Dueling numbers on Puerto Rican migration since the hurricanes hit have generated questions about the actual numbers who have landed in Florida.
Puerto Rican evacuees in Florida have surpassed the 200,000 mark, according to Gov. Rick Scott’s office in a press release dated November 29 that cites the number of arrivees since October 3. But the figures beg for more scrutiny and explanation of – not because things are markedly better in Puerto Rico. They are not. Electric power is still an on-and-off thing, as is water, and many schools remain closed. Not because it’s impossible for so many people to have left on a jet plane. It is not.
In fact, the Puerto Rican migration hit historic highs even before the twin hurricanes of Irma and María set the island back 30 years, with about 500,000 leaving since the Great Recession, according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in New York.
The migration numbers require closer inspection because they seem impossibly high. While it is true the Florida is seeing an influx of Puerto Ricans post Hurricane María, is it likely that over 200,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida in just two months? The state estimates do not compute with other forecasts, such as by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.
Of course, “real” numbers won’t be available until the census counts head by head, nose by nose, an exercise that is over two years away. Let’s do some adding and subtracting for argument’s sake.
Puerto Ricans’ flight from natural disaster is drawing parallels to the 1980 Cuban Mariel boat lift to South Florida but this is a flawed comparison. The Puerto Rican evacuation is no Mariel.
Aside from the obvious differences of sovereignty – Cuba is independent and Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States – the two population movements are different in small and significant ways.
But first, the similarities.The recent Puerto Rican migration is most like the Mariel boat lift in the audacity of its numbers: 125,000 Cubans fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba over a six-month period from April to October 1980 via the port of Mariel west of Havana, braving the shark-infested Straits of Florida often on rickety boats.
Cubans were escaping a failed economy – no jobs, no housing – just as Puerto Ricans are running away with little but their clothes from the near total collapse of Puerto Rico – no economy, no infrastructure (electricity, water), no schools, no medical care, damaged roads and housing.
But there the comparison ends.
Puerto Rico – Mariel Comparison
For the Puerto Rican migration to Florida is more intense, currently at over 143,000-strong in just over a month. It is also more dispersed, with Puerto Ricans arriving all over the state, not just South Florida, as happened under Mariel. More Puerto Ricans are on the way, as post-hurricane conditions on the island defy improvement and people no longer tolerate the wait for normal.
Back in April 1980, Cubans crashed the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana and took refuge inside, followed by thousands of others in a matter of days. Weeks later, Castro opened the port of Mariel, stating anybody who wanted to leave could do so – a first.
In contrast, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has clung to Puerto Ricans for dear life, understanding full well the dire financial and demographic implications of a continuing stream of people abandoning economically-troubled Puerto Rico for the states.
He grossly overestimated his and his cabinet’s ability to grapple with the disaster and rapidly improve conditions on the ground. In an irresponsible move, Rosselló took over 40 days following Hurricane María to request federal temporary housing assistance (known as TSA) for the worse-impacted island residents, perhaps fearing that TSA would throw open the migration floodgates.
It’s High Tide
But he couldn’t turn back the tide. About 100,000 Puerto Ricans are expected in Florida by year’s end – on top of the more than 143,000 who have already arrived, according to Gov. Rick Scott’s office. In fact, this week the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offered to airlift Puerto Ricans off the island to New York, Florida and elsewhere. And the Center for Puerto Rican studies in New York estimates between 114,000 and 213,000 residents may leave the island each year in the hurricane aftermath, with Florida a primary destination.
The great debate is on: How many Puerto Ricans will migrate from the island to Florida over the next year? That is much on the minds of everyone from Central Florida to Puerto Rico, from everyday people to politicians.
“More are coming?” remarked a non Hispanic white stranger to a friend who was wearing a tee-shirt that stated “Florirican,” a new term, much like “Orlando Rican,” which we’ll be hearing more often in the days and weeks to come.
Volunteering at a phone bank, I spoke with about a dozen families in Puerto Rico who were interested in relocating to Florida, most deeply worried about medical care they aren’t getting for themselves or loved ones, including cancer treatment and dialysis. Some had lived in Florida before.
Others are upset about the prospects of no work for months. “I can’t earn money here,” said one man whose wife had given birth to a boy two weeks ago. A woman said, “I work as a [private] physical therapist but I have no work now.”
A young mother of three explained that the children’s father was helping to relocate the family. She didn’t seem daunted by the approximate $3,000 price tag of first and last month’s rent plus security deposit for an Central Florida apartment.
Puerto Rico businesses continue to follow their flock of customers to Florida as island economic conditions squeeze Puerto Ricans.
Ana G. Mendez and Polytechnic universities established themselves in Orlando several years ago. Most recently, wholesale food distributor Titan, home decor retailer Casa Febus and El Mesón restaurant have opened for business in Central Florida.
A new name may be added to these businesses: Empresas Fonalledas, the retail developers of Plaza Las Américas, the retail mall in San Juan that is the largest in the Caribbean and the 15th largest by square footage in all of the United States, with over 2 million square feet of retail space. The mall houses well-known American retailers such as JC Penney (the largest one in the world, by the way, at four stories), Macy’s, Michael Kors, Brooks Brothers and Carolina Herrera, to name a few.The mall is so well known it’s simply known as “Plaza.”
Top-level officials of the family-owned business – including President Jaime Fonalledas – paid a visit to Kissimmee, according to Mayor José Alvarez who later wrote on Facebook:
“I had a very productive meeting today at City Hall. We hosted Mr. Jaime Fonalledas, Luis Fonalledas and Cesar Segarra. “Mr. Jaime Fonalledas, is the President of Empresas Fonalledas, Inc. Empresas Fonalledas Inc., is the management company of the group of family held companies which own Plaza Las Américas, the largest shopping mall in the Caribbean and one of the top retail and entertainment venues in the United States. Empresas Fonalledas Inc., also has holdings in dairy cattle operations, milk processing plants, non-dairy food industries, plastics manufacturing, real estate ventures, and retail. Generating more than 10,000 jobs in total, Empresas Fonalledas companies include Plaza del Caribe, Vaqueria Tres Monjitas, Ganaderia Tres Monjitas and franchises in the Puerto Rico market of Starbucks and Soft & Creamy.”
It’s still unclear what Empresas Fonalledas may launch in Kissimmee, but nabbing the Fonalledas would be like hooking a great white whale. The Fonalledas are among the wealthiest families in Puerto Rico and big donors to the Republican Party. In fact, Zoraida Fonalledas, Jaime’s spouse, has been a speaker or presenter at GOP conventions. (She was once booed.)
Empress Fonalledas, ranked the island’s No. 1 service sector company by Caribbean Business, spent nearly $1.7 million on lobbying during legislation for the unpopular PROMESA bill, which Congress approved to manage Puerto Rico’s then $72 billion debt crisis, according to a Noticel article that quoted OpenSecrets.org.
PROMESA’s austerity measures coupled with an ongoing 10-year old economic recession is profoundly changing Puerto Rico. Today there are more Puerto Ricans residing stateside – over 5 million, including Puerto Ricans born in the states – than on the island, with 3.4 million people.
Kissimmee and Osceola County now are home to the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans in Florida. And it makes business sense to follow the flock to Florida as the island, sadly, empties of young, working-age families with consumer dollars to spend.
The pull of brand names and fond memories is strong. Puerto Ricans are excited to seek out the brands they recognize. On a recent visit to Orlando my Jacksonville-based mom couldn’t wait to eat at El Mesón, known for its fat sandwiches on pan criollo.
However, the retail environment in Florida and the states is more challenging, forcing the closure of anchor stores as well as malls. Fashion Square and Oviedo are two area malls that have been impacted.
Still, what Empresas Fonalledas decides opts to do in Osceola County aimed at the Puerto Rican community will be well worth watching.