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Orlando Sentinel

Orlando: The Puerto Rican Frontier

By Luis Martinez-Fernandez, Special to the Sentinel

16 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

In the past quarter century, the Orlando metropolitan area has assumed a very special place within the Puerto Rican imagination, as thousands of Puerto Ricans -- from the island, as well as from New York and other Northern enclaves -- have responded to the seductive pull of the frontier character of Central Florida. The resulting massive immigration has turned the Orlando area into what some already call Puerto Rico's 79th municipality. It is estimated that the Puerto Rican population in greater Orlando hovers around 300,000, which means that it is larger than that of any of the island's 78 municipalities, with the exception of metropolitan San Juan.

Puerto Rican migratory waves during the middle decades of the 20th century were mostly composed of poor, unskilled, rural migrants displaced by the island's fast-paced processes of industrialization and urbanization. They mostly migrated to New York City and other Northern urban centers. In contrast, the more recent migrations of Puerto Ricans to the Orlando region reflect a wide representation of the island's population, with a large percentage of professionals and members of the middle class.

What pulls them to Orlando?

There are many obvious reasons, which range from a climate similar to Puerto Rico's -- hurricanes and all -- and relatively affordable houses, to more employment opportunities and the existence of myriad Puerto Rican businesses and institutions. I argue that Puerto Ricans are also attracted by the region's frontier nature.

I would like to begin with the notion of Orlando as a social frontier. The region offers a greater degree of social mobility that alleviates the anachronistic social hierarchy that persists on the island and the marginalization endured by the majority of Puerto Ricans in other Northern cities. Orlando's opportunities for socioeconomic mobility are especially appealing to professionals, skilled workers and the middle class. Orlando also presents a system in which individual qualities and credentials mean as much or more than having a well-connected uncle or cousin or having networked at elite schools.

Central Florida is also a political frontier for Puerto Ricans. For Latino politicians, it is a frontier free from old party bosses and ancestral party affiliations. Latino politics in Orlando and Kissimmee are fluid to such an extent that non-career politicians can aspire to high elective positions. In the past election, for example, two relative newcomers to the political arena, John Quinones and Israel Mercado, ran for the same Florida House seat. It is also interesting to note that Orlando's Puerto Rican politicians, again because of the area's frontier character, are forced to engage in negotiations and coalition building to attract the support of other Hispanic voters. By contrast, political negotiation is rare in Puerto Rico, as it is in other Latino-Hispanic enclaves in the United States, such as a Miami dominated by Cubans.

Another manifestation of Orlando's frontier nature is the intellectual frontier that attracted me to this region to establish a new program in Latin American, Caribbean and Latino studies at the University of Central Florida. This is a region in flux, demographic as well as cultural; a place where the Hispanic experience is different from that of other U.S. settings. The study of Latino Orlando encourages new perspectives other than the models used to study Puerto Ricans in New York. Puerto Rico's migrants to Central Florida are not at the margins of Puerto Rican society, but rather at its epicenter. The Central Florida Puerto Rican experience does not fit the colonial model either. Actually, for many Puerto Ricans, moving to Orlando represents a process of decolonization. For some, it is the achievement of statehood: the promised 51st state, the Jibaro (Puerto Rican peasant) statehood promised by Gov. Luis A. Ferre in 1968 (but in the continent); or the consummation of the Puerto Rican Commonwealth as packaged in the Popular Party slogan of the 1992 elections "lo mejor de los dos mundos" (the best of two worlds), but in this case inverted.

I do not want to give the impression that Puerto Rican Orlando is paradise. As every frontier, it has its fair share of tensions as well as social, political and economic conflicts. After all, frontiers are, by definition, settings of danger and risk, where some make it and others do not. We also face disturbing manifestations of racial discrimination as well as linguistic and cultural barriers that impede economic opportunities and social mobility. Notwithstanding, Orlando retains a frontier lure and will doubtless continue to have a special place in the Puerto Rican imagination for the foreseeable future.

Is it 79th municipality, 51st state for island?

Luis Martinez-Fernandez is a historian and director of the Program in Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies at the University of Central Florida. He wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel.

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