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Settling In, Moving On / Puerto Ricans On LI Choose Varied Paths

By John Moreno Gonzales

July 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Newsday. All rights reserved.

When Nilda Alvarez brought her family to Brentwood 34 years ago, wide open land like that of her native Puerto Rico begged to be settled upon.

Fellow dream seekers from the commonwealth did just that, raising house after house along streets such as Crooked Hill Road, opening bodegas on Fifth Avenue and establishing social clubs that eased the transition.

But as Puerto Rico marks 50 years of an intertwined political and economic relationship with the United States, many Puerto Ricans who settled on Long Island during the same period have continued to keep their lives and dreams in motion.

Some have retired from places such as the Entenmann's Bakery in Bay Shore and resettled on Puerto Rican lands bought with their nest eggs. Many have discovered a new oasis in one of a few sun-splashed Florida communities.

"Brentwood was a town that was 50 percent Puerto Rican," said Alvarez, 69, referring to the Puerto Rican share of the area's Hispanic population a decade ago.

"An acre was cheap and it reminded us of our hometowns," she added. "Now we've sold all the grocery stores on Fifth Avenue and Dominicans have bought them all. And the new people are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico."

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the 8,254 Puerto Ricans in Brentwood made up 28 percent of its Hispanic population. In 1990, Puerto Ricans were a whopping 55 percent of Hispanic residents.

In Central Islip, another Puerto Rican stronghold, 35 percent of the Hispanic population in 2000 was from the commonwealth, compared with 54 percent in 1990. And in Bay Shore, still another traditionally Puerto Rican community, 39 percent of the Hispanic population was Puerto Rican in 2000, compared with 52 percent in 1990.

In place of Puerto Ricans, other Hispanics have moved into the three neighboring communities. Priced out of other areas on Long Island and sharing language and some culture with their predecessors, they have started Salvadoran restaurants and Colombian bakeries and moved into the modest homes that Puerto Ricans first erected.

Puerto Ricans, meanwhile, have moved a little bit of Brentwood to places such as Spring Hill, Fla., a beachfront town about 65 miles north of St. Petersburg.

In the city of 30,000 residents, about 200 are Puerto Ricans from the Brentwood area, said transplants from Long Island. Many have bought homes there, in Orlando and in Kissimmee, Fla., to escape the property taxes and other costs of living in New York. Central Florida has become the newest settlement for thousands of Puerto Ricans from all over the Northeast.

"After you're retired, you can't afford to pay those bills," said one Brentwood transplant, Juan Aviles, 59, who left his longtime job in the Manhattan garment district to recover from colon cancer.

With his wife, Mariam Marrero, 57, Aviles moved to Brentwood in 1960, then to Spring Hill in 1997. His three-bedroom house in Florida is not much larger than his old home on Long Island, but it is about half the cost and the view of the Gulf of Mexico makes his illness more bearable.

In his new community, he has even started a social club, the Spring Hill Domino Club, similar to those Puerto Ricans established when they first came to Brentwood.

He says more Puerto Ricans from Brentwood seem to come every month. He often ushers them in with a description of his new world.

"People start calling you and you tell them this is a nice place," he said. "The people come over and check it out, and they like it and buy."

Other Puerto Ricans from the area have bought land and built houses back in the commonwealth.

"My parents moved back," said Sonia Palacio-Grottola, 68, a retired social worker from Commack, just outside Brentwood. "Of every five dollars they made they put away one dollar for that little dream house they had in mind."

Indeed, 6.6 million Puerto Ricans are divided almost evenly between the commonwealth and the United States.

Still, not all Puerto Ricans from the Brentwood area have been sold by the pitch of a Florida retiree or a return to cherished Puerto Rico.

Sergio Colon, 64, said he was about to purchase five acres in Spring Hill about two years ago when he and his wife, Carmen, 52, balked at the move.

He remembered 1973, when he took a drive in the "country" that was then Suffolk County and he stumbled upon Brentwood. It was an already-formed Puerto Rican community that offered respite from the crowded Brooklyn neighborhood he wanted to leave.

"It was one of those days you feel like driving," said the retired aircraft mechanic. "And I decided to myself this is the right place to live."

Though he says he can count 12 friends who left to Spring Hill and others who moved back to the island, he refused to close what he believes is the last old Puerto Rican social club on Long Island, Casa Puerto Rico on Suffolk Avenue.

Colon is president of the club, which attracts a few of the early Puerto Rican settlers in Brentwood during the two weekend days it is open. He said it is hard to explain why he stayed as others left, but pointed to things such as the domino games at the club, a sense of community and familiarity.

"They had a sweet deal for me in Spring Hill. But I couldn't leave. I don't really know why," he said.

Retaining that sense of community will be the new challenge for Brentwood as other Hispanic groups mix with Puerto Ricans who have chosen to stay, area leaders said.

Ana Lopez-Torres, 52, who has lived in Brentwood for 45 years and founded the Long Island Chapter of the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women, said she has noticed statements of pride, and differences, among area Hispanic youths.

They hang CDs from the rear-view mirrors of their cars and wear neck beads, both items emblazoned with the colors of their given homeland's national flag.

"I think there have been barriers that have been built. It's almost like survival of identity," she said. Other community members said Puerto Ricans have sometimes expressed disdain for the new arrivals, because some are undocumented immigrants. Puerto Ricans have been citizens of the United States since 1917.

But Lopez-Torres pointed out the Puerto Rican community also has been accommodating. The Brentwood Puerto Rican and Hispanic Day Parade was called the Brentwood Puerto Rican Day Parade until several years ago.

There is community promise in the creation of a new state assembly district that will allow the area's Hispanic population to vote as a bloc for the first time. The Suffolk Legislature is considering a similar district.

And there was the election of the first Hispanic school board member to the Central Islip School District this year, Yvette Camacho, of Puerto Rican descent.

Lopez-Torres said she has never considered living anywhere but Brentwood, where her grandparents settled in the early 1940s.

Her mother, Gertrude Lopez, sings the Puerto Rican national anthem at the parade and other events. Lopez-Torres stays for sights like that, and to continue the legacy that her parents began.

"There is a house on Fairtown Road my grandfather built brick by brick," she said. "And it's still standing there."

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