March 17, 2011 | Bloomberg | Original Article

Puerto Ricans in Central Florida’s Tourism Hub Are Driving Hispanic Growth

Roberto Torres-Aguiar moved to central Florida to practice cardiology after payments for his patients in Puerto Rico, where unemployment hovers around 16 percent, became increasingly delinquent.

“It was becoming a nightmare to practice medicine in Puerto Rico,” said Torres-Aguiar, 56, who now lives in Orlando, about 230 miles (370 kilometers) north of Miami.

Puerto Ricans like Torres-Aguiar, free to move because they’re U.S. citizens, have displaced Cubans driving Florida’s Hispanic growth, especially in the state’s center. They make up almost half the Hispanic population of three counties surrounding Orlando: Orange, Polk and Osceola, according to the 2009 American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau.

Florida has the second-largest number of Puerto Ricans after New York, propelled by a decade of economic stagnation at home and recruiting by state employers such as Walt Disney Co. (DIS), whose Magic Kingdom near Orlando is the world’s most-visited amusement park.

“In New York, they’re called ‘Nuyo-Ricans,’” said Emilio Perez, chairman of the Central Florida Redistricting Council Inc. in Orlando, newly formed to seek increased Hispanic political representation. “Here, we’re Mickey-Ricans,” he said, referring to Disney’s most famous character, Mickey Mouse.

Hispanics in the three central counties more than doubled in the decade to 536,922, or about 26.6 percent of the 2,016,736 total population, 2010 Census data released yesterday show. That outpaced the 25.7 percent Hispanic growth to 1,623,859 in Miami- Dade County to the south, which attracted Cubans since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

Statewide Growth

Florida Puerto Ricans, moving from the island and other mainland enclaves, grew 50.7 percent statewide from 2000 to 2009 to 726,637, or 4.5 percent of the total, the census community data show, while Cubans rose 30.7 percent to 1,088,747, or 5.9 percent.

The tourism industry encouraged the growth with employment incentives in Puerto Rico, where both English and Spanish are official languages. Disney offered free airfare and as much as $1,500 for relocation, the Orlando Sentinel reported in 1999. Andrea Finger, a Disney spokeswoman, wouldn’t provide details.

Job offers also came from the Orange County Public Schools, which in 2006 hired 60 teachers in Puerto Rico, said Shari Bobinski, a spokeswoman. The state attracted health-care workers with a 2002 law allowing experienced Puerto Rican nurses to skip the U.S. licensing exam.

Easy Sell

It was an easy sell: Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate averaged 6 percentage points above the U.S. national average in the last decade, a period when its economy didn’t grow. The commonwealth, a self-governing U.S. territory, shed 2.2 percent of its population in the 10 years. Michigan, the only state to lose people in the period, shrunk less, at 0.6 percent, according to the census.

To serve central Florida, Puerto Rico-based businesses including Popular Inc. (BPOP)’s Banco Popular, Ana G. Mendez University and insurance company Cooperative de Seguros Multiples de Puerto Rico opened around Orlando. El Nuevo Dia, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, published a local edition from 2003 to 2008.

“It feels good to be out of your country and at the same time be able to provide services to people from your country,” said Torres-Aguiar, the cardiologist.

He moved from Caguas, 20 miles south of San Juan, to Miami in 2009. After becoming licensed to practice in the state, he moved to central Florida in June with his wife and their son. While his pay has been “basically the same” as in Puerto Rico, he has the potential to earn more in Florida, Torres-Aguiar said.

17.6 Percent Growth

Florida’s 17.6 percent population growth from 2000 to 2010 to 18,801,310 was almost twice the national rate of 9.7 percent. Hispanic residents grew 57.4 percent to 4,223,806, or 22.5 percent of the total from 16.8 percent, the U.S. Census Bureau said yesterday.

Non-Hispanic whites rose 4.1 percent to 10,884,722, or 57.9 percent of the total, down from 65.4 percent as other groups grew faster since 2000. Non-Hispanic blacks rose 25.9 percent to 2,851,100, or 15.2 percent from 14.2 percent, and non-Hispanic Asians grew 70.1 percent to 445,216, accounting for 2.4 percent of the population from 1.6 percent a decade ago, the census data show.

The Puerto Rican gains helped recast the Hispanic voter profile to predominantly Democratic from Cuban-dominated Republican, said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center.

The number of Florida Hispanics registered as Democrats exceeded the number designated as Republicans in 2008, a reverse from 2006, according to the Florida Secretary of State’s office.

Only 12 of the 160 state House and Senate seats are held by Latinos, nine of whom are of Cuban descent. Only one, Darren Soto, a Democrat from Orlando, is Puerto Rican.

Recent Migration

“Our lack of representation has to do with the recentness of a lot of that migration,” said Soto, who’s seeking a seat on the Senate committee that will redraw Florida’s voting areas based on new census figures. “After this go-round, I’m hopeful that we’ll have more seats in all phases of government.”

The Puerto Rican influx has created some friction over voting rights. Volusia County, home to Daytona Beach on the east coast, agreed in 2010 to provide ballots in Spanish after a lawsuit filed by four Puerto Rican voters and the county Hispanic association. In Osceola County, where 45.5 percent of the population is Latino, a lawsuit led to commissioners elected by district rather than at large, allowing more-direct representation for Hispanics.

“We are working with the community to make sure they get some equitable representation,” said John Garcia, redistricting manager of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, which participated in the two cases.

The New York-based organization, formerly called the Puerto Rico Legal Defense and Education Fund, will hold a board meeting in central Florida next week to “make a statement of our commitment” to redistricting in the region, Garcia said.

Redrawing Boundaries

The census data released this month will be used to redraw the boundaries for state and Congressional legislative districts to reflect changes in population over the past 10 years. Florida, where the Legislature makes the alterations, will gain two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Florida Hispanics could add as many as 14 state seats and those in central Florida could pick up one of two new congressional posts, said Perez of the Central Florida Redistricting Council.

Cuban state legislators are mindful of the Puerto Rican presence in Florida, as well as the thousands of Columbians, Dominicans and Venezuelans who’ve become residents, said Representative Esteban Bovo, a Cuban-American Republican from Hialeah, a northwest suburb of Miami, and chairman of the Florida Hispanic Legislative Caucus.

“When we legislate here, it would be a little disingenuous for us just to think of how it affects our district,” he said in an interview in Tallahassee. “We are the voice of the Hispanic population.”

Labor Force

The growing Puerto Rican population may help balance the state’s labor force, whose aging members mean fewer working adults for each retiree, said Amy Baker, the Legislature’s chief economist.

The median age of Puerto Ricans in Florida is 30 compared with the population’s overall median age of 39 and 42 for Cubans, according to the 2009 community survey.

“They tend to be younger, tend to have children, tend to be in the labor force,” Baker said in an interview in Tallahassee. “That’ll help keep our workforce going.”

Anmary Hidalgo, 37, is doing that. She left her job in the health department in Aguadilla, in northwest Puerto Rico, in 2000 to help her father open a bakery in Kissimmee. She’s since married, has a two-year-old daughter and opened a business.

“It seems to me like Puerto Rico,” Hidalgo said at her Caribe Bakery and Restaurant in Orlando. “I don’t think I can move back.”