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Latin Infusion, Chasing The Dream

CENSUS SNAPSHOT // Latin infusion


JULY 12, 2002
©Copyright 2002 St. Petersburg Times. All world rights reserved.

TOWN 'N COUNTRY -- Maggie Morales could easily buy groceries at Publix or Albertson's.

But Morales, a native of Cayey, Puerto Rico, prefers Los Amigos One Stop, where you can buy yucca, malanga, coconuts, gold-plated watches and 20-pound bags of white rice, a staple in Caribbean cooking.

Another market just down Manhattan Avenue, El Tico y Marisol, competes for patrons with fresh sugar-cane juice called guarapo and telephone cards for international calls.

"The markets here remind me a lot of shopping in Mexico," said 40-year-old Maria Vasquez, a Town 'N Country resident originally from Durango, Mexico. Besides Mexican meals, she cooks the favorite island dishes of her husband Jose, who was born in Puerto Rico.

Such is the state of culture, commerce and cuisine in a belt of neighborhoods just north of Tampa International Airport.

Cubans have been trickling in since the 1950s, when these neighborhoods were built as some of Tampa's first suburbs. But in recent years, the Cubans have been joined by Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and Colombians and immigrants from all over Latin America.

The trickle swelled to a flood by the 1990s, when Hillsborough County's Hispanic population grew 68 percent.

Census tract 116.05, flanking the Veterans Expressway north of Hillsborough Avenue, grew from 31 percent Hispanic to 51 percent.

Census tract 118.04, immediately northeast of there, changed from 45 percent Hispanic to 60 percent.

And census tract 118.02, immediately to the south, increased from 53 percent Hispanic in 1990 to 65 percent Hispanic by 2000. It was home to more Cubans than any of Hillsborough's other 248 tracts.

It also contains the office of state Rep. Bob Henriquez, a descendant of Cuban cigar rollers.

"If you were to stand out there on the street and look at this strip center," he said, pointing to Hillsborough Avenue, "you would think you were in Miami."

Discovering Florida

Hispanics have been living in this area as long as most any group. Suburbanites of the 1950s and '60s included children of Ybor City's Cuban, Spanish and Italian cigar workers.

The homes were modest. But buying a house for as little as $10,000 was a revolutionary step for working people accustomed to renting.

"I remember my cousin had a house that was $60 a month," said Tony Morejon, 44, who grew up in the area and now is Hillsborough County's Hispanic affairs liaison.

"This used to be like the countryside," recalled Tony Garcia, 68, of Camaguey, Cuba. He bought land in Pat Acres in 1972. "People would make fun of us. They'd tell us we would have to show our passports in order to get through here."

Through the 1980s, families like the Morejons and the Garcias gave the neighborhoods a distinctly Cuban character, particularly near Sligh Avenue, just west of N Dale Mabry Highway.

But since 1990, the largest wave of newcomers here and throughout Florida has been Puerto Rican. Nearly half of all Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, now live in the mainland instead of in Puerto Rico, said Thomas Boswell, an immigration expert at the University of Miami.

In Florida, Boswell said, "The Cuban population did grow. But Florida is being discovered by the other Hispanic groups."

And they increasingly discovered the longstanding Hispanic neighborhoods north of the airport.

Morales, of Puerto Rico, left Rochester, N.Y., in 1991 for the familiar Latin feel of Tampa. At first she and her family lived in Pinehurst. Then they purchased a home in Pinecrest.

"Unconsciously we always search for our roots, no matter how long we've been away from our native lands," Morales said. "So I suppose there was some of that in our choosing to live here."

"Whatever it takes'

More than culture is luring newcomers, Latin and non-Latin, to this area. The thousands of Cubans and Puerto Ricans have been joined by about 400 Vietnamese, also one of the county's largest concentrations.

These neighborhoods are some of the cheapest places where newly arrived families, struggling to gain their financial footing, can buy houses.

Many of the residents are poor. Most children in the neighborhood schools receive federally subsidized reduced-price lunches, for which they must prove low to moderate income. Since 1990, the proportion of poor children has risen in all four of the area's elementary schools and makes up four-fifths of the enrollment in three of them.

Jenilda Gallo, principal of Town 'N Country Elementary School, said many of today's immigrants are drawn to the neighborhood by relatives already living there.

"Quite frequently, they double up in their houses," she said.

Lyda Figueredo, whose real estate agency specializes in the area and caters to Hispanics, said it's an area for first-time homebuyers.

"Many families have been here for less than two years," Mrs. Figueredo said. "They save as much money as they can. They work two jobs. They do whatever it takes so they can go and buy their own home."

Morejon, the county official, said immigrants will take on arduous jobs shunned by many native-born Americans.

"They say, "We don't mind doing all this dirty work because we want to do better by our kids.' "

"Here we live life mostly in the workplace, outside of our home," said Mara Couto, 39, who works at a new agency specializing in arranging trips to Cuba and sending packages of clothes, food and medicines. "It's very different from Cuba, where you just live in the present."

Economics attracted Juan Sandoval and his cousin, Lidia Himely, here last year after they had come from Cuba to Marathon Key. In Marathon, they earned hotel housekeeping wages averaging $7 an hour.

In Tampa, they found training for, and jobs in, nursing homes. Sandoval is up to $11 an hour. They jointly bought an $82,000 house near Pierce Middle School 16 months ago.

"We are more comfortable here," said Sandoval, 45. "There are more jobs. It's better here."

Henriquez, their state representative, said many immigrants may be poor, but won't stay that way.

"They're hard-working, good folks, just chasing the American dream," he said.

During the 1990s, about 2,000 non-Hispanics moved out of these neighborhoods. But Henriquez doesn't believe they were necessarily fleeing the Latin tide.

"The 1990s were pretty good economically," he said. "There were a certain amount of non-Hispanic folks who were very prosperous at the time. Those folks are living in Westchase now."

Soccer to "A-Train'

Many newly arrived Hispanics don't learn English right away.

"Some of them are so busy trying to survive, they don't have time to go to class," said Mrs. Gallo, the school principal. Thus, Mrs. Gallo's staff translates all written parent memos into Spanish.

But the children are immersed in English.

"Once in a while, they'll try to use their native language, and we remind them that we speak English because we're trying to learn it," Mrs. Gallo said.

Consequently, Hispanic newcomers often develop the quirk of having bilingual children with Spanish-only parents.

Harold Jackson, an area recreation supervisor, sees it in the parks.

"It's not unusual at times when we're caught in a situation where you have adults and you have to have their children interpret for you," he said.

The language barrier leaves intelligent parents, including some who were educators in their native countries, unable to help their children with homework, Mrs. Gallo said.

"They have the skills to help their child, but they can't do it in the wrong language," she said. "I've had mothers in tears."

The children are soaking up pop culture as well.

In Cuba, Lazaro Himely's favorite games were hide and seek and a version of street baseball using tennis balls.

Now 15, Lazaro has been in Florida for six years. His favorite games are football and basketball.

Adolfo Navarro Jr., 11, came here six years ago from Puerto Rico. In the neighborhood football program, Adolfo already is nicknamed "A-Train" for Mike Alstott, the Buccaneers' bruising running back.

"I run people over," Adolfo said.

He wants to grow up to be a fullback.

"Over in Puerto Rico," he said, "all they have is soccer."

Morejon said he and many Hispanics worry about their children losing their Hispanic identity. He remembers teasing his grandfather about smoking cigars and watching Spanish-language television before rediscovering his own roots through Latin music.

Juana Valencia, a proud Cuban who is raising four children, is annoyed by adults who forsake their Cuban roots.

"They try to be more American than the Americans," she said.

Salsa, yes; chickens, no

Little Latin identity is missing along Hillsborough Avenue.

"Every now and then," said Morejon, "we get a call: "You've got to go talk to these people. They can't have chickens.' "

A few years ago, county parks officials held focus groups to ask what programs people would like in their local parks. Aerobics classes? Cooking school?

In the neighborhoods north of Tampa International Airport, they wanted to learn to dance the salsa, the high-tempo dance of Latin nightclubs. The classes filled with young adults, said Jackson, the recreation supervisor.

"They'd come into our recreation center during the week to sharpen their skills for the weekend," Jackson said.

"You always want to have what you left behind," said Lyda Figueredo, the real estate agent.

She knows her mostly Hispanic buyers will long for tile on their roofs, to withstand tropical storms, and on their floors, where it's cool and clean. Growing up in Cuba, she rarely saw carpeted floors or shingled roofs.

She knows Hispanics will want large family rooms.

"Most of the Hispanic families have two or three children, and they need that space," she said.

Neurosurgeon Jorge Inga, whose office is in the area, knows that Hispanic families are more likely to shield a loved one from the news that he or she is terminally ill. "They try not to hurt the patient psychologically," he said.

"I think they like the personal touch," said Henriquez. "They don't like to be treated in a bureaucratic manner ... They have strong senses of faith and family and values and loyalty."

Henriquez said non-Hispanics tell him, "I voted for you." Hispanics tell him, "My family voted for you."

"They have a certain respect for authority and government," Henriquez said.

Morejon said that respect can amount to fear among immigrants from harsh regimes such as Cuba's.

He tells of a Cuban in this area who bought a house with an apartment in the back yard. The Cuban man began renovating the apartment without a permit. He received a citation, in English, telling him he needed a permit. The man read it.

"He saw the government seal," Morejon said. "He said, "I don't want any problems with the government.' He demolished the apartment."

But the newest wave of Hispanics, the Puerto Ricans, come from a U.S. commonwealth.

"They report discrimination the most," Morejon said. "They know they have rights."

- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or

Spanish spoken here

Three west Hillsborough census tracts are majority Hispanic, following a major Hispanic influx into Florida during the 1990s. In these neighborhoods, native Cubans are the most common, followed by Puerto Ricans.

Tract 116.05

51% Hispanic, the seventh highest concentration among Hillsborough County's 249 census tracts.

Up from 31% in 1990, the largest Hispanic percentage change north of Tampa.

1,007 Cubans, seventh highest number in the county.

957 Puerto Ricans is the third highest total in the county.

157 Dominicans, second largest number in the county.Tract 118.02

65% Hispanic, with 4,399 Hispanics, the second largest concentration in Hillsborough. (Largest is in Mexican-dominated Wimauma).

2,388 Cubans, largest number in any Hillsborough census tract.

Hispanic increase of 27% was one of the smallest in the area; this neighborhood was already 53% Hispanic in 1990.

769 Puerto ricans, 13th largest number in Hillsborough

Tract 118.04

60% Hispanic; 3,254 Hispanics are sixth highest number in Hillsborough.

1,531 Cubans, third highest number in the county.

834 Puerto Ricans, eighth highest number.

82% increase in Hispanics during the 1990s was average for the Town 'N Country area.

Chasing The Dream


JULY 12, 2002
©Copyright 2002 St. Petersburg Times. All world rights reserved.

The Hispanic people who live and work in census tracts 116.05, 118.02 and 118.04 are "hard-working, good folks, just chasing the American dream," says their state representative. Here are glimpses into a few lives.

Fatima Medina, 14

Native Puerto Rican

Ninth-grader, Gaither High School

Until leaving eight years ago, she lived on her grandmother's chicken farm in Puerto Rico. She lovingly fed the chickens and has been a vegetarian since. She misses Puerto Rico's sweet fruits and scenic beaches.

"I guess the water was cleaner," Fatima said. "It was more blue."

Her parents moved Fatima first to Providence, R.I., which she remembers as dirty, and then Tampa. She loves this area for Adventure Island, Busch Gardens and Disney World.

Someday, she wants to live in California and be a veterinarian.

Wilfredo "Macho" Garcia Jr., 11

Native Puerto Rican

Fifth-grader, Alexander Elementary School

Puerto Rico meant relentless heat and mosquitoes, but many good things to Macho. He liked the foggy mountains and Jet Skiing and fishing with his dad.

But Macho remembers Puerto Rico as boring compared to living near the beach in Miami and now Tampa, in Pinecrest.

"Tampa has a lot of good water parks," he said.

Recently, Macho watched a presentation at school by firefighters and paramedics. He wants to be a paramedic someday.

Juana Valencia, 36

Native Cuban

Assistant manager, check cashing store

She was raised in Union City, N.J. from age 2. Yet Juana Valencia is a child of two nations.

Half her family is still in Cuba, and she has visited them. The fathers of her four children are Cuban.

"I feel 100 percent Cuban," she said. "I would love to live in my country."

But, she added, "I cannot see myself heating water to take a bath and all that. I'll stay in the United States. I love my country."

She came to Tampa about 15 years ago because her in-laws were here. She likes her neighborhood because it accepts her parties and music.

"I was raised in the disco era," she said. "I love disco. I have a lot of Cuba in me, but I still like a lot of American things."

Marvin and Marisol Zumbado

He's Costa Rican; she's Cuban

Grocery owners

Mrs. Zumbado's father, Arturo Guzman, owned a bodega in Havana. The family left Cuba in 1968 and opened a store in New Jersey. Later, they moved here and opened El Tico y Marisol market in Pinecrest in 1986.

"He knew it would take off because already there were so many Latins living here," Zumbado said.

Mara Couto, 39

Native Cuban

Employee of a Cuban-oriented travel, parcel agency

Six years out of Cuba, she finds nothing here reminiscent of her life back on the island. "I even miss the ground on which I walked," she said.

"Don't get me wrong, I like that I can express myself freely here and that there's a future to work for here, but as an immigrant there's always that unnatural feeling that comes from transplanting yourself in a foreign land."

Couto lived in Miami and California before settling in Tampa. "Miami is overpopulated, expensive, and has a high level of poverty. It's like Havana," she said.

Sergio Luis Curbelo, 36

Native Cuban

Grocery owner

He escaped Cuba eight years ago on a makeshift raft with 15 others and promptly reunited in Pinecrest with friends from Mariel, Cuba. In 1999, Curbelo opened the hottest Latin market in town: Los Amigos One Stop.

"For three years we've been working nonstop, every day, day and night," Curbelo said in Spanish. "I went from having nothing in Cuba to owning real estate and this market, so I'm not complaining."

"There are a lot of Latins in this area," he said. "Sometimes I don't even feel like I've left Cuba."

Jorge Inga, 56

Native Peruvian

Neurosurgeon; chief of staff, Town & Country Hospital

Educated in his native Lima, Peru, Inga came to the United States in 1970 for surgical training in Chicago, Houston and then Philadelphia. He envisioned returning to Lima for his career, but needed a place to practice surgery and prepare for his board exams.

At the urging of his department head in Philadelphia, Inga visited Tampa in 1977. He lunched at the Colonnade Restaurant, overlooking Bayshore Boulevard.

"I'd never seen any place in the country that had the same kind of natural beauty," he said.

He has practiced here ever since, and has an office on Hanley Road. He often returns to Peru to perform charity surgeries.

Lyda Figueredo, 65

Native Cuban

Owner, Lyda Realty Inc.

A year after Fidel Castro took power in 1959, the lives of young journalists Lyda and Jorge Figueredo fell into crisis. Jorge refused to cooperate with the new government. The couple received a warning that he had been targeted.

So Lyda, nine months' pregnant, stood in line one day in 1960 to board a plane for Key West. Jorge waited nearby, bidding her farewell. At the last moment, they switched places.

"It was a quick move, and thank God it worked," she said. "I almost fainted. When I saw that plane take off, my legs started shaking."

A week later, she gave birth to a son. Three weeks after that, they flew to New York, where Jorge had landed a job. Mother and infant had a window seat on the plane.

"I looked back and I said, "Am I ever going to see Cuba again?' and I have never been back."

Since then, the couple have raised five children and nurtured two businesses. Mrs. Figueredo employs six real estate agents at Lyda Realty. They sell about 15 homes a month.

Lazaro Himely, 15

Native Cuban

10th-grader, Leto High School

He left his native Havana six years ago. He misses many things: the clean beaches, the street games and his mother, his brothers, his grandma and his friends.

On the other hand, said Lazaro, "I don't like being poor."

Here, he likes American football and basketball. He dreams of playing for the Miami Hurricanes as a wide receiver. His model: the Minnesota Vikings' Randy Moss.

Lyda Figueredo, who owns her own real estate company, stands before artwork that depicts 1950s life in old Havana, Cuba. In 1960, a year after Fidel Castro took power, Figueredo, then a journalist, fled Cuba with her 3-week-old son.

Dr. Jorge Inga, a neurosurgeon and chief of staff at Town & Country Hospital, examines Alba Carbrera at his office recently.


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