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Census highlights Hispanic diversity

The 1-million jump in Hispanics in 10 years represents people of varied national origins.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2001

The 1-million jump in Hispanics in 10 years represents people of varied national origins.

Mexicans still journey north to the fields of Florida, squatting to pick tomatoes and strawberries in sweltering heat. Cubans still raft across the Florida Straits, cursing Castro.

But the influx of Hispanic people into Florida, revealed by census data this week, also is a story of middle-class Colombians escaping political terror. It's a story of Hondurans and Salvadorans immigrating after hurricanes or earthquakes left their homes in splinters. It's about people from South America and the Caribbean who have found niches in tourism, construction and their own entrepreneurship.

"In Florida we have the most diverse Hispanic population and immigration of any state, including California and Texas," said Alex Chavez, who is president of a Sarasota insurance agency and regional chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Although many from Colombia are fleeing political violence that has rocked the country, most are coming for the economic opportunities they can find here, Chavez said.

"Even some people in Cuba come really for the economic opportunities," said Chavez, who was born in Cuba.

The U.S. Census Bureau released data this week showing that Florida's Hispanic population increased by more than 1-million during the 1990s, meaning Hispanics now outnumber African-Americans statewide, and in Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties as well. (It should be noted, however, that the census does not classify "Hispanic" as a race. Hispanics can also be white, black or other races).

Where did 1-million people come from?

Some are from the normal increase you would expect from Florida's already sizable Hispanic population.

Also, Hispanic people may have been better counted by the census in 2000 than 1990. Spanish language television and radio stations stressed the need for participating in the census. "The Hispanic community was much more attuned to getting counted in the census in 2000 than they were in 1990," said Jim Hosler, research director for Hillsborough's Planning Commission.

But there is no doubt that immigration played a huge role in the increase, several officials said. In fact, despite increased participation in the census this year, Hosler still wonders if there may have been undercounts in certain agricultural areas.

"My first blush at some of these census tracts, it looks like there may be an issue with some of these farmworkers."

As Robin Gomez will tell you, people are finding opportunities in more places than farms. Many Hispanics came to the Clearwater area years ago to work in the hotels and restaurants. From there, many went into construction.

"They found that construction pays more than the tourism industry," said Gomez, Clearwater's city auditor, who was born in Mexico and serves as a city liaison to the Hispanic community. "You can actually start working for anywhere from $8 to $10 an hour, and you don't necessarily have to have any construction experience."

Rodney S. Fischer, executive director of the Contractors and Builders Association of Pinellas County, said, "What's happening is there's been a labor shortage, there has been more and more opportunities for people who are willing to work." He said this is "expanding the opportunities for particularly Hispanics."

The evidence of Hispanic growth is not only in the workplace, but also in Betty Torres' school.

"We have about 55 percent of our students who are Hispanic," said Torres, principal at West Tampa Elementary School. About 20 percent speak virtually no English when they arrive. But her teachers cope, she said, and students succeed, by using special language programs and conducting twice-monthly parent training sessions, with interpreters present.

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