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The Spanish-Speaking Heritage Of Florida Now Reflects All Of Latin America, From Politics To Parks, The Shift Is Profound… More Likely To Vote Issues Instead Of Party

Changes In Rhythm For Florida; The Spanish-Speaking Heritage Of The State Now Reflects All Of Latin America, Not Just Cuba. From Politics To Parks, The Shift Is Profound.

John-Thor Dahlburg

June 28, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.

COCONUT CREEK, Fla. -- The gaudy plastic palms blaze with light, speakers boom the cucu bop, cucu bop rhythm of salsa -- and the floor at the Goldcoast Ballroom quickly fills.

A Mexican American relocating from Chicago for her sales job swivels on the gleaming hardwood with a Peruvian student. A long-haired paparazzo from Ecuador whirls beside a woman from the Dominican Republic. Elegantly turned out in a slate-gray suit, and making catlike moves, there is one of the legends of Latin dance: Pedro Aguilar, 77, known as "Cuban Pete."

Despite his nickname, Cuban Pete is Puerto Rican, raised in the barrios of New York. Perhaps the most celebrated mambo dancer of all time, he moved to the Miami area in 1982, and has been witness to the large-scale arrival of New Latins.

"It's not just Cubans in Florida anymore," Aguilar says. "It's people from all over Latin America."

In a major demographic shift with implications for politics as well as the humdrum minutiae of life -- including the use of parks and the kinds of foods sold in supermarkets -- Florida's Latinos, more than 2.6 million strong and growing each day, are undergoing a metamorphosis. Cubans and Cuban Americans, long the majority in the state, have been reduced in the last decade to a distinct if still dominant minority.

What's more, in large part due to the newcomers, people of Spanish language and heritage are no longer concentrated in a few locations like Miami's Little Havana, settled by refugees fleeing Fidel Castro's Cuba, or the older cigar-rolling Cuban district of Ybor City in Tampa.

There is now a Little Caracas of Venezuelans in the Miami suburb of Doral, a Colombian enclave in the Broward County city of Weston, and pockets of Guatemalans in Lake Worth near Palm Beach.

In rural inland towns like Immokalee and Sebring, food markets with names like Azteca cater to Mexican farmworkers and sell votive candles with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint. In formerly Anglo suburbs of Fort Lauderdale, gas stations offer hot Argentine beef turnovers.

For the mayor of Orlando, Florida's sixth-largest city, the most significant trend in his area is the surge in Latinos, chiefly Puerto Ricans.

"We now have about 400,000 Hispanic residents in central Florida," said Buddy Dyer, a Democrat.

Even in Miami and environs, long labeled Havana North, the ethnic mix has been transformed. There are so many newcomers from South America and Caribbean islands other than Cuba that in the last three years the Miami-Dade County Parks Service has built 26 soccer fields and plans at least 23 more. (Cubans traditionally prefer baseball.)

To meet the needs of a changing readership, the county public libraries have bought cookbooks from Venezuela, Mexico, Nicaragua and other Latin countries, including works by a celebrated Argentine cook, the late Dona Petrona C. de Gandulfo.

One of the sharpest differences between Florida and California is the extraordinary variety of the Latino population, says Dario Moreno, professor of political science at Florida International University. In California, an overwhelming 77% of Latinos are Mexican or Mexican American. In Florida, people of Cuban birth or descent constitute the largest group, but these days, only about a third of the whole.

"Just because you speak Spanish, no one assumes you're Cuban anymore," Moreno said.

Nearly half a million Puerto Ricans make up 18% of Florida Latinos, Mexicans another 13%. The 2000 census found close to 1 million Floridians with other Latino roots -- including Colombians, Venezuelans, Dominicans, Nicaraguans and Argentines.

Some of Florida's New Latins are poor, illiterate or in the United States illegally. Many, though, are entrepreneurs or professionals, in contrast with most of the Latino immigration to California.

"Whatever country you talk about, with the exception of the Mariel boatlift [from Cuba], it's the middle and upper class," said John T. Gaubatz, a law professor at the University of Miami. "Just pick your Latin American country, and if things get dicey, there'll be another wave of successful and well-off people to Florida."

Because of Argentina's economic collapse, Colombia's ongoing guerrilla war, Venezuela's political turmoil and the woes of other nations in the Southern Hemisphere, there are countless new Dairy Queen franchisees, restaurateurs and business owners now in the Sunshine State.

New Latins have injected new life into the places they have settled. One seven-block strip of Collins Avenue in Miami Beach was suffering from the exodus of Jewish retirees but has been revitalized by new businesses representing half a dozen South American nations, including a Brazilian martial arts studio, a Peruvian seafood restaurant and an Argentine grocery.

Last year, economic opportunity lured Ramon Ojeda from Venezuela. Ojeda has an MBA from Penn State and worked eight years in his home country for Cargill, the U.S. agribusiness giant. He was offered a job in Peru. Instead, he came to Orlando, where he is president of the area's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

"I am living proof that central Florida is the right place to be for Hispanics," said Ojeda, who is married with two children. "The community is wonderful, it's growing, it's challenging. And we'll continue to see more and more Hispanic migration."

Some better-off Latinos come to Florida temporarily to attend university, spend the austral summer in a second home or are otherwise in transit. Some long-term residents, driven from their homelands by warfare or political and economic upheaval, dream of going back someday.

"We leave the country, but we do not close the door," said Fernando Larrea, a Peruvian who moved to Florida 15 years ago and manages an Argentine-style restaurant in the Orlando suburb of Casselberry. Larrea and his wife still have not decided whether to apply for U.S. citizenship. The two oldest of their three children, who have graduated from college, have become citizens.


The Puerto Ricans, as U.S. citizens, have a unique story. In the 1980s, builders from the Orlando area set up sales offices in Puerto Rico to market entire tracts of new homes in central Florida, where some properties cost only half as much as on the densely populated island. Disney World also was hiring. Puerto Ricans came by the planeloads.

"At that time, there weren't many bilingual Americans who were willing to take on service jobs," recalled Elizabeth Mariaca, who owned a real estate agency in San Juan for more than 20 years and now lives in the upscale South Florida town of Wellington. "Disney got bilingual employees who were citizens."

Like Cuban Pete, many Puerto Ricans have been relocating from the New York area for the same reasons other Americans come to Florida: sunshine, economic opportunity, a nice place to retire. About three months ago, in a strip mall outside the rural city of Lakeland, Manuel Fuentes opened a hair salon and gift shop with a fellow New York-born Puerto Rican.

"I moved to Florida because it's a lot calmer, a lot cleaner, and I'm ready for a slower pace," said Fuentes, 49. "Here we have a good chance to build, to start a successful business."

Even in the southern part of the state, Cubans are now outnumbered. In Miami-Dade and neighboring Monroe and Broward counties, Cubans and Cuban Americans account for 43% of Latinos, according to Synovate Diversity, a research company that tracks trends in major U.S. Latino markets.

Every Sunday, the complex cocktail of Hispanidad Florida style goes on display under the twirling, mirrored ball at the Goldcoast, located in an otherwise drab shopping center in Coconut Creek, a bedroom suburb of Fort Lauderdale. For a $10 entry fee, men and women can sway and slink for three hours to salsa, mambo, merengue and other Latin dance music.

Surrounded by friends and fans, and squiring dance partner Barbara Craddock, Cuban Pete celebrated his 77th birthday at the ballroom this month. Other regulars come to chat and mingle with Spanish speakers like themselves.

"It's becoming a meeting place for the local Hispanic population," said Judith E. Crocker, a Venezuelan immigrant. She publishes a Spanish-language monthly newspaper, En USA, that marked its second anniversary this month. Crocker is her own one-woman staff, writing articles, shooting photographs and signing up advertisers, but she is convinced she has struck gold: a potential readership of more than 250,000 Latinos who live in the greater Fort Lauderdale area.

"The market is so big here," Crocker said.


In a state where a little more than 500 votes decided the outcome of the last presidential election, the fast-paced growth of Florida's Latino population is being carefully charted by Republicans and Democrats, who hope to ride the trend to victory in November.

What makes the New Latins such an alluring prize for political strategists is the fact their party loyalties have not yet gelled.

"The Cubans are, because of Cuba, staunch Republicans," said Democratic state Rep. Christopher L. Smith of Fort Lauderdale, who is in charge of his party's efforts to elect more legislators in 2004. "The non-Cuban Hispanics are swing voters. This is the population you have to work for."

Politically, however, the longer established Cuban community still rules. Of the more than 1 million registered Latino voters in Florida, as many as half may still be Cuban American. All three Latinos in the state Senate are Cuban American; of the 14 members of the Hispanic Caucus in Florida's House of Representatives, 11 are Cuban American, one Puerto Rican, one Mexican American and one Colombian American. The three Florida Latinos in the U.S. House of Representatives are Cuban Americans.

Slowly, though, a trans-Latino identity is taking root. Nowadays, even a venerable temple of Cuban gastronomy like Miami's Versailles restaurant offers non-Cuban specialties on its menu, including churrasco, a thick Argentine cut of steak. Strolling Mexican-style mariachi bands are common, but the musicians are often Colombians. More and more, there are households where the spouses hail from different Spanish-speaking countries or backgrounds.

Marco Rubio, a Cuban American, knows firsthand about the blending of Latin cultures. The 33-year-old Coral Gables attorney and Republican majority leader in the state House is married to a Colombian American who used to be a cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins. They have two children.

"I describe my two daughters, Amanda, 4, and Daniella, 2, as Colombanas -- half Cuban, half Colombian, and 100% American," Rubio said. "I myself never ate an arepa (a Colombian specialty made of cornmeal) until I married Jeanette." On the other hand, Rubio said, "any Hispanic who lives any length of time in Miami ends up at a Cuban bakery and picks up some Cuban words.

"What you get is all those different Hispanic cultures melding into one 'Miami' culture," Rubio said. "America has always been about taking the best of other parts of the world, the best of other cultures."

Central Florida's Hispanic Voters: More Likely To Vote Issues Instead Of Party


October 28, 2004
Copyright © 2004
South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved.

Kissimmee In miles or time of travel, the distance between South Florida and this Central Florida growing pole of Puerto Rican voters is small. Call it about 240 miles door-to-door and four to four-and-a-half hours driving straight through and fast.

Politically, that is another story or, better said, a trip to another galaxy.

As we travel north on Florida's Turnpike, the Cuban-American voter's obsession with Cuba almost disappears from the political discourse. The further north we travel, the closer we come to a place where economic and social issues prevail in determining how voters will choose who they will vote for in Tuesday's presidential election. Although predominantly Puerto Rican, these voters come from many Latin American nations, and they are more likely to vote issues instead of party.

That is what makes Central Florida's Hispanic voters so fascinating. It is a community in flux, which can and will change its vote from one election to the next.

The number of voters in these five counties around Orlando is still small, but its importance is growing. Luis Martinez Fernandez, director of the University of Central Florida Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies Program, says there are 173,000 registered Hispanic voters in the area -- 80 percent of whom are Puerto Rican. It is a figure that makes sense, for while the Hispanic population in the area is growing, of the new arrivals, only Puerto Ricans, American citizens by birth, have the right to vote as soon as they register.

Appropriately, we discussed the issues most likely to sway Central Florida Hispanics during lunch at Sebastian Cafe, a Colombian restaurant that serves typical Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, Colombian, Mexican and Cuban food. Community leaders and campaign leaders from both parties agreed on the issues, if not on how each would favor their candidate on Election Day. A brief digression: We both ate mofongo, a plantain-based Puerto Rican dish.

In Central Florida:

Talk about raising the minimum wage and health care benefits is critical. Many Hispanics in the area work two part-time jobs at Disney World and at Wal-Mart -- and neither gives them health insurance. This is a strong plus for John Kerry's presidential hopes.

Evangelical ministers carry weight in the Puerto Rican community -- although not as strong as they do among white non-Hispanics. Call this one a small advantage for President Bush's re-election campaign.

Hispanics in the area give Gov. Jeb Bush extremely high marks (67 percent favorable rating) and consider him familia (family). They have voted for him twice, in 1998 and in 2002. However, the governor cannot assign his popularity to the president. In 2000, the community voted for Al Gore, and the only poll of Hispanic voters in the area say they will do so again for the Democratic candidate, by a margin of 42 to 34. This gives Kerry a slight advantage, although it may not be large enough to offset Bush's advantage in other parts of the state.

Many Puerto Rican recent arrivals to Central Florida still have not adapted to the changes of voting in U.S. elections. In Puerto Rico, where politics is as important as breathing, voters are given the day off to vote and do so in record numbers every time. They want a say in determining the future status of the island's government. In the United States, there is no day off to vote and American political parties do not translate well to politics on the island. This issue slightly favors Bush, unless Puerto Ricans can be motivated to go to the polls in record numbers.

Spanish-language radio and television stations are wall-to-wall political ads, for national, state and local candidates. The themes are different from those used in other parts of Florida. Here many ads harp on Sen. Kerry's proposal to increase the minimum wage to $7 and the president's opposition to an increase.

Other commercials talk about the war on terrorism and how the president is the best bet for voters who are concerned about national security. Cuba, Castro and Bush do not resonate in the campaign or with most Hispanic voters in the area.

One day Central Florida will equal or surpass the importance of the monolithic Cuban-American vote in South Florida. That day is not here yet; the numbers are not there. What is there is an electorate that will look at the issues and at the candidates carefully before making up their mind.

I will take that any day.

Guillermo I. Martinez is a journalist who lives in South Florida.

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