March 19, 2011 | Herald-Tribune | Original Article

Surging Latino community reshapes region

SARASOTA - Tacos al pastor are for sale at two different markets in a two-block stretch of North Washington Boulevard. Peruvian-style roasted chicken is available at a half-dozen Sarasota restaurants, and Latino soccer players are regular users of the public tennis courts on 17th Street, where they play pickup games on weeknights.

These are a few of the signs of Sarasota's surging Hispanic population, which continues to grow despite 12-percent unemployment and a four-year construction slump.

The growth challenges long-held assumptions that the bulk of the Hispanics in the Gulf Coast were transient workers who planned to stay a few years and go back home.

Combined, Sarasota and Manatee counties now have 78,000 Hispanic residents, double the number present in 2000.

Overall, the counties grew by 111,000 people, with Hispanics making up more than 25 percent of that growth.

Latino community leaders who watch the demographics closely say the 2010 census data released this week chronicles a growing Hispanic middle class in Sarasota and Bradenton — a group that is opening more Latino-oriented businesses and assimilating more quickly than less-educated construction and agriculture workers.

"We are a reality," says Luis Eduardo Baron, owner of the area's only Spanish-language weekly newspaper, Siete Dias, or Seven Days. "We are no longer in the shadows. We are part of the community."

Five years ago, there were about 50 members of the Latin Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce. Now there are more than 200, most of them fluent in English and Spanish, says insurance agency owner Manuel Chepote, former president of the business group.

"There's much more action than four years ago, and I'm very pleased to see this growth," says Chepote, a Peruvian immigrant who has lived and worked in Sarasota for 22 years.

The chamber is "connecting the Hispanic community with the Anglo world," Chepote says.

That cultural exchange gets more convenient for everyone as the number of Latino-oriented businesses increases.

Ten years ago, the taco stands were campers and trucks parked on the side of the road on weekends, says Kent Kirschner, a lifetime Sarasota resident. He is CEO of Media Maquiladora, a market research and media buying company that helps advertisers target Hispanic consumers.

Now the taco stands are established in storefronts, with non-Hispanics making up a good portion of their clientele.

The same kind of change is happening on other levels of the economy, Kirschner says.

"There was obviously a boom that took place starting in the mid-90s with massive waves of people coming in," Kirschner said. "Now you're seeing the spreading-out of that, so they become participating members of our schools and our communities."

Here to stay

The increase in Hispanics here, as chronicled by the census data, reflects a push to persuade them to complete the census paperwork they received from the federal government.

In 2010, the Spanish-language TV network Univision aired public service messages advising Latinos to take part in the census. Local activists hammered the same message as they went door-to-door in neighborhoods that have high concentrations of Hispanic households.

The census numbers translate into federal and state dollars for public services like health and transportation. They also mean political clout.

"I still think there's a lot of people we did not count, and that happens every year," says Esperanza Gamboa, coordinator of Manatee Technical Institute's Farmworker Education Program, and one of the organizers of the door-to-door campaign. "We tried the best we could. Now we know in the next 10 years what we need to do: We need to work a little harder."

Nobody keeps an accurate count, but Gamboa says thousands of families left the area after the construction industry dried up in 2006 and 2007.

She said many of them moved west and north to find work.

Others stayed and moved into other industries.

As the construction industry waned, Rafael Perez gave up his slab, block and truss business to open Bacalao, a bar/restaurant that has become a hub for the Hispanic community — especially the crowd that wants to dance on Friday and Saturday nights.

Perez, a native of Puerto Rico who moved to Sarasota in 2002, opened Bacalao in 2007 in a strip mall on Tuttle Avenue across from Ed Smith Stadium. It was the first Latino-oriented business in the neighborhood.

Now the same strip mall is home to three other restaurants — Dominican, Peruvian and Jamaican. They serve some of the same Latin dishes, like churrasco and mofongo.

Perez thinks the competition may be hurting all of them.

"It's like you're the only gas station, then you've got three — one on each corner," he said.

Business at Bacalao is down 47 percent, says Perez, who is advertising wings and ribs this month to draw the baseball crowd. Saturday night's live music bill included Oro Solido, a 14-piece merengue band from New York.

A $3.99 daily lunch special is another feature that Perez has added as he tries to ride it out.

"That's what I call it," he said. "Riding the storm."

The growth in the Hispanic community also can be seen across town, at Coconuts Family Entertainment Center on Bee Ridge Road, where about one in four birthday parties is thrown by a Latino family.

Owner Tim Mihm said he has not targeted Latino clients, but it seems like their parties always end with a few parents making a reservation for their own children.

A curious trend he has noticed is fewer grownups at Anglo parties; the parents tend to drop their children off.

Latino children tend to show up at the party with both parents, and maybe a grandparent, in tow.

"It's nice," he said. "It fills up the place."