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Voice builds for growing Hispanic population

A Palm Harbor man, a newcomer to activism, founds the Uno Federation Political Forum to serve immigrants in Central Florida.


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 4, 1998

For all Ralph Emmanuelli knew, he and his family might have been the only Hispanic residents in Pinellas County.

They arrived in Palm Harbor from Brownsville, Texas, in 1983, an experience that he said was "like moving from a foreign country."

They went from living in a city that straddles the Mexican border -- where the streets have as many Spanish names as English ones -- to a county where Hispanics were an invisible minority.

Emmanuelli, 54, remembers signing up his son for a youth soccer league soon after they moved to Pinellas County. The woman taking the registration information asked him for his green card. Emmanuelli, a native of Puerto Rico, tried to shrug it off.

"I told her, "I don't have a green card, but I have a pink card,' " said Emmanuelli, who presented his pink ID card showing he had served in the Air Force.

Fifteen years later, the Hispanic population in Pinellas County has nearly tripled, from 10,500 in 1980 to more than 28,000 in 1995, according to the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

For Emmanuelli, it's a burgeoning population that has yet to find its political voice. About eight months ago, he founded the Uno Federation Political Forum with the hopes of changing that.

The population growth is a trend throughout Florida. Since 1990, almost a third of the 1.4-million people who moved to the state were Hispanic. And unlike their predecessors, most of the new Hispanic arrivals are ending up north of Miami-Dade County, in cities such as Orlando and Tampa.

The Hispanic population of Orange County jumped from just less than 20,000 in 1980 to more than 100,000 by 1995, while Hillsborough County's Hispanic population doubled in the same period to 131,305 in 1995.

While many Floridians think Hispanics are politically influential because of the number of Cuban-American legislators from Miami-Dade County, those lawmakers do not represent the interests of the large number of Hispanics outside South Florida, Emmanuelli said.

In his vision, Uno will become an umbrella organization for Hispanic groups across the state, especially in the Tampa Bay area and Central Florida.

That's the dream. For now, it's a small group still trying to make contacts.

"What we're trying to do is network. When you have the numbers, you can do more," Emmanuelli said. "We're not big, but we are something that you should take into account because we're going to grow."

Emmanuelli, a senior safety and health analyst with the state Department of Labor, is a newcomer to political activism. He admits that until recently, he was "totally on the sidelines."

His interest in the area's Hispanic population was sparked when he started seeing more Mexican workers around the county. Then, during an inspection at the Clearwater Police Department, he noticed a Spanish language cassette on an officer's desk.

The officer told him that some Police Department members were trying to learn Spanish because of the thousands of Spanish-speaking workers, some illegal immigrants, who found jobs in the city's hotels and restaurants.

These are some of the people Emmanuelli hopes his new organization can help.

"When they have problems, they have no organization to protect them," Emmanuelli said. "These people are loved by the employers. They're willing to do these low-paying jobs. They work hard, and they don't complain."

Other Hispanic activists in the Tampa Bay area say there is a growing need for an organization such as Emmanuelli's.

"Right now, we do need some kind of statewide Hispanic organization," said Gabe Cazares, a former Pinellas County commissioner and former mayor of Clearwater.

"There's a great need to awaken the 2-million Hispanics living in Florida."

Cazares, the son of Mexican immigrants, was born in Texas and raised in Los Angeles.

He moved to Clearwater in 1966 when "you could count the number of Hispanics on one hand."

Cazares is not a member of Uno, but he has often offered Emmanuelli advice. He hopes Emmanuelli will make people more aware of the Hispanic population in Central Florida.

"It's a silent minority -- no one knows about them," said Cazares, who aims much of his frustration at the Miami-Dade legislative delegation.

"There's a Hispanic Caucus in Tallahassee that's made up of mostly affluent, Republican Cubans. They don't care about human-rights issues," Cazares said.

"The Hispanic Caucus in Tallahassee does not represent the Nicaraguan blue-collar workers, the Puerto Ricans, the half-million farm workers working at poverty wages."

The farmworkers are the state's voiceless minorities, said Matilda Garcia, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the country's largest and oldest Hispanic organization.

It is important that all groups representing Hispanics work together, said Garcia, who welcomed a group such as Emmanuelli's.

"We're backing anyone who is for civil rights," said Garcia, whose family settled in Tampa before the turn of the century and who remembers when one hotel had a sign that said, "No dogs or Latins allowed."

It is just a matter of time before politicians begin paying attention to groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens and Uno, she said.

"I think they're going to come to a realization that we do vote," Garcia said. "That we do count."

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