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County's Hispanic population changes

The census reveals Puerto Ricans are Hillsborough's largest Hispanic group, then Mexicans, then Cubans.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001

The census reveals Puerto Ricans are Hillsborough's largest Hispanic group, then Mexicans, then Cubans.

TAMPA -- Jose Ramos was transferred here from his native Puerto Rico 21 years ago. Now, as owner of a Temple Terrace accounting firm, he has recruited some employees directly from Puerto Rico.

In Ramos' view, an "economic bridge" between Florida and Puerto Rico helps account for a quiet but historic change among Hillsborough County's Hispanics.

Puerto Ricans surpassed Cubans during the 1990s to easily become the county's largest Hispanic group, more than doubling in size to 52,568, according to statistics made public today from the 2000 census.

"They are looking for a better quality-of-work life," Ramos said.

Statewide, the Puerto Rican population increased 95 percent in Florida to 482,027. More than 85,000 Puerto Ricans poured into three Orlando-area counties alone during the 1990s.

"What used to be Miami for Cubans is becoming Orlando for Puerto Ricans," said Tony Morejon, the Hispanic affairs liaison for the Hillsborough County government.

Florida's Mexican population rose 125 percent during the '90s.

But the increase wasn't as pronounced in Hillsborough, where the number of Mexicans counted in 2000 is 83 percent higher than the number counted a decade earlier.

Because the county's Cuban population rose only 25 percent, it fell slightly behind Mexicans as the third largest Hispanic group.

Mexican numbers grew not only through immigration of laborers but through a high birth rate, said Guadalupe Lamas, a nurse and a migrant-worker advocate in the east Hillsborough farm community of Dover. She estimated that the Mexican babies being baptized in her Catholic church in Plant City outnumber the rest 10 to 1.

"So many (Mexicans) are having babies here," Lamas said.

Like other Hispanic leaders, she thinks the Mexican population was undercounted by census workers.

"Many of the undocumented individuals did not want to be counted," Lamas said. "There were many who didn't even send the papers in."

Morejon estimates the county's Hispanic population at 22-24 percent of the entire county, compared to the 18 percent officially counted.

The newest census numbers showed Puerto Ricans and Cubans somewhat dispersed, while Mexicans are concentrated in the farm areas of east and south Hillsborough County.

Mexicans, making up 3.5 percent of the county's overall population, were 66 percent of the people counted in Wimauma, 29 percent of those in Ruskin and 12 percent of those in Plant City.

Morejon noted, "A lot of people are leaving the picking and going to truck driving and the construction industries."

The county's Egypt Lake-Leto area was 18 percent Cuban, and Town 'N Country was 7 percent Cuban. No other area had a Cuban presence exceeding 5 percent.

Puerto Ricans made up 11 percent of the Egypt Lake-Leto area, 10 percent of Town "N Country and 9 percent of the University of South Florida area.

Puerto Ricans have migrated to Florida in recent years in two streams, said Dario Ruiz, a Puerto Rican past president of the League of United Latin American Citizens and a manager in Hillsborough County's human resources department. One stream is a largely professional group coming directly from Puerto Rico; the second is a less-skilled wave of second- and third-generation Puerto Ricans moving from the northeastern United States, Riuz said.

Both groups are attracted by Florida's healthy economy and Tampa's well-established Latin culture, Ruiz and Morejon said.

"We come here, and the matter of getting adapted to the place is not a big issue," Ruiz said.

Lawyer Ralph Fernandez, a prominent Tampa Cuban, said he and his compatriots aren't likely to be bothered by being outnumbered by Puerto Ricans. Cubans have managed to assimilate into the mainstream while achieving professional and political influence beyond their numbers, he said.

"I don't think there is an immigration that comes close to the impact of the Cuban immigration," Fernandez said.

Morejon said Hispanics as a whole, who increased 68 percent in Hillsborough and 70 percent statewide, should gain an increasing political voice.

"It's going to be interesting to see how this turns out in the next 10 years," he said.

Morejon said Puerto Ricans are likelier to participate in community affairs than immigrants from most Latin American countries, who typically learned to distrust the government back home and are focused in the United States on working their way out of poverty.

Puerto Ricans, in contrast, have grown up in a territory of the United States and many visited the mainland frequently before moving here, said Ruiz.

"We are Americans from the top of our heads to the tip of our toes," he said.

- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 226-3469.

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