Note: This story is based on interviews conducted earlier this year but never before published.
María T. Padilla
The guagua aérea has changed its destination from the Big Apple to the palm shores of Florida, where 1 million Puerto Ricans now live – slightly less than in all of New York state and equal to about one-third of the entire population of Puerto Rico, according to the latest census figures.
For many Central Floridians the trend means more people with which to speak Spanish, and a warm and welcoming culture. For others, the growing population of Puerto Ricans produces anxiety, worry and the desire for more political activism.
Pro or con, Florida is the new heart of the boricua diaspora in the United States. It’s where planeloads of guaguas aérea keep landing, a reference to a well-known 1993 movie based on the book of the same name by Luis Rafael Sánchez. Central Florida, generally defined as a six-county area, is the place where experts and others forecast the future of the Puerto Rican diaspora is likely to unfold.
“Central Florida definitely is the new epicenter of Puerto Ricans,” said Betsy Franceschini, regional director of the Central Florida office of the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA), which reopened offices here in 2013 after being closed for several years due to budget cuts. Each year PRFAA helps thousands of migrants looking for area jobs, housing and schools.
The Flavor of Puerto Rico in Orlando
The flavor of Puerto Rico is never too far from sight or smell almost anywhere in Central Florida, with the aroma of lechón asado at La Lechonera El Jibarito in Kissimmee, the visual art of the Arte Borikua gallery in Orlando and domino tournaments at the Domino USA club in Orlando. For 20 years, the city has hosted a Puerto Rican parade, which recently moved south to Kissimmee under new organizers. Since the late 1970s, Puerto Ricans have had their own club, the Asociación Borinqueña, which in 2004 built a now iconic headquarters with a garita in east Orlando. (The club lost control of the building last year to New York nonprofit Acacia Network.) Florida also counts its own Puerto Rican Bar Association and Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, among other institutions.
How’d this happen after 100 years of a Puerto Rican New York state of mind?
Puerto Ricans have had a decades-long presence in Florida, beginning with wealthy migrants to South Florida in the 1940s to establish a sugar refinery, according to Puerto Ricans in Orlando and Central Florida, co-authored by Jorge Duany and Felix V. Matos-Rodriguez, and published by El Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños in New York (2006).
It would take more than 20 years for Puerto Ricans to arrive in Central Florida, lured by cheap and sometimes undevelopable swamp land or other cases affordable housing in areas such as Deltona, north of Orlando.
The construction of Walt Disney World in 1971 generated greater Puerto Rican migration and investment here. My own father, who migrated from Puerto Rico to New York in the 1940s then returned to Puerto Rico in the late 1960s, owns an “inaccessible” tract of land in Frostproof, Polk County, that he bought in the 1977 and refuses to sell.
Fast forward to today, and the Puerto Rican population in Florida is growing eight times faster than that of New York’s. In fact, the Puerto Rican population of New York City, the historical center of island migration to the states, has fallen to second place, behind Dominicans, now the largest Hispanic group in New York City, according to an El Centro report published late last year.
The pipeline of Puerto Ricans to Florida flows not only from New York (and other northern states), but also from the island, where an economic recession – now in its ninth year – continues to send planeloads of people to the Sunshine State and also to Texas and North Carolina, among other states.
“This great influx of Puerto Ricans to Florida is based on three factors: the desire to improve their economic situation, family pressure from those who have already established themselves here and invite relatives, offering them a home until they find a job; and those who are looking for a change,” said Zulma Vélez Estrada of Orlando, who last year ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Florida Legislature.
Many Orlando Ricans, as we are now called, have big aspirations. While Florida’s population of Puerto Ricans is not as politically entrenched or organized as New York City’s, it has already sent six Puerto Ricans to the state legislature, all from the Orlando area.
Puerto Ricans are helping to define Central Florida as the political swing part of the state, and thus the battle for the hearts and minds of Puerto Ricans in Orlando is fierce.
Juan Hernández Mayoral, the head of PRFAA, has said for years he wants the next Puerto Rican congressional representative to come from Orlando, joining New York Cong. Nydia Velázquez and Chicago Cong. Luis Gutiérrez in Washington.
Velázquez and Gutiérrez, both Puerto Rican Democrats, regularly visit Orlando, and try to influence local politics. Gutierrez visited in March to talk up immigration reform. They are joined by others, such as former Puerto Rico governors Rafael Hernández Colón and Carlos Romero Barceló, who campaigned for Barack Obama in Central Florida in 2012. Former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño did the same for Mitt Romney.
Late last year a group favoring Puerto Rico statehood launched a campaign in Orlando, disclosing that more than two-thirds of Puerto Ricans along the Interstate 4 want island statehood. Earlier this year Puerto Rican law student Phillip Arroyo of Orlando generated publicity here and in Puerto Rico by launching a movement to gain the presidential vote for Puerto Ricans on the island.
Businesses Follow Customers
But it’s not just in the political arena where Puerto Ricans show potential. Island businesses have followed their customers to Florida with mixed results. Puerto Rico’s dominant newspaper El Nuevo Día published an Orlando edition for five years before it closed. Banco Popular, long known to Puerto Ricans on the island, New York and Chicago, also opened branches here but closed them last year in a financial restructuring. Universities such as Sistema Universitario Ana G. Méndez and Polytechnic University, both of Puerto Rico, have had more success with local campuses.
To be sure, some Puerto Ricans have experienced difficulty making the transition to Orlando. Pressured by Puerto Ricans and others, the city of Orlando opened a “welcome” office called HOLA over 10 years ago to provide information to new Spanish-speaking migrants, similar to what PRFAA does today.
“I get anxiety,” said Carmen Colón of Orlando, who originally is from Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. “Each day more arrive and people still don’t speak of the reality of living here.”
Low-Wage Service Economy
Colón and others worry that, unlike New York City, Orlando is a low-wage, service economy where theme parks like Walt Disney World are the largest employers. Unlike New York City, the population here is spread out and a car is a necessity. And, unlike in predominantly Hispanic Miami, English is still required to get ahead in Orlando.
Most Puerto Ricans, however, shrug their shoulders, saying that the guagua aérea has left the gate. Puerto Ricans will continue coming to the new mecca that is Orlando.