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Hispanic Explosion: Beyond Miami, Hispanic Growth Changing Cultural Face Of Florida


October 8, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Nicolas Gonzalez------------------------------------------------------------------------

Spectators wave Puerto Rican flags during a festival at Jacksonville Beach last June. About 35,000 Hispanics attended.
PHOTO: Don Burk/Florida Times-Union.


On a maple-shaded street tucked among hilly, winding roads in the Central Florida city of Deltona, the Gómezes have found a quiet refuge far from the violence of their native Colombia.

In the city of 63,000, the family also discovered a booming Hispanic community, estimated at more than 20 percent of the population, with a Hispanic on the City Council, a Hispanic schools superintendent and annual Hispanic heritage celebrations.

``I have come to know all of Latin America here,'' says Alberto Gómez, an artist and human rights activist who fled death threats from drug traffickers and settled in Deltona 3 1/2 years ago. ``It's not unusual to go to a party and meet people from 20 different nationalities.''

The exodus to Florida from Latin America and the Caribbean -- and the migration south from Hispanic outposts in the northeastern United States -- are changing the face of traditional Florida.

From smaller havens like Deltona to urban centers like Orlando and Jacksonville, almost every county in Florida has experienced some significant increase in Hispanic population in the last decade.

The fastest-growing segment of the state's population, Hispanics account for 15 percent of Florida's 15 million people, according to 1999 U.S. Census reports. At about 2 1/4 million, they have already tied blacks as the largest minority group in the state.

Most of the growth is driven by several factors: economic opportunity, family ties, and the cultural comfort of a state where Hispanics have strong historical roots and a thriving hub in South Florida.


``We know Miami is the place, the Latino capital of the United States, but we have our own thing going here, too,'' says Victor Cora, a Jacksonville community activist. ``We're taking it slow and easy because we don't want things to get out of hand. We're aware of the tremendous growth and we're planning for it.''

Cora, who was born in New York City of Puerto Rican parents and raised there, was stationed at Jacksonville's Mayport Naval Station seven years ago. He liked the city so much that he decided to stay, and he now coordinates the annual Fiesta Players festival, a traditional Puerto Rican celebration of St. John the Baptist Day, when people walk backward into the sea to cleanse themselves of bad spirits.

In its fifth year, the lively daylong event attracted about 35,000 Hispanics from all over north and central Florida to Jacksonville Beach last June, drawing from a corridor that extends north into the Ocala, Leesburg, Gainesville and Lakeland areas, all the way to Tampa in the west, and south to Melbourne, Titusville and West Palm Beach.


As it is in most of this region, it was a decidedly Puerto Rican crowd at the festival, judging by the display of Puerto Rican flags as bandanas and necklaces and on T-shirts -- and the jubilant chants of ``boricua, boricua!'' -- as band after band blasted salsa and merengue into the night.

Nicolas Gonzalez------------------------------------------------------------------------

Nicolás González, standing at right, celebrates victory in dominoes with Luz Alamo, left, at an Osceola County community center.
Photo by J. Albert Diaz.


But there was also a sprinkling of Mexicans, Dominicans, Colombians, Panamanians and even a Uruguayan disc jockey who moved to Jacksonville a year ago.

Puerto Ricans are to Central Florida what Cubans are to South Florida -- the most populous and culturally dominant group. But in Central Florida, the ready mix of Latin American cultures has yielded some interesting hybrids.

The Mexican restaurant María Bonita in Daytona Beach is owned by a Colombian family. The Cuban restaurant Rolando's in Casselberry, north of Orlando, is owned by a Dominican.


``I've been cooking Cuban food for 12 years,'' says chef-owner Fausto Rodríguez, who bought Rolando's 1 1/2 years ago when the original Cuban owner retired.

Rodríguez and his wife, María, moved to the Kissimmee area from Santo Domingo in 1982. His in-laws had already settled there and often talked about the abundant job opportunities.

In his first job, he cooked fast food at a Walt Disney World cafeteria. He left to cook for a Cuban restaurant that still bills itself as the first in the Orlando area, No. 1 Restaurant. Rodríguez worked there for 10 years, while raising twin sons and saving enough money to buy Rolando's.

``When I moved here, this was all countryside,'' Rodríguez says. ``Now, this is already a Miami.''


Indeed, some pockets in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties -- a hotbed of Hispanic growth since the 1980s -- look more like South Florida than the heart of what, not long ago, was known as ``cracker Florida.'' Hispanics make up 18 percent of the population in Osceola, 14 percent in Orange and 10 percent in Seminole.

In the heavily Puerto Rican Kissimmee area, election signs along Buenaventura Boulevard tell the story: Quiñones, Molina, Guevara, Suárez are running for office. At Colonial High School in east Orlando, half the student body is Hispanic, prompting some pundits to dub it ``our Miami High.''

At Buenaventura Community Center, the Osceola County Council on Aging sponsors domino games for elderly Hispanics, and the place crackles with the excitement of Little Havana's Domino Park.

``My hernia doesn't even hurt anymore!'' shouts Nicolás González, jumping out of his seat to celebrate a win.


At Danube Plaza on Semoran Boulevard, near a billboard that advertises La Nueva 98.1 FM, almost all of the small storefronts cater to Latino needs. There's a service to send money to Central and South America, a Winn-Dixie store stocked with the ingredients of Spanish-Caribbean cuisine, and close to Ritmo Latino Music and Los Coquitos tropical ice cream shop sits an Allstate office with the reassuring sign, ``Se habla español.''

But despite many of the similarities between the Miami of the 1970s and '80s and the Orlando of today, where a visible, fast-growing minority could very well become the largest ethnic group in another decade, Hispanic civic leaders are wary of the comparisons.

``Orlando has become more culturally diverse, but I don't think it has become like Miami,'' says Orange County Chairman Mel Martínez, a Cuban American who holds the highest-ranking job in local government.

``When I get 70 percent of the black vote as a Hispanic elected official, that makes a very different statement about the climate here. There's not the hostility that exists in Miami. There's more of a partnership or a cordial sort of working relationship with other groups.''

Martínez is putting together a coalition of pastors from Hispanic and black churches to address drug abuse and school dropout issues. And when Martínez recently led a trade mission to Puerto Rico, both the Hispanic and black chambers of commerce were invited.

Jean Paul Gomez------------------------------------------------------------------------

Colombian Jean Paul Gómez with some of his sculptures in Orange County. His father is artist Alberto Gámez.
Photo by J. Albert Diaz.


``I figure if people can make money together, they can't be enemies,'' Martínez says. ``It's a lesson I learned by knowing Miami. I have affection for Miami, and my cultural roots are there, but I have over the years watched the problems and seen how negative that can be for the community.''

Other civic leaders in Central Florida echo his observations. They, too, are forming coalitions with other groups -- and taking a low-key approach to their own growing presence to avoid raising ethnic tensions.

In Jacksonville, Cora is an active member of the African American Chamber of Commerce. In Deltona, Vice Mayor José ``Joe'' Pérez is serving his second term with the support of white non-Hispanic voters.

``We are in the South and there is a big cultural change going on,'' Pérez says. ``I'm looked upon as a champion for Hispanic people, but I realize I am here to represent everyone.''


And Hispanics are confronted with serious issues in Florida: Migrant workers toil from dawn to dusk for meager wages and lack adequate housing and healthcare. Newcomers from the U.S. northeast find that wages in Florida are lower than they expected and they must take on additional jobs to make ends meet. New immigrants grapple with culture shock.

``They take whatever job they can find, even when they have other skills. They often end up in jobs no one wants, and to a certain degree, they are exploited,'' says Clemencia Ortiz, executive director of the Latin American Immigrant and Refugee Organization in Palm Beach County.

Every civic leader names the high dropout rate of Hispanic students -- the highest of all groups in Central Florida -- as a top concern.

The problem is tough to tackle, educators say, because it stems partly from the transient nature of sectors of the Hispanic community.

``In our culture, there is a tendency to go back and forth a lot to the island,'' says Rosalie Soto-Reyes, an assistant principal at Colonial High School in east Orlando.

``Many people come here thinking the streets are paved with gold. When the economic situation gets bad, they go back and forth to the island or they send the kid back to live with tía and tío [aunt and uncle]. If they leave and they are not withdrawn, they are classified as dropouts.''

In other regions where Hispanics have yet to reach the numbers of the Orlando area, change is nevertheless becoming more visible, albeit at a slower pace.

In Collier County, where Hispanics make up 19 percent of the population, their number has almost doubled in the last decade.

Touristy Naples now can boast of having several mom-and-pop bodegas, a couple of cafeterias and a big Cuban restaurant named Fernández the Bull. Thanks to the widening of Alligator Alley and I-75 some years ago, Cubans began to head west and escape South Florida's urban chaos for some of the whitest sands this side of Varadero.

``We came for the peace and the beach,'' says Julie de Armas, 41, who moved to Naples from Miami 20 years ago with her husband and 3-year-old daughter. ``I didn't want my daughter going to the schools in Miami, and my father had landed a job here, so we all moved.''

Once a month, de Armas makes the two-hour trip to Miami to visit family -- and Sedano's Supermarket.

``That's the only thing we don't have here, so we go to Miami to buy the cuts of meats we like. Then we put them in a cooler and go visit family,'' she says.


In Palm Beach County, the booming Hispanic community is a lot like its white non-Hispanic counterpart -- a tale of two cities. One is very rich, one poor. And in the middle, there is a struggling working class of small-business owners in West Palm Beach whose stores and cafeterias give the area a Latin sprinkle.

In the last decade, the Hispanic population in Palm Beach County has grown by 65.7 percent, fueled largely by new immigration.

Hispanics make up 11 percent of the population -- and live in practically every neighborhood, from the mansions of Palm Beach where prominent Cuban families like the Fanjuls and the Batistas have long lived, to the new, anonymous middle-class subdivisions of Jupiter and Wellington.

Fausto Rodriguez and son Armando------------------------------------------------------------------------

Fausto Rodríguez, with son Armando, owns Rolando's Cuban restaurant in Casselberry, north of Orlando. He's Dominican but says, 'I've been cooking Cuban food for 12 years.'
Photo by J. Albert Diaz.


``We have a very versatile community, of many nationalities. They come to this area because they have family or a friend who gives them a hand to get started,'' says Caridad Asensio, a Cuban American who founded the Migrant Association of South Florida.

For some of the poorest newcomers, the association's campus on Boynton Beach Boulevard west of the turnpike -- with a clinic, soup kitchen and children's programs -- is one of the first stops.

``The growth has been tremendous, and it continues,'' Asensio says. ``A lot of people will be surprised when the new census comes out.''

Sometimes Florida's Hispanic influence and presence surface in unexpected places.

In Ormond Beach, the magic realism of Gómez's Colombian-Venezuelan murals adorns the Ormond Memorial Art Museum & Gardens. From the stately pink, historic Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg, salsa music blares one evening as a Hispanic-owned company stages a party.

In sleepy Sebring -- where some Cuban exiles have retired in the last decade, especially those who worked in the sugar industry -- a majestic old tree adorns the lawn of the courthouse on Commerce Avenue.

The inscription reads: ``Cuban Mountain Laurel, Planted by Louis H. Alsmeyer, county agent, December 1928.''

And none of it should be surprising because perhaps the new Hispanization of Florida is history coming full circle.

From the western reaches of Pensacola to the southern tip of Key West, the Hispanic presence in Florida is as old as Ponce de León, the Spaniard who named the territory after a Spanish festival of flowers.

And if the Hispanic population continues to grow at the rate of the past decade, by the next century -- when the Stars and Stripes will have flown over Florida for as long as the Spanish flag did -- the vast majority in la Florida could well be Hispanic.

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