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Hispanics Emerge As Area's Top Minority

Central Florida's Latino population now numbers about 464,100, data show.

By Víctor Manuel Ramos | Sentinel Staff Writer

October 1, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

Hispanics are now the largest minority community in Central Florida, dramatically reshaping the cultural landscape of some neighborhoods and wielding the prospect of increased political clout.

U.S. Census Bureau estimates released Thursday also showed that blacks made significant gains statewide, with only New York now having a larger black population. The roughly 290,000 increase in the Sunshine State was attributed to blacks moving south from other states and more people from Haiti, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands settling in South Florida.

While the black population in Central Florida grew by about 53,000 from 2000 to 2003, the Hispanic population jumped by about 95,000, to become the No. 1 minority group. The Hispanic population of the seven-county area now numbers about 464,100, or 14 percent of the 3.28 million people who live in the region -- up 26 percent during the three-year reporting period.

"That is a remarkable rate of growth," said Luis Martínez-Fernández, director of the Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies Program at the University of Central Florida.

"Other things follow the numbers," he said. "No single party or candidate can ignore that presence, and no single candidate can take that vote for granted."

The 2000 census showed a statistical dead heat between blacks and Hispanics in Central Florida, with both accounting for roughly 12 percent.

Martínez-Fernández and others say Hispanics pulled ahead in part because of a vibrant marketplace that Hispanics have created, including grocery stores that sell Puerto Rican products, restaurants that offer the flavors of Latin America and commercial areas where many do business en español.

A significant Latino population has settled in Kissimmee, where Elio Contreras, his wife and two daughters had lunch at Oak Tree Plaza on Thursday.

The Contrerases, who are considering a move to Central Florida from Long Island, N.Y., had spent the morning riding around Kissimmee and other parts of Osceola County with friends, checking out stores, churches and neighborhoods.

After looking at six houses, they felt even better about the area.

Like many families, the Contrerases, who are Salvadoran, first visited Central Florida to take their children to theme parks. They liked what they saw enough to consider changing a more urban lifestyle for palm trees, a pool and open spaces.

"Besides, there is a lot of work here," said Contreras, 44, pointing to all the broken signs along U.S. Highway 192. He owns a sign business in New York.

"I think we can feel at home here."

At the nearby Kissimmee Bakery, Oscar González Bernhard ate lunch: rice and beans, ripe plaintains and fried eggs. Around him others spoke in Spanish about work, the weather and hurricane damage.

González Bernhard, who moved from Honduras in the late 1980s, said he used to see very few other Hispanics at work, but now his neighborhood has transformed into an international Latino community.

The construction worker plays soccer and participates in other community events through his league.

"It is good to see other people like me, even if we are now all competing for the same jobs," he said.

Marytza Sanz, president of Latino Leadership, a nonprofit advocacy group, says as the community has grown, so has its needs.

She said the group used to deal mostly with Puerto Ricans, who enjoy all the benefits of citizenship and are the largest segment of the local Hispanic population.

Now, Hispanics from other countries approach her with needs ranging from health care to questions about their immigration status.

"People in Florida used to think that Hispanics only existed in Miami, but we are here, and we are growing," Sanz said. "What we have to be mindful of is that our needs are also growing."

Roderick J. Harrison, a demographer with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank based in Washington, said the shift among minority groups reflects a national trend.

The growth of the Hispanic population, he said, presents challenges at the local level, as the more established black communities compete to some degree for the same resources and fight similar battles.

But the different community groups don't necessarily work together.

"What these changes means will reveal itself over longer periods of time," Harrison said. "The nation is growing more diverse, and we have very new combinations of groups that are going to have to work out how they are going to live together."

Information from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel was used in this report.

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