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The Orlando Sentinel

Hispanics Change Image Of Osceola

by Pamela Mercer and Dan Tracy

October 19, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

KISSIMMEE -- Acres and acres of pasture, miles of barbed wire strung between wood posts, cattle and cowboys. That is the enduring image of Osceola County.

But the reality is entirely different. Hispanics, and Puerto Ricans in particular, are the fastest-growing segment of Osceola`s population, making Latin traditions nearly as prominent as the silver-spur trappings of the county`s rural heritage.

That evolving culture has never been more in evidence. Early today, a 40-member contingent of the Kissimmee/Osceola County Chamber of Commerce was scheduled to leave on its first trade mission to Puerto Rico.

The four-day trip underscores Osceola`s acknowledgement of the growing presence of Hispanics.

"They are here to stay," said Mike Horner, director of the Kissimmee/Osceola Chamber of Commerce.

Hispanics make up 31 percent of the county`s population, compared with 2 percent 20 years ago. That means more than 51,000 of Osceola`s 166,000 residents are Hispanics. More than half of them are Puerto Rican.

If the growth trend continues, Hispanics will be nearly 50 percent of Osceola`s population within 15 years, according to projections by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Osceola is attracting more Hispanics than anywhere else in Florida, but their numbers are being felt throughout the region. Hispanics make up about 16 percent of the population in Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties combined, compared with nearly 7 percent a decade ago.

Numbers such as those translate into economic clout. That`s a far cry from years past, when Hispanics were greeted, at best, with indifference.

Now, the chamber is flying to Puerto Rico and sponsoring a Hispanic festival on the shores of Lake Tohopekaliga. The business organization also has a Hispanic council with more than 60 members.

"We are going to be a big influence. We are now," said Iris Diaz, a SunTrust vice president who serves customers in Osceola and south Orange.

The changes witnessed by Diaz and other Puerto Ricans in recent years have surprised many who call Central Florida their home. From a small group often isolated by language, Puerto Ricans have gained acceptance through hard work and sheer numbers, Hispanic leaders say.

In many ways, Central Florida is a natural destination for Puerto Ricans. The balmy climate mimics the island, and there are a plethora of jobs in the region.

"Central Florida is to a Puerto Rican what Miami is to the Cubans," said Jose Perez, the first and only Puerto Rican to sit on Deltona`s city commission.

Many Puerto Ricans who grew up in New York or Chicago have moved here as part of a flow of Northern transplants, including the Rev. Vidal Martinez.

He arrived in Osceola from Chicago six years to head a Roman Catholic church that would cater to the Spanish-speaking faithful. His number of parishioners: zero.

Today, his congregation has 1,800 families. His church, St. Catherine`s of Siena, stands as one of the cultural epicenters of Buenaventura Lakes, a sprawling, largely Hispanic community in north Osceola.

One of BVL`s best-known residents is Dalis Guevara, the widow of Robert Guevara, the first Hispanic elected to the County Commission. He died in office last April. His wife, who is running to succeed him, is regarded by many in BVL as the best hope for an enduring Hispanic role in Osceola politics.

The chamber`s trip to San Juan "is a great opportunity for Osceola County to see how it can improve its economy," she said.

The Osceola mission costs $1,400 per person. The cost is paid by companies, not the chamber. Members will meet with island business leaders and set goals for the chamber.

The visit comes on the heels of a similar trip this past spring by business and political leaders in Orange County. Last April, a contingent of 30 headed by Orange County Chairman Mel Martinez went to Puerto Rico for three days, meeting with investors and businessmen interested in Central Florida.

No contracts were signed, but many Hispanics viewed the trip as a sign of bigger things to come.

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