That, however, is changing. And nowhere has it changed more and faster than in central Florida. There, the Hispanic population grew to almost 20% of the total population between 1990-2004, a nearly 12% increase in the number of Hispanics. In just the past four years, the Hispanic population of Orange County alone increased by nearly 20,000 people. Most of the new Hispanic residents are Americans from Puerto Rico -- depending on which source you use, there are now between 300,000 and 500,000 Puerto Ricans in central Florida. The Orlando area, in fact, has supplanted New York/New Jersey as the No. 1 destination for both Puerto Ricans moving to the mainland from Puerto Rico and for Puerto Ricans who move inside the U.S.
Demographic surges like these tend to unnerve Anglo-dominated business communities. Change becomes equated with threat. Unchallenged by hard data, assumptions about things like new residents' educational levels, income, language preferences and politics take on the status of conventional wisdom. Eventually, the deer-in-the-headlights response can become self-induced rigor mortis.
A proactive response from a local business group is rare enough to be remarkable, which is why the Orlando Regional Chamber's Hispanic Summit is so noteworthy.
What the chamber did was both simple and sophisticated. First, it gathered detailed and comprehensive data about the region's Hispanic population. It used teams of local economists and academics and also commissioned studies from academics at the University of Puerto Rico and at Hunter College's Center for Puerto Rican Studies (New York). Orange County government, which realized the importance of the data, chipped in $25,000 toward the $150,000 cost of the studies.
Among the more interesting findings: The choice of central Florida by Puerto Ricans has mostly to do with family connections -- a relative already in the area -- than the presence of good jobs; the Puerto Ricans moving to the region are relatively more educated than their counterparts elsewhere in the U.S.; two-thirds believe they speak English very well, and a third of Puerto Rican families in central Florida earn more than $50,000 a year -- compared to 26% nationally and only 11% on the island.
Much of the information, says Jacob Stuart, the regional chamber's president and one of the state's most visionary business group executives, contradicted perceptions of some in the community who had resisted the idea of holding a Hispanic Summit. The effort, some believed, would only attract more of "them" to the area -- with attendant comments about "their" lack of education, language deficiency, etc.
Once it had the data, the chamber brought together a group of around 700 people from the business, academic, political and philanthropic communities in central Florida for three days in March -- and shared the information.
Many of the speakers and presenters, but not all, were Hispanic. Most of the audience members were not. The idea, says Vilma Quintana, the chamber official who's the executive director of the ongoing effort, was simply to provide "a safe place to come and learn." There was no attempt, initially, to develop an agenda, she says. "We're just exposing information. We need to know who we are before we decide where we want to go as a community." (Participants all got a tiny "memory stick" containing all 700 pages of study data to plug into their computers.)
Quintana, a native of Puerto Rico who moved to central Florida from Texas 11 years ago, understands quite well the nature and extent of cultural divides. She deals regularly, she says, with otherwise sophisticated people whose comments and behavior reflect a perception that she is a foreigner, or that Puerto Rico is a foreign country. Quintana, of course, has only experienced being an American -- her native island is part of America, and its residents are U.S. citizens.
The data from the studies, Stuart says, have been a powerful tool. He can speak with authority about the nature of the Hispanic population to Anglo business people and groups. Just as important, he says, he no longer feels unqualified to talk at an informed level with Hispanic business people about their own community. "When I'm with a Hispanic business group now, I no longer have to sit there like Mr. Chamber Boy and just let the conversation go on around me," he says. "It's not about whether I know Spanish -- they're all perfectly bilingual. It's about whether we each have enough information to really talk to each other in a meaningful way."
Stuart is a master of the Big Chamber Event, but his vision always extends way beyond the closing session, and the chamber's follow-through has been as notable as the summit meeting itself. Make no mistake: The summit is ultimately no kumbayah, I'm-OK-You're-OK lovefest: It's about money and trade and the economic vitality of the central Florida region.
Since the March meeting, Stuart and Quintana have parlayed the attention the meeting generated in Puerto Rico into increased business and cultural ties with the island, which does some $7 billion worth of trade with Florida, its No. 1 trading partner. Stuart also has laid the groundwork for a working relationship between the medical school at the University of Puerto Rico and the medical school that University of Central Florida officials want for their campus. The chamber also has a big trade mission planned for June at which it will present the study data to the Puerto Rican business community. The meeting has been aptly tagged "Mentes Sin Fronteras" -- "Minds Without Frontiers."
As demographic diversity becomes a fact with real implications in more of Florida's regions, business communities throughout the state can learn from the Orlando chamber's example and get out ahead of the trends rather than be inundated by them. Florida, says Stuart, "can be a bellwether. It's an imperative we need to preach."