The Puerto Rican population in Central Florida returned to pre-Hurricane Maria levels, according to the latest American Community Survey, conducted yearly by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The newest estimate of Puerto Ricans is roughly 385,000 in Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake counties, which is similar to before the Category 5 storm ravaged the island in mid-September 2017, driving many Puerto Ricans to Central Florida.
UCF sociologist Fernando I. Rivera, founder of the Puerto Rico Research Hub, explained that Puerto Rico’s migration “is circular.”
“Basically, the economic conditions are what really determine the population movement,” he said. “If you are going to suffer economically here, you would prefer to go back to Puerto Rico and at least be with family.”
The decline is an unusual twist for one of the U.S. mainland’s largest concentration of Puerto Ricans — only second to the New York metro area. In the city of Kissimmee, where Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden made a campaign stop last week to announce an economic recovery plan for the island, 1 in every 2.5 residents is of Puerto Rican origin. They represent a large block of voters to be wooed in Florida, with Central Florida positioned as the highly-sought swing region in a state viewed as one of the most coveted prizes in the upcoming presidential election.
The finding “is surprising and contradictory,” said Professor Luis Martínez-Fernández, a historian at the University of Central Florida. “I suspect the [upcoming 2020] U.S. Census will find that there was growth in Orange and Florida. Maybe it’s a matter of sampling.”
Last month, President Donald Trump’s son, Eric, kicked off his father’s re-election bus tour in Kissimmee. On Friday, the president announced $9.6 billion in FEMA grants to rebuild the island’s electric grid plus another $2 billion for school buildings.
Altogether, there are 5.8 million Puerto Ricans residing on the mainland and 3.2 million on the island.
The population on the island has been in decline, according to census data. An estimated 74,000 to 97,000 individuals have moved to the mainland each year since 2013.
Roughly 133,500 Puerto Ricans moved from the island to the mainland in 2018 not long after Maria hit. That may be a low estimate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those moves account for two-thirds of the Puerto Rican population growth on the mainland for that year.
Rivera is monitoring the effects of the pandemic on the movement of Puerto Ricans residing in Florida.
“We have seen all the news about the massive unemployment that this area is suffering, especially the tourism sector and the economy that many Puerto Ricans are participating in,” Rivera said.
And some are choosing to leave. Melvin Hernández Nieves, who arrived after Hurricane María, will return to Puerto Rico at the end of the year. “I hand over the apartment on Nov. 13,” he said.
The 32-year-old entrepreneur came to Orlando attracted by business opportunities and the strength of the local Puerto Rican community.
“I considered it the perfect place to make a transition,” Hernández Nieves said.
But his goal of establishing a coffee shop in downtown Orlando will have to wait.
“Right now it is risky to open a business here in Orlando because it is a city that is driven by tourism,” said Hernández Nieves.
Orlando’s city boundaries may have seen a slight uptick in residents of Puerto Rican origin, while Orange County had more leave than move in, but the margin of error makes it inconclusive, the latest community survey data shows for 2018 to 2019.
Among Florida counties, Palm Beach had the largest increase, estimated to have seen its Puerto Rican population rise by more than 15,000 in 2019. If so, the Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican populations in the county would be about the same size, roughly 60,000 each.
In nearby Polk County, which is nearly a quarter Hispanic, Puerto Ricans helped drive the changing demographics with year over year growth, according to the census. The Puerto Rican population, which increased 11,300 last year, is now estimated at 82,000. It has more than doubled since 2013. Residents who identified as of Mexican descent also grew steadily, but saw a marked decline last year, according to the American Community Survey.
Florida’s Puerto Rican population plateaued in 2019, but states such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Texas and Indiana saw notable growth, according to the American Community Survey. Parts of New York state also experienced growth, but not in the four boroughs known for its Nuyoricans.
Puerto Ricans go where there is opportunity, said UCF’s Rivera.
“I’m not saying that Indiana is going to replace Florida as the hub of the Puerto Rican population, but where there is space for economic opportunity, there will be room for more people from the Puerto Rican community to go there,” Rivera said.
In the Sunshine State, Manatee County experienced the highest percent growth, a 76% increase with 14,178 residents compared with the 8,068 in the previous year.
Leniza Vega, a resident of Bradenton since 2007, said after Hurricane Maria passed through the island, “That was really the ‘boom.’ And you can see it in Orlando, but in Manatee County we see it,” said Vega, who has close family and friends who have relocated to the area.
“When I got here there was nothing, but the fact that downtown Sarasota has Latin music … that wasn’t until four years ago,” she said. But she’s still hoping one day for a Melao Bakery, she said, nodding to the Kissimmee mainstay.
“What I’m waiting for is the bakery,” she said where she can meet friends for coffee. “Then I’ll know that [Puerto Ricans] have arrived … ”
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