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Puerto Ricans Like What Central Florida Offers

By Walter Pacheco | Sentinel Staff Writer

July 24, 2005
Copyright © 2005 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

Ellen Vidal loves Puerto Rico -- its warm people, its culture, its scenic beaches and gorgeous countryside.

But she left the island in 1998 after doctors said she could find better health care in Florida for her 9-year-old daughter, Victoria, who suffers from spina bifida, a disabling birth defect that causes an incomplete closure in the spinal column.

Though health care fueled her decision to move, the island's high crime rate was a contributing factor.

"Although crime is not everywhere, I really don't feel safe in Puerto Rico," said Vidal, who lives in Kissimmee. "It's a problem that's been building for years. I don't even like going back home."

For many of the 21,678 island-born Puerto Ricans who moved to Central Florida from 1995 to 2000, the chronically high murder rate is never far from the surface when discussing why they resettled here.

Yet it's not the only reason. Often, it's not the main reason. Many move to the Orlando area and other parts of the mainland simply to pursue economic opportunities, better education for their children, better health care -- or to be with family.

Yesenia Cruz left in 2003 to join her mother in Orlando. Cruz says she never confronted a criminal, never witnessed a crime and never met anyone mugged, shot or killed on the island.

"It's not like you can't walk out of your house, go shopping or eat at a restaurant in Puerto Rico because you're afraid of being shot," Cruz said.

She acknowledges that violence is a festering problem and a valid incentive for leaving, but she also thinks crime statistics can be misleading and generate inaccurate perceptions."Crime is crime, and it's everywhere you go. It's here in Orlando or at home in Puerto Rico, but it doesn't mean everyone is a criminal or leaves because of it," Cruz said.

Still, many newcomers say violence figured into their decision to leave the island of 3.9 million people.

For Nelson Vargas, it was the main reason. Vargas said he endured too many nights locked inside his apartment while the sounds of guns and sirens blared outside.

"After living there for 32 years, I grew tired of all the murders and other crime on the island," said Vargas, who keeps the windows of his Azalea Park home open at night.

"I'll take traffic noise to bullets any day," he said.

Sylvia Cáceres, who runs the regional office of the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration in Central Florida, understands that crime is driving some Puerto Ricans away from the island.

But it's not among the primary reasons, said Cáceres, whose organization serves Central Florida's Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics with educational, economic and social-outreach programs.

A recent study by the University of Puerto Rico and the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños at Hunter College in New York seems to support Cáceres by concluding that a variety of motives led Puerto Ricans to settle here.

"They are simply looking for a better place to raise their families. Puerto Ricans value a good education and want their children enrolled in the best schools.

"They are not finding that in Puerto Rico. Also they are looking for more secure employment."

Since the 1950s, tax incentives encouraged U.S. companies to establish factories on the island and invest in the economy by offering Puerto Ricans thousands of jobs. However, under a 10-year phaseout enacted by Congress in 1996, most incentives will vanish by 2006.

"The economy plays a major role in the exodus from the island," said Luis Martínez-Fernández, director of the Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies Program at the University of Central Florida. "Although the unemployment rate is not as high as it was during the 1980s, it's still high enough that people are not finding work there. Available jobs are in low-paying retail sales or fast-food restaurants."

And some Puerto Ricans who find higher-paying jobs on the island are recruited by stateside agencies seeking their talents.

Before moving to Orlando in 2004, Teresa Gómez was a third-grade teacher at a public school in Carolina, Puerto Rico. She loves her profession but said there were limits to what she could accomplish in Puerto Rico because of underfunded and overcrowded schools.

"I am a product of the island's school system, and so are millions of other professionals such as doctors, nurses and teachers, but schools in Puerto Rico are not what they used to be. Actually, nothing is what it used to be," said Gómez, who recently applied for a teaching position in Orange County.

"I've come to Orlando because I need to survive. Here I can find a better-paying job in a safer environment. I feel that more people will leave Puerto Rico in the coming years because they are also tired of the professional limitations and safety concerns."

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