly unusual, but it is well above average. A half-century after Puerto Ricans first arrived on the mainland in large numbers, they continue to face discrimination in housing and hiring. They remain less likely to be educated and more likely to be poor than the population as a whole.
Vidal Pérez, a licensed clinical social worker at Brown University who works to promote equity in and access to schools, says a subtle discrimination still is pervasive among professionals.
"When you're successful, somehow you got a break -- when, in fact, you had to work twice as hard," he says. "You say something in a meeting, and people ignore you, but when a white colleague says the same thing later, people stand up and applaud. Sometimes you feel like you're not even in the same room."
In 1982, Carlos and Milgaros went home to Puerto Rico. Having benefited from the first great movement of Puerto Ricans to the United States, the mass migration of the late 1940s and 1950s, they joined the second -- the return migration of the 1970s and '80s.
As the back-and-forth movement between the island and the mainland continued, academics began talking about circular migration and calling Puerto Rico a nation of commuters.
"The crucial fact," the political analyst Juan Manuel García Passalacqua wrote in 1985, "is that every day, five thousand of them are literally up in the air, coming and going to and from Puerto Rico and the United States."
The phenomenon led to debate over whether their ability as U.S. citizens to travel between island and mainland had hurt Puerto Ricans by keeping them from establishing roots in any one place.
At least one recent study of circular migrants appears to confound that theory.
"People who had gone back and forth between the island and the mainland actually were more skilled in general, better educated, more likely to be bilingual, and with regard to social and economic connections, more likely to have relatives and friends in both places," says Jorge Duany, an anthropologist at the University of Puerto Rico. "That certainly raises a number of questions about the impact of circular migration, which until recently was considered to be one of the major causes of Puerto Rican problems like poverty and unemployment."
Using money he had saved in the United States, Carlos Pérez bought land near his old home in San Sebastian and grew coffee, bananas and other food. He fell ill in the mid-1990s and died in '98.
Obdulia Pérez González fought to become the first Latina high school counselor in Perth Amboy, N.J., a community with a large and growing Puerto Rican population. In 30 years at Perth Amboy High School, she has made an effort to steer young Latinos to college.
"It doesn't happen automatically for us," she says. "Our people are often not schooled. They don't know those ropes. I'm there to make sure the kids take the algebra, they take the geometry. I try to get them to begin to think seriously about the course of their life, and how what they do now is related to what they do later."
For those who are successful, there are other challenges. Going to public school in Perth Amboy, Obdulia's daughter Marisol would ask her father to drop her off two blocks from the door, so the other Puerto Rican students wouldn't see his Mercedes. Later, at the private Rutgers Preparatory School, one classmate warned others not to mess with Marisol, saying she carried a knife and was in a gang.
"I was caught between two different worlds," says González, now 29 and a special educator working with Latino children, "an upper-middle-class world that didn't really include Latinos, and a Latino world that was in the lower economic status.
"People would say things like, 'Poor little rich girl, your parents are trying to be white.' Why do we as Puerto Ricans have to be poor to be accepted?"
In the United States today there are many who have never lived on the island and who speak little Spanish, but who identify with the flag, the food, the music and the traditions of their ancestral homeland as proud Puerto Ricans. The effects of the emergence of these "Nuyoricans" on the community as a whole remain unclear.
"People do make the distinction between being island-born as opposed to mainland-born," says Duany, the anthropologist at the University of Puerto Rico. "The two groups have some differences. But they clearly talk among themselves. Still they marry each other and they hang around and they dance salsa and put together parades and so forth."
For many, the bonds remain strong. When he started at Tulane Law School a couple of years ago, Daniel González was asked by a Puerto Rican classmate where he was from. Obdulia's son, born in Perth Amboy, told his new friend he was from San Sebastian.
"I look back at what's come before me, and it's like a legitimate foundation," González says. "What my grandfather accomplished in coming here, and every one of his kids is educated. Nine kids who kind of lived the dream my grandfather intended. Being an offshoot of that, I kind of have no choice but to make it."
More Than One Way To Be Puerto Rican
By Edgar Sandoval
July 21, 2002
Teenagers Dania Liz Gonzalez and Alexis Matias are proud to be Puerto Rican.
But they are as different as a San Juan beach and a New York streetscape.
Gonzalez, 16, speaks mostly Spanish, but when she speaks English, its with an accent. She wears bright colors dresses, jeans and T-shirts. She likes tostones fried slices of plantain and rice and beans, as well as the quick rhythm of salsa music.
If she closes her eyes, she can hear the singing of birds in her native Puerto Rico and the crash of waves on its shores.
Matias, 15, speaks mostly English. She likes to wear bandanas, tight jeans and T-shirts that show her belly. She thinks tostones and rice and beans are OK, but she likes pizza and hamburgers better. She has never been fond of salsa music and listens instead to hip-hop and pop.
A native New Yorker, Matias has never been to Puerto Rico, but knows it is an island somewhere in the Caribbean.
Gonzalez and Matias one an islander, the other a mainlander are part of the mix that is the Puerto Rican community in the Lehigh Valley.
For decades, the majority of Puerto Ricans in the Valley had come directly from rural Puerto Rico. But since the early 1980s, Puerto Ricans born in New York and New Jersey have begun to move to the Valley in larger numbers. And many of Puerto Rican descent have been born here.
"Its an incredibly complex community," Félix V. Matos Rodriguez, director of the Centro de Estudios Puerto-riqueños at the City University of New Yorks Hunter College, says of mainland Puerto Ricans. "You have to make room for the complexity of all of these different experiences within the umbrella of Puerto Ricanness."
Though Gonzalez and Matias have distinct lifestyles, they know each other and cross paths at events that promote Puerto Rican culture. In dance and music, each can demonstrate what it means to her to be Puerto Rican.
Dania Liz Gonzalez
When Dania Liz Gonzalez moved from Caguas, Puerto Rico, to Allentown with her family two years ago, she thought shed fit in easily. After all, almost half of the students at Allen High School are Latino, most of them of Puerto Rican descent.
"Well, it did not happen like I thought," Gonzalez says.
She quickly learned that many of those who are Puerto Rican identified more with being "Nuyorican" second-generation Puerto Ricans born in New York or other states, who are more in tune with the American way of life.
The term Nuyorican is commonly used by island-born Puerto Ricans to describe Puerto Ricans from New York. Second-generation Puerto Ricans born on the mainland have also adopted the term to describe themselves. Spelling variations include Neoricans and New Yorrican.
"Nuyo what?" was Gonzalezs reaction when she first learned why she dressed and spoke differently from other Puerto Ricans in the Valley.
Gonzalez says she found it difficult to make friends with Puerto Ricans born on the mainland because they had little in common.
She feels closer to new arrivals from Latin American countries. She met her best friend, a native of the Dominican Republic, in an English for Speakers of Other Languages class.
"She is not Puerto Rican, but our cultures are so much alike," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalezs cousin, Jose Sola, 15, moved to the Lehigh Valley from Puerto Rico around the same time she did, but made an easier transition.
Gonzalez observed that Sola used to wear clothes that fit him "just right." Nowadays, he wears baggy T-Shirts and jeans, listens to some English music and hangs out with Puerto Rican students born here.
"I cant do that," she says. "Thats like, not from the Puerto Rico I know."
Gonzalez has embraced the Puerto Rican community here, though. She is active in the Puerto Rico Cultural Alliance in Allentown, which annually sponsors the Puerto Rican Day Parade in the city. In fact, she was parade queen in 2001.
She used the spotlight to encourage other Puerto Rican girls to honor their roots specifically not to try to look skinny because of the influence of American television and magazines.
"I am not a skinny girl and when I won for queen, I just thought, Good, now I can show other girls who are not skinny that they too can become queens, " she said. "I am just the way I was in Puerto Rico and I am not going to change just because I live here."
Alexis Matias was born in Brooklyn, N.Y.. She remembers how her grandfather would play salsa music almost every day when she was a child. But when she went outside to play, she heard other children speaking English, not Spanish, or a combination of Spanish and English. And the youngsters would sing along to English-language songs.
At age 7, she moved to Bethlehem with her family. There, she watched MTV and listened to bands like TLC, a hip-hop/pop trio, and more recently, Jennifer Lopez.
She has only seen Puerto Rico in pictures.
Still, her father has made sure she knows her heritage. He still talks about "la isla del encanto" the enchanted island as many Puerto Ricans call Puerto Rico.
"I am Puerto Rican," Matias said. "Thats what I am."
Many of Matias friends at Liberty High School Shamara Nickens, Casandra Clark and Sandra Troche, all 15 have never been to Puerto Rico either. They share the same passion for rap and hip-hop music.
They can tell if other Puerto Ricans are islanders by the way they dress and the music they listen to.
"They like Spanish music, like salsa and merengue, and, oh, bachata," said Bethlehem native Troche. "Thats too slow for us. Bachata is, like, slow Puerto Rican ballads."
Side by side
Gonzalez and Matias came together earlier this year when the Puerto Rican Cultural Alliance sponsored a talent show at St. Johns Lutheran Church in downtown Allentown.
Before their performances, Matias and her friends rehearsed their dance steps to the hit, "For My People" by Missy Elliot.
Gonzalez practiced the lyrics of the salsa song, "Me Canse," which she would lip-sync.
When the curtain opened, Matias and her friends adjusted their bandanas and walked on stage. With hip-hop blasting for their performance, the girls jumped and expressed themselves with their hands as they bounded about the stage.
People in the audience cheered and clapped.
A few minutes later, Gonzalez performed her song about a woman who is tired of being in a love triangle. She stayed in the same spot, but moved to the rhythm of the fast-paced salsa.
Adults in the audience recognized the lyrics, and some sang along.
Later, Gonzalez danced to a traditional Puerto Rican song with other high school-age girls and boys.
When the show was over, the performers stood side by side in front of a huge Puerto Rican flag and embraced each other. The crowd cheered. Gonzalez, still wearing her traditional Puerto Rican dress, stood on the right, Matias, on the left.
"Arriva Puerto Rico!" somebody in the audience yelled.
Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this story.