By Suset Laboy
2014 marked a watershed moment in the history of Puerto Ricans in the United States. Florida became the second state in the nation with a million Puerto Ricans, right behind New York. The current migratory wave, which is as substantial as that of the 50s, has left more Puerto Ricans living stateside. At Centro, we have been researching and reporting on this migratory trend for some time now, including on the recent data released by the American Community Survey confirming a million Puerto Ricans in Florida. The numbers suggest and continue to suggest important questions—What does the data mean for Florida’s cultural, economic, and social makeup; for U.S. Puerto Ricans more generally? We reached out to two academics and a seasoned journalist in the state for their insights. We share their responses below:
The makeup of Puerto Ricans in Florida is quite diverse, combining longtime residents with newcomers both from other states and Puerto Rico.
Jorge Duany, an anthropologist and Director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, sketched the panorama of Puerto Ricans in the state, explaining, “According to 2013 census estimates, 40.5% of all Puerto Ricans in Florida were born on the island, and most of the rest were born in one of the fifty United States. This is one of the greatest sources of internal differentiation within the Puerto Rican population, as it tends to coincide with generation, age, and language preferences, as well as prior lived experiences of migration and resettlement. Another major source of diversity is the socioeconomic composition of the community, given the wide range of occupational, income, and educational characteristics of Puerto Ricans in Florida. The presence of a well-educated, bilingual group of managers and professionals is a distinctive feature of the recent Puerto Rican exodus to Florida, although the idea of a ‘brain drain’ may be exaggerated. The majority of Puerto Ricans in Florida actually work in sales, office, service, and blue-collar occupations. Lastly, the population is fractured along racial lines, with a majority of those coming from the island defining themselves as white, while many of those coming from other parts of the United States describe themselves as neither white nor black, but as members of ‘some other race.’”
Expanding on the question of the diversity of Puerto Ricans in Florida, Fernando I. Rivera, a sociologist at the University of Central Florida, teased out several of the groups that make up Puerto Ricans in the state: “I would say that there are several groups within the Puerto Rican population in Florida. One group is the native ‘FloriRicans,’ those that have been here for several years and have seen the growth and development of Florida, particularly the Central Florida region. This population encompasses Puerto Ricans in Miami, Tampa, and other areas of Florida, particularly areas with military bases.
“The second group is those from the Northeast that have followed the patterns of movement of other populations from this region. This group of ‘Nuyoricans’ find Florida attractive due to the lower cost of living, warmth, and access to Puerto Rican/Caribbean culture. By far this group has been more active in representing Puerto Ricans in different Florida institutions such as politics, business, education, philanthropy, and art.
“The third group is the ‘Islandricans’ which represent those migrating directly from Puerto Rico. This group is reminiscent of life in Puerto Rico and has provided different venues to reproduce the experience of growing up in Puerto Rico. From establishing ‘lechoneras,’ specialty barber shops, music festivals and concerts, and other cultural expressions. Several fraternities and sororities from the Puerto Rican Greek system have established chapters in Florida and are actively trying to reunite and socialize with members living in Florida.
“The last group are the ones on the move, these Puerto Ricans have lived in Puerto Rico, the northeast, Florida, and other places. They tend to move seeking better economic opportunities and will follow those opportunities whatever it takes them.”
The jury is still out on whether the diversity of groups will produce a cohesive Floridian Puerto Rican identity like those produced in earlier migratory waves.
Puerto Rican Identity in Florida
Both Duany and Rivera agreed that it is perhaps too soon to determine the direction a Puerto Rican identity, if one is to be formed, will take in Florida. “In my opinion, each group holds on to their unique identity, for instance, island Puerto Ricans discuss cultural, political, and events of Puerto Rico, rather than those in Florida or the US,” explained Rivera. “Other groups hang on to their particular experiences, but I don’t feel that a unique Floridian Puerto Rican has emerged. Obviously, there are some artists and musicians that celebrate their Puerto Rican heritage. But, there is no apparent Floridian Puerto Rican identity, at least not expressed uniformly across all the Puerto Rican groups living in Florida. Nonetheless this is bound to change. The continuous growth of the Puerto Rican population, particularly an upcoming generation that has grown up in Florida is likely to come up with a new identity that speaks to the experience of growing up Puerto Rican in Florida.
Duany concurs that the current diverse makeup makes it “difficult for Puerto Ricans of various backgrounds to come together as ‘FloriRicans,’ beyond the criteria of birthplace, language, race, and class.” For him, “It remains to be seen whether a broader sense of Puerto Rican identity will emerge in Florida, as distinct from other diasporic settlements, such as New York City, Chicago, or Philadelphia. For now, Puerto Ricans seem to be finding their place within the growing Latino presence in Florida, particularly in Orlando, Tampa, and Miami, and negotiating their differences and similarities with Cubans, Mexicans, Colombians, and other Hispanics, with whom they interact frequently in multiple settings in their neighborhoods, jobs, schools, electoral campaigns, and other public spaces.”
And yet, although it remains to be seen whether a strong Puerto Rican identity, one that parallels those that evolved in earlier migratory waves in Chicago and New York, will emerge, the increase of Puerto Ricans in the state does impact Florida’s cultural development. As Duany said, “The spectacular growth of the Puerto Rican population in Florida over the past few decades has multiple demographic, economic, political, and cultural repercussions. In particular, the large Puerto Rican concentration in Central Florida has reshaped the cultural landscape of the Orlando metropolitan area, where Puerto Ricans represent more than half of all Hispanics. Cultural organizations serving this population will face the challenge of a diverse and widely dispersed community with strong ties both to the Island and other diasporic communities throughout the United States, especially from northeastern states such as New York and New Jersey. A delicate issue is the use of Spanish or English as the main language of communication by voluntary associations reaching out to first and second-generation Puerto Ricans. Another challenge is to join forces with other Latino communities in Florida, such as Cubans, Mexicans, and Central and South Americans. At present, allegiance to a pan-ethnic identity such as Hispanic or Latino seems weaker than to national origin among Puerto Ricans. Finally, the question of community empowerment through electoral representation is now more urgent than ever, as Puerto Ricans are still grossly underrepresented at the county, city, and state levels throughout Florida.
Puerto Ricans in Florida have the potential to impact politics
On this issue of politics, long-time Florida resident and seasoned journalist Maria Padilla said, “Many politicians—both locally, as well as at a state and national level—have noticed that Puerto Ricans are a pretty large population in Florida, and that these numbers will have much political weight, particularly because Puerto Ricans [as U.S. citizens] don’t face many obstacles for voting, and tend to vote Democrat. Meanwhile, Cubans, the largest group of Hispanics in Florida, tend to vote Republican (although that too is changing). That said, there’s a war in Florida between Democrats and Republicans for the hearts, minds, and votes of Puerto Ricans.”
Padilla cautions, however, that the new voting power of Puerto Ricans does not come without challenges. As she observes, Puerto Rican migrants from the island may face difficulties when voting in the state.
“In Florida, you vote every year for one seat or another. On the island, you only vote every four years, and you place an X on the top part of your ballot to vote a straight party ticket. According to the Comisión de Elecciones in Puerto Rico, the majority of votes are straight party tickets. There’s no such thing here. During presidential elections, Puerto Ricans have no issues voting. They go out and vote. In non-presidential elections, the participation of Puerto Ricans in the electoral process suffers.” It remains to be seen whether this pattern will evolve as the population deepens its roots in the state.
On the Future of Puerto Rican in Florida
Looking to what the one million milestone may mean for the future of Florida and of Puerto Ricans in Florida, Professor Fernando I. Rivera said, “There are several ways to analyze the impact of the milestone: First, this represents a particularly strong political position for Puerto Ricans to determine the next presidential election. It widens the efforts of several grassroots and other organizations to get Puerto Ricans to vote and participate in the electoral process. This opportunity has the potential to allow Puerto Ricans to be at the forefront of the U.S. political landscape.
“Second, the million milestone could also greatly expand the presence and influence of the different cultural organizations already in place throughout the state of Florida. Cultural events such as the Puerto Rican Day Parade are being celebrated throughout the state and Florida has become almost a mandatory stop for Puerto Rican artists such as Marc Anthony, Chayanne, Menudo, and others.
“Third, this milestone accelerates the process of recognizing the cultural and social contributions of Puerto Ricans (and other Hispanic groups) in Florida. For instance, offices such as the city of Orlando HOLA (Hispanic Office of Local Assistance) office, which provides information and referral services to bilingual residents, continues to expand its services and mission due to the migration of Puerto Ricans to Central Florida.
“Fourth, there are increasing efforts in the business community that utilize culture as the main venue to attract customers to Puerto Rican brands and products. There is a recognition that there is a cultural need for Puerto Rican products and services that simply can’t keep up with the demand. Thus, there are several Puerto Rican chambers of commerce through the state that, alongside other chambers of commerce, have established partnerships with Puerto Rican companies to bring their products and services to Florida. One example that comes to my mind was the recent opening of El Meson restaurant (a Puerto Rican sandwich restaurant) at the Florida Mall in Orlando. During the first days there were long lines and the support for it was tremendous.
“Lastly, the milestone signifies that the Puerto Ricans are here to stay and there is the necessity to establish social and cultural institutions to make sure that Puerto Ricans continue to strive and contribute to Floridian society.”
The future is bright for Puerto Ricans in Florida; the direction, while still up for grabs, is sure to be remembered as an important period for the history of our entire community in the United States.