May 5, 2011 | Wall Street Journal | Original Article

Census: Florida's Hispanics grow more diverse

ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida saw a massive influx of Central and South Americans in the last decade, adding complexity to a state that is already home to one of the nation's most diverse Hispanic populations, according to Census figures released Thursday.

Cubans remain the largest single Hispanic group in Florida, but their share of the state's Latino population dropped slightly over the last decade to just under a third. Meanwhile, the number of Central and South Americans increased by more than a half-million residents. South Florida was their top destination, with Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach together gaining more than half of these new arrivals.

"A lot of this story is the continuing unrest of Colombia and Venezuela, the Sandinistas coming back into power in Nicaragua, and the sort of general idea that Florida is becoming an increasingly attractive place to live," said Florida International University Political Science Professor Dario Moreno.

More than 70,000 Central and South Americans also made their home in metro Orlando, and another 30,000 chose the Tampa area.

Brenda Bolivar is among those who moved to Florida for political reasons. Bolivar, a 28-year-old interior decorator in Miami, left Venezuela in 2001 with her entire family because of the rise of leftist leader Hugo Chavez. Her mother already was a U.S. resident, and Bolivar had visited her grandparents in Florida for years, so the transition was easy.

"My family was worried about the situation in the country, and we all left," Bolivar said. "It felt like moving home in a way .... I was happy, and 10 year later I still love it here."

Others were driven more by the desire to help their families back home. Itzen Cabrera, 27, handles food prep at a restaurant in Miami's chic Design District. He moved from Nicaragua five years ago. The regular remittances he sends to his family back home have allowed his father to open a small bakery and purchase a truck he rents out for construction projects. Those enterprises now employ his three younger brothers.

Cabrera, who studied business administration in Nicaragua, said he hopes one day to return home and open his own business. His initial plan was to leave for just five years.

"But each year, this country absorbs you a bit more. And you say, 'there are so many things left for me to do, so much I wanted to be able to do I haven't done yet.'"

On the other end of the spectrum is Fernando Gaston, vice president of programming, production and music strategies for MTV and VH1 Latin America. He moved to Miami from Buenos Aires in 2009, where he also worked for MTV.

He said: "I see myself as part of the group of Latin executives working worldwide, more than as an 'immigrant.'"

For Gaston, Miami provided not only excellent work opportunities but also a suburban quality of life.

"It's an ideal place to raise young children here — the quality of life, the outdoors. It's family-focused," he said, though he acknowledges that he occasionally misses the urban, more pedestrian-friendly streets of his hometown.

The Census data released Thursday also showed that Florida's largest Asian population were Indians.

The new figures reveal Floridians have gotten older in the past decade. The median age is 40.7, compared to 38.7 a decade ago.

More unrelated Floridians are living together and the percentage of households with married couples declined in the past decade, Census data shows.

Florida now has the nation's third-largest Latino population at 4.2 million residents — almost a quarter of the Sunshine State's population. And Hispanic growth drove Florida's overall population gains, giving the state two more congressional districts on top of its current 25 seats. The only other states with larger Hispanic populations, California and Texas, are dominated by Latinos of Mexican descent. New York, home to the nation's fourth-largest Latino population, rivals Florida for diversity but falls short in numbers.

Despite the changes, the Cuban-American community continues to dominate the political scene because it remains the most reliable voting bloc, Moreno noted.

The Cuban-American and Puerto Rican populations grew in almost equal numbers during the past decade, an outcome that could start shifting Hispanic influence from South Florida to central Florida in coming years. Cubans, who dominate South Florida, added about 380,000 new residents. Puerto Ricans, central Florida's largest Hispanic group, grew by more than 365,000 residents and now make up just over one-fifth of the state's Latinos.

Most new Puerto Ricans settled along the Interstate 4 corridor, which stretches from Tampa through Orlando across to Daytona Beach.

Mexican growth flourished in Florida's rural, agricultural counties, as the state overall added another 265,000 Mexicans in the past decade. Mexicans now make up more than a third of the total population in two inland, southwest counties known for farm work, Hardee and Hendry counties. Tampa's Hillsborough County had the largest influx of Mexicans during the decade — 30,000 new residents.

But Moreno pointed out that Florida politicians in Washington are paying attention to the changing demographics.

Florida has the second-largest state delegation on the House Foreign Affairs Committee after California. And under the leadership of Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, the Colombian Free Trade Agreement has been a priority.

"There's a real sensitivity to home country issues," he said. "In Miami, with so many other foreign professionals, you really don't feel like 'the new one.'"