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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Puerto Ricans Learn To Regroup
By Dwayne Campbell
September 29, 2002
The artist in Ardellie "Lillie" Rivera can be seen throughout her home. It's in the paintings that deck the walls, the intricately carved furniture, the sculpture and artsy odds and ends collected in her travels.
Much of the artwork, especially the paintings Rivera has done herself, have a feel of Puerto Rico and the island's beautiful beaches and quaint countrysides. Even with her busy American life, she said, she often thinks about growing up in San Germán and her student days at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez.
Her husband, James Gill, was born in Ireland, but moved with his parents -- an Irish father and a Puerto Rican mother -- to Puerto Rico when he was 3 months old.
The couple's Puerto Rican roots remain: Even today their daughter, Cheryl, 21, attends college on the island.
"We have lived in so many places, but we keep our Puerto Rican identity," said Rivera, who runs Learning Adventures, a Coral Springs preschool she opened in 1999 after the couple moved from Spain to their home in Parkland. In one corner of the home is a brightly colored vejigante mask, a Puerto Rican carnival staple.
Gill also has fond memories of growing up in Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth since 1952. When the couple first moved to Broward County, they said it was difficult to find other Puerto Ricans to share their love for the island.
That has changed, however. Now, Puerto Ricans are increasingly settling all over South Florida, and bringing with them a lively mosaic of culture.
The Puerto Rican population here is much smaller than that in New York state, which has the biggest Puerto Rican population away from the island of about 3.9 million residents. Still, of the 3.4 million Puerto Ricans in the United States, 160,000 live in South Florida, and though more scattered than other ethnic groups, they are finding each other through clubs and business or service organizations flourishing in the tri-county area.
Those thriving organizations include the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Broward County, which began as a chapter of a chamber in Miami-Dade County, but had enough members to stand on its own two years ago.
"It was time, because of the growth of the Puerto Rican and Hispanic community in Broward County," said Frank Nieves, a Hollywood resident who is the group's president. The chamber has about 150 members and will be the host of the annual Puerto Rican Fiestas Patronales and Business to Business Trade Show.
About 25,000 people are expected to attend the event from Nov. 14 to 17 at the Pines Recreation Center in Pembroke Pines. It is similar to the patron saint's day celebrated at different times in all of Puerto Rico's 78 towns.
Another big draw will be the South Florida Puerto Rican Day Cultural Parade, which will be conducted this year on Oct. 11 along Riverwalk in Fort Lauderdale. The event -- organized by Southwest Ranches resident Wilfredo Morales -- will conclude with the Viva Broward! festival featuring music and food from the island and other Caribbean countries.
To Nieves, organizing Fiestas Patronales brings him back to his days on the island when he participated in the festivals there, playing percussion in a band.
"I participated in Fiestas Patronales all over Puerto Rico," said Nieves, 48, who was born in New York but moved to Puerto Rico at age 7. He moved back to the mainland in 1991.
According to the 2000 Census, 54,938 Puerto Ricans live in Broward County, more than double the number 10 years earlier, making them the largest Hispanic group in the county.
The number is a distant second to Cubans in Miami-Dade -- 80,327 Puerto Ricans to about 650,000 Cubans. Among Hispanics in Palm Beach County, the 25,170 Puerto Ricans make up the third largest group, behind Mexicans and Colombians.
Puerto Ricans locally say that within a few years, with migration from the island and other states, South Florida's Puerto Rican population will become more dynamic.
Debbie Llenza left Tampa for South Florida six years ago to become the Hispanic affairs coordinator for the Broward County library system.
She said Puerto Ricans tend not to live in large ethnic enclaves like other groups, but that shouldn't be a barrier to unity.
"We are becoming closer. The organizations are beginning to work more effectively," said Llenza, of Oakland Park.
She attributed the past lack of unity to the status of Puerto Ricans as U.S. citizens, who don't face the same assimilation issues common to people from other countries, so they move on and blend into the general society.
But moving on doesn't mean forgetting your roots, said Llenza, whose office in Fort Lauderale is decorated with a vejigante mask. When she came to the United States with her parents as a teenager, there were no Puerto Rican groups to join. Today, she's a member of the Puerto Rican Professional Association of South Florida and the Association of Puerto Rican Women.
For Aurora Ortiz, president of the Puerto Rican Cultural Society in West Palm Beach, her Puerto Rican culture is simply part of her identity and that of her husband, Guillermo. The organization's American-born children learn folkloric dances and other art forms.
"When we have meetings, our members come together and that's when they might hear words they haven't heard in a long time," Ortiz said. "It sparks memories, the food, the music, it brings you back to your native land."
Even without assimilation issues, not all Puerto Ricans land comfortably in South Florida.
Syndia Nazario, 34, had a rude awakening in 1990 when she moved to South Florida from Rincon, a small Puerto Rican town. She was armed with a psychology degree from the University of Puerto Rico, but her command of English was better on paper than spoken."It was very difficult," Nazario said.
Still, she eventually got a job as a preschool teacher and was settling into a happy, new life. She took it upon herself to teach her young charges some simple Spanish, such as the words for colors and numbers. That is, until the day a parent stormed in and said she didn't want her daughter learning Spanish and insisted that the child be pulled from Nazario's classroom.
"I thought about returning to my own country where people would respect me for who I am," said Nazario, who lives in Pembroke Pines.
The incident is behind her. But as the director of the Broward County office of ASPIRA in Miramar (there's also a West Palm Beach office), an organization that mentors mostly Puerto and other Hispanic youth, Nazario often draws on her own tough experiences. It helps her reach out to children of new immigrants and other Puerto Ricans who have just moved to the mainland.
"When we come from the island, it's not like coming here from New York," Nazario said. "We don't feel certain we are Americans. If you don't have the support system, it makes things difficult."