Inside Puerto Rico’s Cafe, a small and dimly lit restaurant on a main thoroughfare in Kissimmee, Fla., the aromas of sofrito, frying plantains and roasting meats waft from the kitchen toward the dining room. Salsa music plays from the speakers while groups of diners chat over heaping plates of typical island fare.Such restaurants and bakeries have become common throughout Kissimmee and Orlando, spurred by the growing number of Puerto Ricans who have transformed the cities into a mainland enclave much like New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia and Hartford, Conn.
Despite their significant contributions to the cultural landscape, their political potential remains unrealized, according to a scholar who has studied the area.
The mainland United States is home to 4,623,716 Puerto Ricans, outnumbering the island by 1,069,074, according to new U.S. Census figures.
In Florida, the Puerto Rican population grew from 482,027 in 2000 to 847,550 in 2010, an increase of 75 percent.
Within the state, Orange and Osceola counties saw some of the most dramatic increases in the past decade.
In Orange County, the Puerto Rican population grew from 86,583 to 149,457, a 72 percent increase. Orlando, the county seat, grew from 17,029 to 31,201, an 83 percent increase.
In Osceola County, the Puerto Rican population grew from 30,728 to 72,986, a 183 percent increase. Numbered at 19,728, Puerto Ricans now make up one-third of the population in Kissimmee, the county seat.
The increasingly concentrated population in Central Florida has laid a foundation for the inaugural Puerto Rican Day Parade in Osceola County, set for July 24 in Kissimmee.
“I think it’s important for Puerto Ricans in Kissimmee to have this kind of public display of their numbers, of their culture,” said Jorge Duany, an anthropology professor at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. “It’s a way to express the enduring ties between Puerto Ricans on and off the island.”
Duany, who has studied the migration of Puerto Ricans to Florida extensively, attributed the initial wave to the opening of Walt Disney World and its active recruitment program on the island. Others came to follow relatives, retire or study.
“By the time the current recession in Puerto Rico struck, most Puerto Ricans had a direct experience with Orlando, so they knew the area and they liked it,” he said, adding that they are drawn to the weather, job opportunities and Hispanic atmosphere.
María Cordero, the owner of Puerto Rico’s Cafe, cited the prospect of a better life on the mainland.
“I think that the pay is much better compared with Puerto Rico; the education is much better,” she said in Spanish. “The people migrate looking for better opportunities.”
Since their arrival, Puerto Ricans have changed the fabric of the communities.
They have become a significant force in religion, Duany said.
“Many Puerto Ricans are Catholic, and some are Protestant and, in those cases, they’ve established churches or expanded parishes,” he said.
Duany also cited a greater need for bilingual personnel in public schools.
Cordero said she also noticed this need since moving to Kissimmee from Puerto Rico in 1990.
“When I came, everything was Americanized. You would go look for an apartment, and there weren’t Latinos. You would go to the doctor’s office, and there weren’t Latinos. You would go to stores, and there weren’t Latinos,” she said. “But now, they are forced to hire Latinos who can cater to the public so that Latinos will go to these places more often.”
Despite their significant contributions in food and music, their political impact has been minimal, Duany said.
“They haven’t really attained proportional representation there given their numbers,” he said. “Clearly, the Puerto Rican population is bound to have a political say.”
Traditionally, Puerto Ricans have voted Democratic, though Duany has noticed a more divided population in the Orlando area. Many are joining the Republican Party, where many Puerto Rican candidates saw success on the local level, he said.
Duany pointed to redistricting as a political challenge for Puerto Ricans. Despite the fact that they are the largest Latino group in the area, Puerto Ricans are not represented on the Orange County redistricting advisory committee, according to an April 15 Orlando Sentinel article.
“The main challenge seems to be how to accommodate the growth of the Puerto Rican population and to increase their representation at the local level and, perhaps, even at the state level once these redistricting lines are drawn,” he said.
He also advised Puerto Ricans to form a coalition of minority groups in the area to obtain political power.
Despite the potential of the Puerto Rican voting bloc, Duany said they have yet to take action.
“Puerto Ricans in Florida are the sleeping giant,” he said. “They could decide local, state and presidential elections, but it hasn’t really happened yet.”
He said he is unsure if they will have an effect on the 2012 presidential elections, something he thinks President Barack Obama sought to change with his visit to the island this week.
“It wasn’t really a historic visit by any means in terms of the relations between Puerto Rico and the U.S., but it seems to be an important symbolic gesture toward Puerto Ricans in Florida,” Duany said. “It’s really courting the Puerto Rican vote in Central Florida because he’s aware of the fact that they could be decisive in the next election.”
Hispanic or Latino in Florida (Source: 2000 U.S. Census)
Hispanic or Latino in Florida (Source: 2010 U.S. Census)
Growth of Puerto Rican Population (Source: U.S. Census)