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Hispanics now Florida's largest minority group


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2001

Alvaro Perez came to Florida three years ago, so determined to learn English that he spent more than $1,000 on a set of instructional videos.

Alvaro Perez came to Florida three years ago, so determined to learn English that he spent more than $1,000 on a set of instructional videos.

On Tuesday, he sat over a plate of tacos in Clearwater's Mexico Lindo grocery, explaining in his new language that he works for a boatmaker in Largo and lives with his wife and two daughters, who are 5 years and 7 months old. Because the baby was born here, she has an American as well as a Mexican name -- Becky Veronica.

"We love it," Perez, 28, said of his new home.

The Perez family is part of a wave of immigration that has helped make Hispanic people the largest minority group in Florida, according to data released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Florida's Hispanic population increased by 70.4 percent from 1.6-million to 2.7-million between 1990 and 2000. That's a growth rate more than twice as rapid as that of African-Americans, who number 2.3-million.

However, the comparison needs to be made carefully, because while "black" and "African-American" are considered racial denotations, "Hispanic" is not. Hispanics can be black, white or other races.

The Hispanic population more than doubled in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties, which follows a statewide trend, considering that 47 of Florida's 67 counties saw at least a twofold increase in Hispanic residents during the decade.

But it's not just people from Spanish-speaking countries who are forming new communities in Florida.

The Asian population more than doubled in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. Hillsborough is home to more than 21,000 people who listed their race as Asian.

"We have greatly diversified; I think that's it in a nutshell," said Leon Russell, human rights and Equal Employment and Opportunity officer for Pinellas County, and immediate past president of the Florida NAACP.

Russell said these demographic changes will be felt when legislative boundaries are drawn, creating the possibility of new districts, possibly in Central Florida, where Hispanic voters make a majority. From an NAACP perspective, he said, "It will show the need to work together in terms of coalitions."

But state Sen. Daryl Jones, D-Miami, isn't worried that blacks will lose political clout to Hispanics, because he said blacks vote in higher numbers. "It will be a long time before they will be the largest minority when it comes to voting time." "We have greatly diversified; I think that's it in a nutshell." -- LEON RUSSELL, Human rights and EEO officer for Pinellas County

To see just how diverse Florida is becoming, you can look at the data that show one in 12 Clearwater residents are Hispanic, or that Pasco County's Asian population increased from 1,404 in 1990 to more than 3,000 in the 2000 census.

Or you can go to Mexico Lindo ("beautiful Mexico") where the grocery shelves carry not just Mexican foods, but La Nuestra soft drinks from Colombia, Inca Cola from Peru and goods from elsewhere in Latin America. Owner Jesse Carrillo said about 60 percent of his customers are from Mexico's Hidalgo state, but many are from elsewhere in Latin America.

For years, Tampa's Cuban-Americans formed the best-known Hispanic group in the Tampa Bay area, but the census data shows that new communities are forming and expanding as well. Data on people's country of origin will be released by the Census Bureau later.

In Hillsborough County, the Hispanic population increased from 106,908 to 179,692. Jim Hosler, research director for Hillsborough's City/County Planning Commission, said, "The great majority of it's going to be Mexican and Central American," despite Tampa's long Cuban-American heritage. In contrast, the county is home to about 149,423 African-Americans.

Pinellas County, however, despite the rapidly growing Mexican-American community in mid-Pinellas, still is home to about twice as many African-Americans as Hispanics, 82,556 compared with 42,760.

For the first time, citizens were allowed to list more than one race on their census form, but fewer than 400,000 -- slightly more than 2 percent of the state's population -- took that option.

Citizens also could chose "some other race" on their census form if they felt that their race was not among those listed. More than 477,000 took this option. Scott McPherson, Florida's census director, said he suspects most are Haitians and Caribbean islanders, who often don't consider themselves black or African-American.

In St. Petersburg, Bun John Saly, who immigrated from Cambodia more than 20 years ago, offered another example of the Tampa Bay area's increasing multiculturalism. He helped found the Asian Community Association to help provide low-cost health care to immigrants.

But the group kept its doors open to all, he said, and in came people from Colombia and European nations, as well as black and white people born in this country.

So the group changed its name to reflect the new reality. Now, you can enter the offices of the association on 28th Street in St. Petersburg, and beside the display of Vietnamese post cards and the health screening notices written in Laotian, find a new sign for the "All Nations Community Association."

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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