Puerto Ricans

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Many Latinos Among Gay Club Victims

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Francisco Hernández of Orlando waits outside Orlando Police Department headquarters to hear word about his partner Paul Henry. He was holding Henry’s driver’s license for safe keeping. /Maria Padilla

The Orlando area woke up Sunday to the horrific news that a shootout had occurred at Pulse, a gay club just south of Downtown Orlando, where law enforcement said there were 50 dead and at least 53 injured. Because the club was holding a Latin night, many of the dead and injured are expected to be Latinos.

As of this writing, six victims have been identified, all of them Hispanic. And since half of the Hispanic population of Central Florida is Puerto Rican, the group is likely to figure, perhaps prominently, among the victims. The dead thus far are Edward Sotomayor Jr., Stanley Almodóvar III,  Luis Omar Ocasio-Capó, Juan Ramón Guerrero, Eric Iván Ortiz-Rivera and Peter O. González-Cruz.

The incident has been declared the worse shooting in American history – and certainly in Orlando, where just 24 hours earlier The Voice contestant Christina Grimmie was shot and killed by an assailant unknown to her at a theater east of Downtown Orlando. It was an Orlando weekend of unusual deadly violence.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer wipes the sweat from his brow as he confers with law enforcement officials. / Maria Padilla

Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Florida, a move that immediately opens up financial resources among law enforcement to be used in the investigation, which includes FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Orange County Sheriffs Office and the Orlando Police. The FBI identified the assailant as Omar Mateen, 29, of Port St. Lucie, about two hours from Orlando. He was killed in a gun battle with police inside the club, and is believed to have had terrorist ties.

Everybody Was Dancing

The shooting started about 2:05 a.m. Sunday just as the club, where over 300 people had gathered, was about to close. Many bar patrons at first thought it was part of the  music or entertainment.

Francisco Hernández, 24, of Orlando was waiting outside the Orlando Police Department headquarters to hear word about his partner Paul Henry, 40, and told this account:

“I was dancing. We were all dancing in a little group. It was Latino night so they were playing reggaeton and hip-hop,” said Hernández crying as he told what occurred inside the club. “All of  a sudden I heard four to five shots. Everybody just sort of toppled down and stayed on the floor. Then we heard more shots and everybody started running and ducking for cover. People opened up the exit doors leading to a hallway with thin paneling and everybody tried to knock it down. I fell and almost got trampled until I was able to stand up and run outside. I was looking for my boyfriend but I couldn’t go back.”

Hernández, who was born in Puerto Rico, was holding on to his partner’s drivers license to make sure it didn’t get lost. “We were together for about a month but knew each other as friends for about  a year,” he said.

Meanwhile, Luis, 40, a Dominican who studied in Puerto Rico, was grazed by a passing  bullet near his stomach and was covered with a blanket that Orlando Police gave him, he said, because he had given his shirt to another person to stanch a bleeding arm.

Trying to Pay His Tab

Luis, who lives in Kissimmee but didn’t want to give his full name, said he was paying his tab at the bar when shots rang out. Somehow he landed on the other side of the bar with two to three people on top of him, he recalled. “I was waiting to be shot or taken out. What else can I do?” Luis said.

He had just been to the movies with friends to see The Conjuring 2, a horror movie, when they decided to stop at Pulse off Orange Avenue because they were passing by, coming face to face with an all too real horror. He said his friend is fine but didn’t know the status other acquaintances at Pulse nightclub, which he hadn’t visited in three years.

Locked in the Bathroom

Two African-America women were walking toward Orlando Regional Medical Center (ORMC) to look for one of the women’s nephew who was at the club. The aunt, who said she was a member of the Justice-Logan family of Orlando, didn’t know if her nephew was “alive or dead.” The nephew called his mom after 2 a.m. to say he was holed up in the bathroom of the nightclub. According to the aunt, the mother could hear gunshots as her son was talking then the cell phone went silent.  “I’ve been up since 3 a.m.,” the aunt said, trying to obtain information.

Blocks around Pulse nightclub were cordoned off as medical examiner vans and law enforcement took over the area. The nightclub is situated just blocks from ORMC, which is a Level 1 trauma center. Hospital officials said six trauma surgeons were called in during the night to tend to the injured.

The media set up camp at a Chipotle restaurant off Orange Avenue that couldn’t open for business because it  is just a few blocks from the crime scene. There, law enforcement and elected officials briefed the press about every two to three hours.

The first press briefings comprised mostly law enforcement officials but by early afternoon city,  state and federal elected officials were holding press conferences of their own before a press pool that had expanded to include national and international media.

Hostage Situation

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Vans from the Orange County Medical Examiner stationed a few blocks from the crime scene. /Maria Padilla

Law enforcement spoke of a three-hour window – from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. – during which officers couldn’t enter the club because it was a hostage situation. At 5 a.m. police stormed the club and a gun battle ensued, killing the assailant Mateen. In addition to a handgun and a semiautomatic rifle with extra rounds,  a “suspicious device” also was found with Mateen, according to the FBI, which declined to elaborate.

Minutes before the attack, Mateen called 911 to pledge his allegiance to Islamic State, according to law enforcement. It’s not clear how long Mateen may have been inside Pulse before he started shooting.

Congressman Alan Grayson (D-Orlando) said during an interview with public radio WMFE-90.7 FM that Mateen’s father said his son was incensed over seeing a gay couple kiss.

Osceola County Has Most Latino Political Candidates

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The Osceola County seal.

Osceola County has the most Latinos running for local office, a reflection of the coming of age of the Hispanic population as well as a steep rise in its population.

Of the approximately 42 Hispanics who are running for office in Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties, half are in Osceola County, which from 2005 to 2014 has seen an 82 percent jump in Hispanics, to reach about 92,000. In comparison, Orange County’s Latino population rose 52 percent – no small percentage – significantly below Osceola’s rate of growth. In Seminole the Hispanic population has expanded 39 percent between 2009 and 2014 (figures for earlier than 2009 were not available).

Part 2 of Latino candidate for office, therefore, focuses on Osceola. The number of candidates may change once the qualifying period expires later this month. Watch for Part 3 of Latinos running for local office, which will include Orange County. Click to read about the Osceola County Latino political candidates.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

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Puerto Rico Crisis Offers Business Opportunities

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Puerto Rico economic opportunities were discussed at the Hispanic Business Conference & Expo this week.  / Maria Padilla

Every fiasco creates opportunity, if people care to look carefully. That was the message of a panel discussion about the Puerto Rico financial crisis held this week at the Hispanic Business Conference and Expo in Orlando.

The island’s many problems are known to Central Floridians, tens of thousands of whom have fled Puerto Rico to settle here. But the business panelists pointed out that positive things are also happening on the island.

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Moderator Rafael Lama (standing), Carlos López Lay, Sonia Colón and Gustavo Vélez discuss Puerto Rico economic potential during the Hispanic Business Conference. /Maria Padilla

“The other side of the situation in Puerto Rico is that not everything is going bad,” said Gustavo Vélez, president of Inteligencia Económica, an economic consulting firm based in San Juan. “Over the last 200 years, Puerto Rico has been restructuring itself – from coffee production in the 1800s to becoming a pharmaceutical hub in the region” until 1996, when federal tax credits were eliminated and eventually phased out.

Carlos López Lay, owner of a Puerto Rico auto parts business, was even cheerier, explaining he formed a movement titled “Yo no me quito,” or We Don’t Quit, to demonstrate islanders’ resilience in the face of a 10-year economic decline and the island’s inability to pay its mountain of debt.

“There are people in the community doing extraordinary things in Puerto Rico,” López said, adding “Yo no me quito, ustedes tampoco y vamos por más.”

The social media movement, with reportedly over 25,000 followers, came under criticism earlier this year as a dig at Puerto Ricans who “abandon” the island during its time of need for other parts of the U.S. It’s a big, ongoing discussion that includes hurtful and sometimes hateful epithets. (I wish I had saved some comments from a particularly vitriolic discussion. Next time, readers.)

López  said that’s not what he meant. People in the states are the patria extendida or extended country, he said.

Puerto Rico is an impoverished U.S. territory that has a century-old history of migration. For generations it has had a conflicted relationship with those who leave, mostly poor islanders. Today’s migrants are better educated but no less stigmatized. For their part, migrants demonstrate affection for the island – there are political protests and other activity on behalf of the island taking place here each week – even if they weren’t born in Puerto Rico and even when there’s little reciprocity.

The panelists are correct – there’s always opportunity in every storm. For instance, Puerto Rican businesses have been following their customers to Central Florida for years, a trend that has accelerated as the island economy has tanked.

The island newspaper El Nuevo Día, whose business editor Rafael Lama moderated the panel, published a special edition this week highlighting nine island companies that have successfully set up shop in Central Florida.

But the discussion did come off as if Puerto Rico’s business community doesn’t get how the ground game has devastated middle- and low-income households. And how Central Florida is picking up the detritus, educating and orienting newcomers about how things are done here.

“We don’t do business here like in Puerto Rico,” commented Rick Hernández of Winter Springs, a Central Floridian for 35 years. “I’ve seen eight companies that have gone back to Puerto Rico.”

A frustrated State Rep. John Cortés (D-Dist. 43) said, “I’m tired of the talk and no action. People have to get more involved.”

The panelists agreed.

“We need to integrate into the big Hispanic market in Central Florida,” said attorney Sonia Colón, whose law firm Ferraiuoli LLC has opened offices in Orlando.

Vélez, the economist, closed, “We need to have a new way of doing things” on the island.

The Hispanic Business Conference, sponsored by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Orlando, is being held at the Orange County Convention Center-North Concourse and  runs through Saturday, when the vendor exhibit area is open free to the public.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

Who Is the Puerto Rican Migrant?

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Prof. Carlos Vargas-Ramos of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, sketched a profile of the Puerto Rican migrant. /photo by Maria Padilla

More than 440,000 Puerto Ricans have left Puerto Rico since an economic recession hit the island in 2006 and which hasn’t relented.

As is well documented, Florida has become the No. 1 destination for migrants, boosting the Sunshine State’s Puerto Rican population to over 1 million – and growing.

But who is taking up residence in Florida and how does that migrant compare with the Puerto Rican who stays behind?

That was the subject of a presentation at the seventh annual Puerto Rican Summit in Orlando, where scores of Puerto Ricans gathered to hear academic and other experts discuss migration trends and the island’s fiscal crisis.

Profile of the Puerto Rican Migrant

Carlos Vargas-Ramos, professor at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies affiliated with Hunter College in New York (centropr.hunter.cuny.edu), sketched a profile of the Puerto Rican newcomer by the numbers:


Puerto Ricans who left the island since 2006 are concentrated in just eight Central Florida counties.

• 50-50

Gender split among migrants, a major difference compared with, say, Mexican immigration, which is mostly male. The Puerto Rican migrant wants to keep the family together, Vargas said.


Participate in the Florida labor force, versus just 40 percent on the island, a significant difference.


Migrants with Bachelor’s degrees versus 28 percent in Puerto Rico.

The island is hollowing out, Vargas said. “It is the middle section of Puerto Rican economy that is leaving,” he noted.

That leaves Puerto Rico with higher- and lower-income population groups but not enough taxpaying middle income-earning households. And it’s also creating a downward spiral in many towns, where deaths now outnumber births or migration.

Reshaping Central Florida

Conversely, the nearly 150,000 Puerto Ricans who have resettled in Florida since 2006 are reshaping the local economy and politics. (The figure doesn’t include record Puerto Rico migration in 2015, according to preliminary reports.)

For instance, Florida’s unemployment rate was 4.9 percent in March – a much lower 4.2 percent in Orange County – approaching what economists call “full employment.” That means people who want to work have jobs, leaving positions unfilled because there aren’t enough people to apply. Enter the Puerto Rican migrant.

In the political sphere, Hispanic voter registration means that for the first time more Hispanics are registered to vote in Osceola County than nonHispanic whites (43 percent vs. 41 percent, as of February), which may impact elections if Hispanics exercise their vote.

But according to Vargas, Puerto Ricans generally have lower election participation rates, “leaving votes on the table.”

The Puerto Rican Summit, held at the DoubleTree by Hilton at SeaWorld, is organized by Dynamic CDC, a Miami-based economic development group that seeks to “create a vision for a greater Puerto Rican community in the U.S.”

Summit founder Luis De Rosa and others drafted a letter directed to White House and congressional leaders urging action to stem the financial and demographic bleeding in Puerto Rico, which is carrying over $72 billion in debt it cannot repay.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor