May 1, 2011 | Original Article

Central Fla. Hispanic population gaining

Rubio. Martinez. Alvarez. Diaz-Balart. Cruz. Gonzalez. The list of prominent Florida politicians with Spanish surnames is growing, a reflection of the state's expanding Hispanic population.

But the list is deceiving in one respect - it remains almost exclusively Cuban-American. While the state's Puerto Rican, Venezuelan and Mexican communities are all on the rise, they often remain almost politically invisible, especially when it comes to electing their own to Congress and the Legislature.

The 2010 U.S. Census showed that Hispanic growth in the Puerto Rican-heavy central Florida counties along Interstate 4 was almost as large as the Latino gains in Cuban-dominated South Florida during the past decade. Despite that, Puerto Ricans and other non-Cuban Hispanics continue to lag Cubans in political influence.

Nearly all of the 13 Latino members of the State Legislature are Cuban-American. One is Puerto Rican and another is of Spanish descent. In Florida's congressional delegation, the three Hispanic members of the House and Sen. Marco Rubio are all Cuban-American.

That parity in Hispanic gains between the I-4 corridor and South Florida has political importance as it could lead to at least one new Latino-majority congressional district in the center of the state and possibly another in the south. And it could lead to a geographic shift in Florida Hispanic's political and economic power. The Census bureau plans to release greater details on Hispanics from the 2010 Census this week.

At just over 1 million, Cubans-Americans still are Florida's largest Hispanic group, making up about a third of the state's Latinos, according to the Census' American Community Survey. Puerto Ricans now number more than 725,000. Yet even in communities where Puerto Ricans are well represented, they still sometimes have difficulty asserting their power. Take Orange County where Puerto Ricans make up almost half of the Latino community. Three Hispanics were appointed recently to a 15-member redistricting panel, but they were two Cuban-Americans and a Nicaraguan-American. That caused an outcry.

"We want to be at the table making the decisions," Puerto Rican activist Zoraida Rios Andino said. "It is unbelievable that still today we don't have a representative who will look after our interests."

The 2010 Census shows that Hispanics now make up almost 1 in 4 Floridians, up from 1 in 6 a decade ago.

And even in the Cuban-heavy south, the population has become more diverse. Heavily Hispanic cities like Miami-Dade County's Hialeah Gardens, a first stop for recent Cuban immigrants, became even more Latino, but many of the newcomers are Central American. Weston, an upscale Broward County suburb, has a thriving Venezuelan community and is regularly featured on the websites of Caracas real estate agents.

Indeed, there are some signs of the growing influence of the Hispanic communities in the I-4 corridor. Orange County Democrats recently elected a woman of Puerto Rican descent to chair their organization. Both Orange and Osceola counties in metro Orlando have elected Puerto Rican county commissioners in the past 15 years.

During last year's Tampa mayoral race, the debate hosted by the city's Latin Chamber of Commerce was one of only two where all five candidates appeared. And national Republican groups are already working there to reach out to Hispanics in advance of the 2012 election. The region is fertile ground since Puerto Ricans, as U.S. citizens, are instantly eligible to vote. And they tend to be less loyal to the Democratic Party than the nation's Hispanic population as a whole.

Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida has hundreds of members and is growing. Puerto Rican-based banks and universities have opened branches in metro Orlando. And in June, another chamber of commerce is organizing a summit to boost trade between Florida and the island.

But despite all these gains, most non-Cuban Hispanic communities aren't electing their members to high office in proportions that reflect their numbers - their organizations are fragmented and have little political involvement.

Tampa-based political consultant Angelette Aviles, a Puerto Rican, hopes Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic groups will take a closer look at the how Cuban-Americans have influenced politics, especially by channeling political donations. That has allowed Florida's Cuban-Americans to influence even national politics.

"There's still a big lack of engagement" among non-Cuban Latinos, she said. "There's a lack of understanding that it takes more than just voting to shape the political process."

Evelyn Perez-Verdia, a Colombian-American media and government relations consultant and former Tampa resident agrees, but she also criticized both major political parties. She maintains that outside Cuban-dominated South Florida, the parties seem more interested in getting out the Hispanic vote than in grooming Latinos to run for local office. She noted that party political leaders still tend to come from the predominantly white, old-boy and old-girl political clubs.

Back in Orlando, the redistricting committee has four more meetings to help figure out the new political boundaries. Martha Santoni, an Orlando native of Cuban descent who is on the advisory board, said the mayor and commissioners who appointed the members likely didn't know the backgrounds of the Hispanics on the board.

"I don't think they see me as a Puerto Rican or Cuban - they see me as a Hispanic business woman," said Santoni, who is married to a Puerto Rican.

But Rios Andino said having a Puerto Rican on the board does make a difference.

"We want Puerto Ricans that are involved with the issues affecting our community," Rios Andino said. "This is an eye-opener for the Puerto Rican leadership that we can't turn the other way. We have to start asking questions about why we aren't being included."