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The Hartford Courant
Going From The Old Urban Barrios To The Sunny New Promised Land
By MIKE SWIFT
July 22, 2002
ORLANDO, Fla. -- 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 house hunting with family, and he is impressed with Florida and Meadow Woods' newly minted suburban homes and streets.
People take care of their property here, Montanez says. Unlike Hartford, there's no crime here, the family says. People treat their neighbors right. It never gets cold, of course. And Montanez's son, a self-described "professional bachelor," marvels at the social life.
"If I can [move here], 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 [of land]," 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.
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, 31Ú2 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."
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 work full time for the Orange County parks department, and Abigail is 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 [your] 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."
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.