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Goodbye, LI / Puerto Ricans Head South And Rebuild Their Brentwood Community In Florida
By John Moreno Gonzales
February 23, 2003
The Spanish trullas that were once sung in wintry Brentwood now float on warmer air.
On a recent evening in Spring Hill, Fla., the traditional Puerto Rican holiday songs flowed from the lips of silver-haired couples, while fingers leathered with age snapped guitar strings in a joyous rhythm.
Those who carried the songs had spent most of their adulthood in the Brentwood area, which once counted more than half of its residents as Puerto Rican. But over the past 10 years, an estimated 200 emigres from the Suffolk County community have headed south to retire and erect homes in this new place 45 miles north of Tampa and worlds away from the taxes, crowding and cold that caused them to flee New York.
Yet, the lives of these men and women are not all golf courses and bingo games. They must replant cultural traditions left behind in New York and, in their advancing years, sometimes mourn the deaths of family members and friends. Increasingly, they pave the way for grown children who have decided to follow their parents to Florida and buy their own homes in the sun.
"I miss my friends. We used to have a lot of friends, but it's different here," said Miriam Marrero, 57, who moved from Brentwood to Spring Hill with her husband in 1997. "My first Christmas here, I cried a lot."
Her husband, Juan Aviles, 59, a retired garment worker, is coordinator of the Spring Hill Domino Club, where the songs were sung as part of a Jan. 6 Puerto Rican celebration of the three kings.
It is an important holiday in many Latin countries, rooted in the biblical story of the three wise men who arrived from the East bearing gifts for the Christ child. To follow tradition, grandfathers formerly of Brentwood don the flowing robes of the kings and give gifts to grandchildren newly moved to Spring Hill.
But Marrero points out that in Brentwood, friends and relatives stroll from house to house all evening to conduct serenades called las parrandas. The bellies of the carolers would have been soothed by homemade offerings of arroz con dulce, rice with coconut milk and honey, or roast pig cooked on a spit.
In Spring Hill, population 30,000, the Puerto Rican population is not large or concentrated enough for such traveling song.
Indeed, the Aviles and the other transplants warmly recall their colonization of Brentwood from the '50s to early '70s. It was untouched farmland reminiscent of their native island, if not in climate at least in its stretching panorama. It was a respite from cramped Manhattan, Bronx and Brooklyn neighborhoods that were tight-knit and alive, but where one could hardly breathe.
Soon the side streets of Brentwood became dotted with homes built by these dream seekers. Almost every Puerto Rican family had some connection to the others in the area. They commuted to the city or took jobs at places like the sprawling Entenmann's Bakery on Bay Shore's Fifth Avenue.
Bodegas along Brentwood's Suffolk Avenue offered food and products from their homeland. Social institutions such as the Casa Puerto Rico social club, which still exists as a sister club to the Spring Hill Domino Club, were established to ease the transition.
But in the past 20 years, and more rapidly in the past 10, residents from the Dominican Republic, Central America and Mexico have been moving to the Brentwood area. Priced out of the rest of the Long Island, drawn by small industry, service and landscaping jobs, they seek their own shelter from crowded city life. And they have begun to supplant the Puerto Rican community.
The newer groups purchased Puerto Rican stores along the lifeblood avenues. Though the Puerto Rican presence in Brentwood remains strong, the new arrivals changed the names of the stores and restocked the shelves with products once only available via air-mailed care packages.
The Puerto Rican families of Spring Hill say they are aware of the differences between themselves and the other nationalities, though they share many cultural traditions and the bond of Spanish.
Puerto Ricans are United States citizens and often fiercely proud of it. Central Americans are mostly in the country through amnesty programs traced back to civil wars and natural disasters. Dominicans and Mexicans are perceived by some to be in the country by cheating immigration law, though social service agencies say their rates for legal immigration applications are very high.
Puerto Ricans often speak English and Spanish with equal facility. Dominicans, Central Americans and Mexicans are sometimes perceived to struggle with English, though they flood expensive private and public language programs all over New York and the country.
Most families of Spring Hill say they did not flee the pan-Latino influx into Brentwood as much as they sought a cheaper place to live. Other emigres acknowledge that the evolution of Brentwood influenced their decision to leave it.
"It's not exactly the reason why people moved. But all the old businesses were sold to Dominicans and Salvadorans. And it felt like all of a sudden they jumped up and tried to push you out," said Luis Rosario, 61, a retired New York City police officer who moved to Spring Hill from Brentwood several years ago.
No matter the reasons, Brentwood continues to be built in Florida.
"Ricky got a house!" Miriam Pabon, 10, screeched to the rest of the family when she learned that her cousin was moving to Spring Hill.
The girl made the move in 1997 with her mother, Nancy Aviles. She is the granddaughter of Aviles and Marrero. Her cousin, Ricky Marquez, 28, had just purchased a three-bedroom home only a few blocks away from her grandparents.
The native of Brentwood said that he was going to buy a place in his hometown, but that $9,000 a year in taxes caused him to transplant himself, his wife and three children. A welder whose trade allowed him to find work quickly in Spring Hill, Marquez said his 30-year Florida mortgage is locked into a 5.5 percent interest rate and his payments will be $479 per month.
"You only pay $1,000 in taxes [annually] here and you can take the extra money and save for your kids' college fund," Marquez said.
Such funds will be needed as their families grow. During the Spring Hill Domino Club celebration, about 20 children squatted on the floor and waited for their offerings from the kings.
Brentwood transplant William Rivera, 75, disguised himself in a flowing robe and fake beard, along with the retired New York City police officer Rosario and Juan De Jesus, 68, who moved to Spring Hill directly from Puerto Rico.
In earlier times, the children would have collected grass in shoe boxes and put them under their beds to pave the way for the camels of the wise men. The next morning - on Three Kings Day - the children would awake to find gifts in place of their boxes.
But in Spring Hill the tradition, already a dying practice among many Puerto Rican families in the United States, is abbreviated.
At the domino club celebration, each gift is offered to a boy of a given age or a girl of a given age. Soon the floor is littered with wrapping paper, and the faces of the wise men are creased by broad smiles. Two deacons, Abraham Rosa and Jose Rios, bless the children with scripture and a sprinkling of holy water. One small girl protests: "I knew I'd get wet."
The scene revealed the youth of the Puerto Rican population in Spring Hill, but Rivera spoke of its age.
He said some of the first retired migrants from Brentwood are living with health issues and some have died.
Both of his fellow kings last year, Jose Perez and Rocco Mancuso, died over the past several months.
Rivera, a retired mirror glazier who had a knee replaced a few years ago, said he and his friends have decided to laugh off the sorrow.
"We're starting to place bets on who will be next," he said, a smile on his face, but flat realism in his voice.
Rivera said he will always dress as a king during the holidays, so the Puerto Rican children of Spring Hill will not forget who they are. The families also teach the younger children to be bilingual from an early age.
Grandparents in particular sometimes refuse to speak to their grandchildren in anything but Spanish. English will be learned at school and their lives outside of home, they reason.
Jenny Mojica, a former Spanish-language radio personality in New York City who moved to Spring Hill, said some white residents in her new community have shown hostility toward the use of the language.
She recalled a recent visit to a Spring Hill store where she and a friend spoke Spanish as they shopped.
She said a man cursed: "'Why the --- don't you speak English? You are in America.'"
"They feel we have taken their territory," she said.
The territory, Spring Hill, is four miles from the Gulf of Mexico in the Florida county of Hernando. Homes built here are anti-examples of the thick-walled dwellings of the Northeast. Most are based on model homes, meaning their layout is planned through a visit to one of several development companies that offer a modest range of pre-set designs to choose from. The houses are painted in pastels with names like "salmon," a color a New Yorker would call pink. The result is blocks of sunny and tidy uniformity, framed by palm and citrus trees. Prices range from $70,000 for a two-bedroom, two-bath home to $120,000 for a larger home with the somewhat requisite swimming pool.
Aviles and Jose Torres, another Brentwood transplant who is president of the Spring Hill Domino Club, have become navigators of the local real estate system.
With their knowledge, they have helped dozens of family members and friends from Brentwood establish new lives in Florida.
They know which companies are offering the best packages, keep their eyes open for deals like bank foreclosures and have purchased land as an investment.
So many of their Long Island neighbors have come, they say, that young men and women from Brentwood who never met have encountered each other in Spring Hill and become engaged.
Mojica, who in her retirement serves as coordinator of the local Latin American Civic and Cultural Association, said the Puerto Ricans of Spring Hill have not established enough clout to elect a Latino official. But the population is increasingly courted by area politicians.
A day after the three kings celebration, Mojica met with a county commissioner to discuss the needs of the Latino community: a larger social club, bilingual programs in local schools, and overall community awareness to the presence of Latinos.
Torres, Aviles and Marrero had concerns that were less political. They spent the day plucking Christmas lights off the Aviles' house and from the fronds of the palm tree in the front yard.
Torres, a former U.S. Army sergeant, has his own Spring Hill home to share with his wife, Marta Crespo, 52. But he will move out and rent the house to pay for the construction of a newer and larger place.
"I bought a piece of property not too far from here," Torres, 58, said. "There's nothing on it. But we're going to build."
With an influx of immigrants and the departure of some residents, the percentage of Puerto Ricans in Brentwood and Bay Shore is declining.
SOURCE: U.S. CENSUS