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Snapshots of Florida's Hispanic Community


No nationality has transformed Florida like Cubans have. Now the largest Hispanic group in Florida is itself in transformation. Cubans, once the majority of Hispanic Floridians, have become a plurality, down to 29% of the Hispanic population, as other groups grow faster. In Miami-Dade County, Cubans share the city, if not power, with hosts of new immigrants from Latin America. Spanish accents, music and food have become more diverse. St. John Bosco, the Little Havana Catholic church that welcomed and served so many Cubans that it became known as the "exile's cathedral," now has a Nicaraguan pastor.

Top Cuban Communities
Total Numbers
Community Cubans
Hialeah (Miami-Dade) 160,711
Miami (Miami-Dade) 137,399
Tamiami (Miami-Dade) 36,656
Kendale Lakes (Miami-Dade) 28,893
Kendall (Miami-Dade) 25,706
Percent of Total Population
Community % of Cubans
West Miami (Miami-Dade) 73.0%
Westchester (Miami-Dade) 72.0
Hialeah (Miami-Dade) 71.0
University Park (Miami-Dade) 69.0
Tamiami (Miami-Dade) 66.0
Florida 6.5
U.S. 0.6

"If you were to do a profile, the cafeterias epitomize the changes," writes Alex Stepick, a Florida International University professor, in an email. "Cuban coffee still predominates, and every cafeteria has some Cuban pastries, but they are now likely to also have Colombian and Venezuelan ones, too. And, driving down (Calle Ocho), even in the heart of Little Havana, there are Peruvian, Mexican, Colombian and other restaurants."

There's nothing on the immigration horizon to suggest a return to a Cuban majority. Last year, Cuba announced it would make it easier for its citizens to leave — and return. But Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, and Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, don't expect a major new flow from the changes because the United States hasn't changed its 20,000 annual Cuba visa quota.

Within the Cuban-American population of 1.21 million in Florida, change is occurring too. Researchers keep busy tracking the different backgrounds, fortunes and outlooks of the waves of exiles, from those first to flee Castro repression in 1959 and the early 1960s through the Mariel immigrants in 1980, who grew up with no memory of pre-Socialist Cuba, to the post-1990 rafter, or balsero, wave, whose formative experience was the desperation, disillusionment and deprivation of Cuba's "Special Period" after the loss of Soviet aid exposed the shortcomings of the "Workers' Paradise." Two noticeable ways the differences play out: Generational conflict among Cuban-Americans over U.S. Cuba policy and a shift by younger Cuban-Americans toward Democrats. FIU professor and pollster Dario Moreno says Cubans went 70-30 for George W. Bush but only 55-45 for Mitt Romney. "It's a pretty significant shift over the last eight years," Moreno says. Says University of Florida professor Philip J. Williams, director of the Center for Latin American Studies, "As the older Cuban generation dies off, that has political consequences."

L. Felice Gorordo, born and raised in Miami to Cuban parents, reflects the new nuances. His father came as a child from Cuba in Operation Pedro Pan and his mother on a Freedom Flight. His grandparents followed and were die-hard Republicans. Gorordo himself is a registered Republican but says his politics are moderate. He interned in the George W. Bush White House, worked for three years at Liberty Power, served in the U.S. Commerce Department under Bush but voted in 2008 and 2012 for Barack Obama and served a non-partisan White House Fellowship under Obama. Gorordo now works for Clearpath, a company bringing TurboTax ease to immigration paperwork.

Gorordo attended Georgetown, where he took a course in Cuban studies. A professor counseled him that a visit would be worthwhile, and Gorordo approached his parents. "It was a heated discussion. In the end, they gave me their blessing, and I went," he says. He found the country of his heritage beautiful, welcoming and sad. "It was disillusioning to see so many young people with no hope for a future," he says.

In college, he founded Roots of Hope, Raíces de Esperanza, to "empower Cuban youth to become the authors of their own future."

Next page: Puerto Ricans in Florida



Top Puerto Rican Communities
Total Numbers
Community Puerto Ricans
Orlando (Orange) 26,777
Tampa (Hillsborough) 23,456
Poinciana (Osceola/Polk) 19,060
Jacksonville (Duval) 18,960
Kissimmee (Osceola) 18,799
Percent of Total Population
Community % of Puerto Ricans
Meadow Woods (Orange) 39.3%
Buenaventura Lakes (Osceola) 39.2
Azalea Park (Orange) 37.0
Poinciana (Osceola/Polk) 36.5
Kissimmee (Osceola) 31.0
Florida 4.5
U.S. 1.5

The abridged version of Samí Haiman-Marerro's life: Born in New York of Puerto Rican heritage, she was taken by her family to the island at age 8 and raised on a coffee farm in the mountains in Ciales. "I went to a rural school and had a very wholesome upbringing," she says. After earning her master's degree in communications from the University of Puerto Rico in 1993, she moved back to New York, built a career in publishing and one day went to visit her sister in Orlando. "I couldn't believe what she had paid for her beautiful home," Haiman-Marerro says. She and her husband, Scott, moved to Orlando in 2004, where they have a daughter, a son, a house in east Orange County and a marketing firm, Urbander.

Educated, relocated from New York, a business owner, living in east Orange — Haiman-Marerro typifies the recent Puerto Rican experience in central Florida.

While the influx of Puerto Ricans has drawn the most commentary for its effect on Florida politics as it shifts the famously purple state decidedly toward the Democrat blue, the migration is a phenomenon by itself. "The growth of Florida's Puerto Rican population has been spectacular, from slightly more than 2% of all U.S. Puerto Ricans in 1960 to more than 18% in 2010," Hispanic migration expert and Florida International University professor Jorge Duany wrote in a paper last year.

The Census says 847,550 Puerto Ricans call Florida home, making them second only to Cubans among Hispanics here. The "Puerto Ricanization" of Florida, as Duany terms it, is part of the growing diversification of the Hispanic population in the United States and Florida. University of Florida professor Philip J. Williams, director of the Center for Latin American Studies, says Puerto Ricans could be close to eclipsing Cubans as the state's largest Hispanic group by the 2020 Census. Orlando has a higher percentage of Puerto Ricans than New York. Six of the top 10 county destinations for Puerto Rican immigrants are in Florida. Puerto Ricans dominate the central Florida Hispanic population — 48% of Hispanics in Orange, 60% in Osceola — the way Cubans do in south Florida. (Miami-Dade has the second-highest number of Puerto Ricans among Florida counties, but they comprise only 4% of the overall county population and only 6% of the Hispanic population.)

Puerto Rico is small, densely populated, with economic troubles and high crime. Orlando represents a new beginning, especially for those from island families that aren't prominent in society and business. "What they see in Orlando is the opportunity," says Luis Martinez-Fernandez, a University of Central Florida history professor who has researched immigration to Florida and, though himself Cuban, has taught in Puerto Rico.

While Florida has plenty of blue-collar and service- worker Puerto Ricans, Puerto Ricans in Florida are different from the earlier waves to New York and elsewhere — a burbs-over-barrios phenomenon. They are more educated. Puerto Rican writers talk of the brain drain from there. Compared to earlier island emigrants, they have higher incomes and live in the suburbs. Florida Puerto Ricans' median income in the 2010 Census was $41,198, well above their New York median of $33,436, though below Florida's median income overall, let alone the median income of non-Hispanic Florida whites. Puerto Rican-based businesses have followed  them.

Haiman-Marrero's Urbander is a family affair with Scott as creative director and her sister as head of account services. With more than one in four consumers in Orange and nearly half of Osceola consumers identifying themselves as Hispanic, she has a growing market: "My specialty is the Hispanic segment and how to engage and reach the Hispanic consumer in a culturally relevant way," she says.

Next page: Mexicans in Florida


Top Mexican Communities
Total Numbers
Community Mexicans
Jacksonville (Duval) 14,198
Immokalee (Collier) 11,983
Tampa (Hillsborough) 9,312
Homestead City (Miami-Dade) 7,898
Lehigh Acres (Lee) 7,464
Percent of Total Population
Community % of Mexicans
Fellsmere (Indian River) 79.0%
Zolfo Springs (Hardee) 70.0
Dover (Hillsborough) 61.0
Naples Manor (Collier) 59.0
Bowling Green (Hardee) 59.0
Florida 3.3
U.S. 10.3

Like his two brothers and many Mexicans before him, Daniel Naranjo came to Fellsmere to pick Indian River County's famous fruit. Born in Mexico, he came from California to Florida, married, had a son in Lee County and arrived in Fellsmere. He's done a lot of jobs: Worked in the groves, was a crew leader, packed fruit and drove a truck. For years now, he's been a plumber for a large Orlando contractor.

Through it all, he stuck to Fellsmere. He and his wife put down roots, raising their son and two daughters there. He has company. Fellsmere has the highest percentage of Mexican-Americans in Florida — 79% of the city population.

Florida's Hispanic population diverges from national averages noticeably when it comes to Mexicans, says University of Florida professor Philip J. Williams, director of the Center for Latin American Studies. Nationally, 10% of Americans are of Mexican origin; in Florida, only 3% are. In terms of just the Hispanic population, 63% of Hispanics nationally are of Mexican origin; in Florida, just 15% are. But their relative share is growing as is the share of Central and South Americans, Williams says.

The Mexican story in Florida historically was one of agricultural work with the major population clusters in rural agricultural areas such as LaBelle, Arcadia and Homestead. However, Mexicans have followed Naranjo's track, going from agriculture into construction. Landscaping is also a sector heavy with Mexicans. There is a trend of upper-income Mexicans hedging their bets on Mexico's future by acquiring second or third homes in Florida, opening businesses here and buying their way to permanent U.S. residency through the government's EB-5 visa investment program. And, of course, not all Mexicans in Florida pick fruit or pull the trigger on a nail gun. Gabriel Abaroa Jr., president and CEO of the Latin Recording Academy, the Latin Grammys, is of Mexican heritage and lives in Miami, as do broadcast journalists Jorge Ramos and California-born Maria Elena Salinas.

But the trajectory for many Florida Mexicans tracks more closely to Naranjo's.

Naranjo, 46, for a time served on the Fellsmere City Council. He worries about crowding in his kids' schools, but otherwise doesn't make any complaints. "I feel comfortable here," he says.

Next page: Nicaraguans in Florida


Top Nicaraguan Communities
Total Numbers
Community Nicaraguans
Miami (Miami-Dade) 31,371
Hialeah (Miami-Dade) 11,932
Fountainebleau (Miami-Dade) 6,335
Kendale Lakes (Miami-Dade) 3,909
Sweetwater (Miami-Dade) 3,895
Percent of Total Population
Community % of Nicaraguans
Sweetwater (Miami-Dade) 24.0%
Acacia Villas (Palm Beach) 20.0
Fountainebleau (Miami-Dade) 12.0
Stock Island (Monroe) 10.0
Hialeah Gardens (Miami-Dade) 9.7
Florida 0.7
U.S. 0.1

Early on a Friday evening, the Centro Comercial Managua in Sweetwater in west Miami-Dade is hopping. Drivers wait for spots to open in the tiny strip center as people dash into the farmacia or stop to pick up something to eat at La Fritanga, the Carne Asada Tortilleria Nica or La Chipiona Nicaraguan Bakery. It is said that every business in the center is owned by Nicaraguans. There's a public middle school and a park named for Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío down the road.

"Little Managua" isn't picturesque, but it is industrious. Sweetwater, across from Florida International University's main campus, lies west of Miami along famed Calle Ocho, Southwest 8th Street, the heart of Little Havana.

At 24%, according to the 2010 Census, Sweetwater has the highest percentage of Nicaraguans of any city or community in Florida.

The 32-year-old Nicaraguan-owned Los Ranchos Steakhouse, the first of what's grown into a four-restaurant operation offering predominantly Nicaraguan cuisine but also dishes catering to Cuban and other tastes, is another gathering spot. Its Sweetwater location bears witness to Miami-Dade diversity. Los Ranchos is catty-corner to a Salvadoran-owned restaurant, next door to an Indian grocer and just down from an Italian restaurant. At a table, Deborah Centeno, a relative of Los Ranchos' owners, outlines the popular history of Nicaraguan migration to Florida. The great wave, which included her parents, who own La Chipiona bakery, came with the fall of the Anastasio Somoza Debayle regime in 1979 and the rise of the Sandinista regime and Contra war. The immigrants chose Sweetwater, Fontainebleau next door and Little Havana because two area Catholic churches helped early refugees who then helped those who followed.

As with their Cuban predecessors, the first arrivals came from Nicaragua's upper classes, bringing what resources they could, says Barry University sociology professor Lisa Konczal, who has researched and written on Nicaraguans in Florida. They were followed by lower-class Nicaraguans seeking a better life outside the second-poorest country in the hemisphere, after Haiti. The earlier Cuban migration meant schools were ready to handle the influx of Nicaraguans, but Nicaraguans didn't enjoy the same access to citizenship that Cubans had and had a harder time progressing in U.S. society. Overall, though, Nicaraguans have been upwardly mobile in succeeding generations. Because it's very difficult for a Nicaraguan to get a U.S. visa, immigration has fallen off, Konczal says.

Later this month, Centeno, who came to Florida in 1985 at age 27 with an economics degree from the university in Managua, will try to become the only Nicaraguan-American on a city commission dominated by Cubans, who make up the largest single group in Sweetwater at 48%.

"I'm not looking for the Nica's share," she says. "I'm working for all American citizens, also for all the people. We realize the only way to help people is to be inside."