Political Face of Florida Latinos Changing
Puerto Rican Influx Gives Democrats Hope of Ending Cuban-GOP Dominance
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page A05
ORLANDO -- On the morning that two hijacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers, Antonio Adger decided to leave New York City for good. The next day, Sept. 12, 2001, he packed his belongings, rented a U-Haul and started driving from Brooklyn to a place just short of where land meets sea in sunny Central Florida.
Adger liked the blazing heat and how people on the street looked him in the eye, smiled and said hello. It was nothing like home, he said, except in one important sense: People he met were Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans, like himself. Many had left New York and Puerto Rico to settle in Orlando, Tampa and Lakeland.
"When Puerto Ricans meet other Puerto Ricans, they bond," Adger said recently at his apartment in Tampa.
He joined what Puerto Rican activists are calling "the Florida phenomenon," a migration to the heart of the Sunshine State along the snaking Interstate 4 corridor. Drawn by cheaper housing, better schools and the tropical climate, Puerto Ricans are helping to remake Central Florida culturally -- and, Democrats hope, politically.
Angelo Falcon, a senior policy analyst for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, said the movement of Puerto Ricans, who tend to vote for Democrats, could "offset the Cuban vote," which almost uniformly has gone to conservatives who promise to continue isolating the communist government of Fidel Castro.
If the migration continues at its current pace, Puerto Ricans -- along with Dominicans and Colombians, who are also migrating to Florida in droves -- could become the more dominant force in Florida's landscape.
According to the census, 241,000 Puerto Ricans were living in Florida in 1990. Ten years later, the number was 482,000. This year, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Washington-based Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration estimated that more than 650,000 Puerto Ricans live in the state, most of them in Central Florida.
Florida's Cuban population, by comparison, was 833,000, according to the 2000 Census. Conservative Cubans helped George W. Bush win Florida that year by 537 votes. The state has an additional 1 million Latinos who are neither Puerto Rican nor Cuban.
"That group of voters, this emerging non-Cuban vote that is centered in Orlando and Tampa and to a certain extent South Florida, is becoming one of the most important battlegrounds in Florida," said Sergio Bendixen, a pollster who specializes in monitoring the state's Latino vote.
Latino voters' party affiliations may be less rigid than commonly perceived, warned Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, during a NALEO conference in Washington last month. Puerto Ricans in Central Florida, Vargas said, voted overwhelmingly for Florida's Republican governor, Jeb Bush, in 2002.
But Leobardo F. Estrada, a demographer at the University of California at Los Angeles who shared a podium with Vargas at the conference, said, "The tensions are real."
"The Cubans have dominated the local political scene for so long, and are clearly the most powerful group," Estrada said. "But other [Latino] groups are bent differently. They want people to stop talking about Cuba and start talking about issues.
"The further you are from Dade County and Miami, the stronger the anti-Cuban sentiment. By the time you get to Tallahassee, you hear people say, 'Don't believe what you hear in South Florida.' "
In the 1950s, Puerto Ricans were the Latin face of New York, whereas the Cuban community barely existed. They sparked the Latino civil rights movement on the East Coast after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. "Nuyoricans," as New York Puerto Ricans are called, inspired the play "West Side Story" and produced two current pop icons, singers Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Nidza Vazquez of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration prepares for a voter registration drive in Kissimmee.
(Photos Ed Sackett -- Orlando Sentinel)