Beyond the bagels and pizza

The Hispanic community has gained a much greater presence.

Published May 6, 2007

SPRING HILL - Green plantains, yucca and cilantro quietly chill in a corner cooler at Miguel's Meat Market on Mariner Boulevard.

It's just before noon, when hungry regulars usually stop by for one of the crispy empanadas made fresh that day, kept warm in a case at the front of the cozy shop. The sweet scent of flaky guava-filled pastries sitting next to the meat turnovers emanates through the air.

Owner Francisco Roque sits behind the cash register, in front of the calling cards he sells that make phone conversations in Spanish happen - from Spring Hill to the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Cuba.

Similar to many of the people he meets in his store, the 34-year-old moved to Spring Hill three years ago to buy a home after more than 10 years in Tampa. Here, he could afford one for less money and with a smaller down payment.

Roque, who is originally from the Dominican Republic, has owned the market for the past couple of years since buying it from Miguel Fernandez, who opened the store in 2001.

Fernandez, like Roque and the other business owners who cater to Spring Hill's growing Hispanic population, saw there was money to be made.

For a community initially settled by Northern transplants who brought bagels and New York-style pizza with them 40 years ago, people like Roque are evidence that in the past 15 years, the flavor of Spring Hill has been changing.

Tampa is no longer the only cultural enclave

"Every year, the sales have gone up, " Roque said. "A lot of people, a lot of first-time home buyers from up north are coming here. Or they move here from Tampa."

Since 1990, when the Census Bureau began tracking the growth of the Hispanic population, the number of Spring Hill residents from countries like Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba significantly increased over other parts of Hernando County.

In 1990, there were 1, 260 Hispanic residents in Spring Hill. Ten years later, the number was 4, 720, and five years after that, the number nearly doubled to 8, 574. That's almost 10 percent of Spring Hill's population.

Countywide figures as of April 30 show that 11, 265 Hispanic residents live in Hernando County, of 169, 499 total residents. In 1990, of the 101, 115 people living in Hernando County, only 2, 962 were Hispanic.

The growing number of Spanish-speaking residents has made enough of an impact to show in the form of groceries like Miguel's, restaurants, barbershops, salons, and even a magazine and other Spanish publications.

Lorenzo and Milena Ortiz are two Spring Hill residents making that growth happen. A few years ago, the couple and their two daughters moved to a home on Whitewood Avenue from Tampa. They brought with them the idea of creating an advertising vehicle to target the Hispanic community.

Each month, their Latin Network magazine is filled with ads in Spanish, for both Hispanic-owned and primarily English-speaking businesses that also provide services in Spanish. Local writers contribute articles on politics, lifestyles, sports and entertainment.

The Ortizes recently opened offices on Linden Avenue - before, they operated out of their living room - and are launching two more magazines. One will be an English version of Latin Network, and the other will focus on women.

"We're getting calls every day, " Milena said. "The business is doing very well. And so are other ones here in Spring Hill."

Along with a few new salons, a Cuban restaurant recently opened and a Colombian one is on the way.

"I can't wait for that one, " Milena said, clasping her hands together. From Colombia herself, she's dreaming of dining on meals from her childhood right here in Spring Hill.

"No more driving to Tampa!"

'A better place to raise their children'

Noemi De La Rosa moved to Spring Hill 20 years ago. Her husband, Jose, who is also Puerto Rican, moved here in 1973.

She remembers when there were barely any grocery stores, let alone specialty shops, where she could buy the foods and seasonings needed for Puerto Rican cooking.

"How many times have I driven far away to find something that I needed?" De La Rosa asked. "To Tampa or other places, that's where we always had to go. Now, with the changes in stores and restaurants in Spring Hill, it's wonderful."

For 16 years, De La Rosa also taught Spanish at Springstead High School, and she continues to teach at Pasco-Hernando Community College.

When she started at PHCC, there were a limited number of Spanish classes available throughout the school. But now, within the northern campus that she's a member of, multiple courses are regularly taught.

There have also been major changes in social organizations like the one she has been a member of since arriving in Spring Hill in 1987.

Back then, the Latin American Cultural and Civic Association had about 20 members. Now there are about 200, in addition to three similar Hispanic groups just within Spring Hill.

"Younger people are coming in from all over, mostly from places like New York or New Jersey, who are Hispanic, " De La Rosa said. "There are also people from countries like Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Cuba. They all are looking for a better place to raise their children."

And along with more Hispanic residents, changes in county government also reflect the changing demographics.

Meeting the demand

Hernando Health and Human Services director Jean Rags led the way last year by adding a feature to the department Web site that allows the information to be translated into Spanish, among other languages. Since then, other county sites started offering the same feature.

Though her idea was initially met with opposition, Rags noticed the need to get information about available services to Spanish-speaking residents.

There is also a bilingual staff member within her department who is often borrowed for translating by other county departments.

Through the Cultural and Civic Association, church groups and other support networks, Hernando's growing Hispanic community has, for the most part, adapted and helped each other on its own, Rags said.

"But while they've established programs within their own culture, they haven't closed the door to others that are interested in being part of the programs, " Rags said.

De La Rosa is always quick to remind Hernando residents that everyone is invited to the dances, dinners and other events that groups like hers put on throughout the year.

"Not only Spanish-speaking people come have fun with us and support the community, " she said.

The same goes for Roque, who encourages more people to stop by Miguel's and try something different.

"We have something for everyone, " he said.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this story. Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or 352 848-1432.