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'Puertoricanization' Of Central Florida: Central Florida Top Region For Puerto Ricans

By Víctor Manuel Ramos | Sentinel Staff Writer

March 4, 2005
Copyright © 2005 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

Move over New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. Orlando is now the top destination for Puerto Ricans who leave their island looking for a place to settle on the mainland.

In addition, the overall Hispanic community, which has contributed more than $11 billion to Central Florida's economy, is expected to continue growing in numbers and spending power.

Add to that a new survey that reflects a positive outlook among Hispanics on the region's future, and a message emerges: Hispanics are here to stay.

Those were some of the insights derived from three demographic studies released Thursday at the region's first Hispanic Summit, a three-day event that ends today. It was put together by the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce and its partners.

The chamber was joined by 52 community groups and agencies seeking to harness the market power of the burgeoning community, just like many of the businesses that had a presence at the summit to learn about the population and cultural trends.

"We call it the 'puertoricanization' of Central Florida," said Jorge Duany, a University of Puerto Rico professor who co-authored the study -- partly funded by Orange County -- on Puerto Rican migration patterns. The study, an analysis of Puerto Rican trends reflected in the past several decades of census data, was commissioned exclusively for release at the summit.

Because the Puerto Rican migration to Central Florida has been gradual, only picking up speed after the 1970s and exploding through the 1990s, Duany said other Hispanic groups such as Mexicans have grown alongside the Puerto Rican community. The mix is creating the most diverse Hispanic grouping in the state.

"No Hispanic group will be able to dominate the region in the way the Cubans have in Miami," Duany said.

Overall, the study on Puerto Rican trends shows that Florida displaced New Jersey in the 1990s to become the state with the second-largest concentration of Puerto Ricans, only behind New York.

New York has been losing its pull with islanders, seeing a decrease in Puerto Rican population, while more than 206,000 Puerto Ricans had settled by 2003 in the Orlando area comprised of Orange, Osceola, Volusia, Seminole and Polk counties.

Instead of New York's Bronx borough remaining "the county of salsa" -- as it had long been known among Puerto Ricans -- Orange and Osceola are stealing the title, becoming the two leading destinations in the country for Puerto Rican newcomers.

Other Florida hot spots for those who leave the U.S. commonwealth are Miami and Fort Lauderdale, with about 155,000 Puerto Ricans combined, and Tampa Bay, with another 68,000.

While 9,420 more Puerto Ricans left the island to settle in Orange County than returned to the island between 1995 and 2000, and 7,000 more moved to Osceola than returned in the same period, only 5,319 more Puerto Rican newcomers opted in that period to put down roots in the Bronx, which used to be their top destination.

Tampa's Hillsborough County and Miami-Dade County were the fourth-favorite and fifth-favorite places for island Puerto Ricans to establish a home, according to the study's analysis of census data.

The study identified Meadow Woods, a neighborhood along the Osceola and Orange border, as Central Florida's largest Puerto Rican enclave.

"This surge is an interesting development, because Puerto Ricans are really the first group that comes to Central Florida in numbers that are sizable enough to challenge the homogeneous culture," said the study's co-author, Félix Matos-Rodríguez, a professor who was with the Puerto Rican Studies Center at New York's Hunter College. He is joining new Puerto Rican Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá as an adviser.

The demographic trends were welcome news at the summit, a who's who of many Hispanic leaders in communities, institutions and corporations here.

Orange County Commissioner Mildred Fernández, who was elected in November, said that as the first elected official from Puerto Rico in the Orlando metropolitan area she was not surprised to hear about the community's grounding here.

"There is a strong Puerto Rican and Hispanic community out there," Fernandez said. "It's a fast-growing community that needs to be taken into account. It can't be left out of discussions about the future."

Tom Martínez is president of the Asociación Borinqueña de Florida Central. He said his group, a Puerto Rican social club in east Orange County, not only has endured but grown by leaps and bounds through its 28 years of existence.

The club went from having a small office years ago to a sprawling community center on 3 acres off North Econlockhatchee Trail. It's the place where many go to play dominoes, celebrate 15th-birthday parties known as quinceañeras and catch up with developments on the island.

Orlando, Martínez said, has a lot of appeal to Puerto Ricans who leave a crowded island with high levels of unemployment.

"It's like a promised land here," Martínez said. "We've got all this wide-open space."

Félix Sandoval Orozco, an accountant who moved here four years ago from the Río Piedras island suburb, said he felt as if he had arrived in a promising place when he escaped unemployment in Puerto Rico.

"I really liked the environment and the orderly way of life here. I used to read many stories in the Puerto Rican newspaper about real-estate opportunities and jobs here, so I came," he said.

But Sandoval Orozco, 56, has been unemployed since October and says whether he falls in love or not with Orlando will depend on his job situation. Right now, he describes his feelings as 50-50, between staying or searching for jobs elsewhere.

Cristina Elías and Walter Pacheco of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Moving stateside from Puerto Rico

March 4, 2005

Net migration from Puerto Rico to U.S. regions, 1995-2000:

1. Orange County: 9,420

2. Osceola County: 7,000

3. Bronx, N.Y.: 5,319

4. Hillsborough County: 4,746

5. Miami-Dade County: 4,725

6. Hartford, Conn.: 4,542

7. Broward County: 4,112

Largest stateside Puerto Rican populations

U.S. metropolitan areas, ranked by Puerto Rican population, 2003:

1. New York City: 923,682

2. Philadelphia: 166,632

3. Chicago: 166,305

4. Orlando: 161,426

5. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater: 97,805

6. Miami: 93,373

SOURCE: Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce

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