Fleeing unpleasant conditions, well-heeled Mexican professionals and entrepreneurs are finding the Hispanic atmosphere of South Florida makes a welcome new home.
BY FABIOLA SANTIAGO
Tired of living under the threat of kidnappings, assaults and perennially polluted gray skies that kept their children homebound, Mónica Cassave and her family moved from Mexico City to Miami three years ago. Her husband, a banking lawyer, had a job offer in Los Angeles, where they have close family ties. But like many Mexican professionals these days, the family chose to resettle in what they perceive as the most appealing U.S. region for Latin Americans -- Miami-Dade.
''It was a question of security and lifestyle,'' said Cassave, 33. "The quality of life here is so much greater than in Mexico or Los Angeles. Miami is smaller, has less traffic, but what I love the most is the freedom to go out into the street with my sons without fearing that we're going to be kidnapped or robbed or that my children's health is going to suffer.''
South Florida is not known as a haven for Mexican immigrants, but more and more it is becoming one as a new wave -- a professional and entrepreneurial class -- settles in Miami, a city seen more and more as a place where upper- and middle-class Latin Americans find ambiente among their well-heeled Hispanic peers.
''Miami is very fashionable in Mexico right now,'' said Verania Belauspeguigoitia, a Mexican Realtor and mortgage broker who moved to Miami four years ago after she and her husband were held up at gunpoint several times.
Belauspeguigoitia says she averages about 10 sales a year to Mexicans for Miami properties, ranging from $500,000 to $7 million. Most of the Mexicans are well-to-do and looking to make Miami their second home or invest in the city's real estate boom, she said. Some professionals get job transfers to the Miami-based Latin American divisions of U.S. companies and settle here permanently, she added. Others commute between Miami and Mexico, where they own businesses.
She travels to Mexico every 45 days "to sell Miami.''
''Miami is very Latin and you find people of your same culture and education level,'' Belauspeguigoitia said.
This upscale Mexican immigration often casts a deliberate veil of invisibility. Few recent arrivals are willing to be identified because they maintain business interests in Mexico and don't want to be known as expatriates, or they fear that news of a Miami home is a sign of affluence that could expose them to kidnappers and extortionists.
For years, the most visible faces of the Mexican community were Univisión network news anchors María Elena Salinas and Jorge Ramos. But joining them now is a growing cast of hundreds, principally in the fields of banking, medicine, entertainment and culinary arts.
Among the most prominent members: Gabriel Abaroa, president of the Latin American Recording Academy of Arts & Sciences; Dr. Adrián Legaspi, a cancer specialist; pop star Christian Castro, who lives on Fisher Island; Max Rodríguez, a program coordinator at Miami Dade College; Channel 23 news anchor Fernando Arau, and on-air television personality Marco Antonio Regil.
''It's a shame that people don't know us and only see us as vegetable pickers in Homestead,'' said Eduardo Pria, chef-owner of Eduardo de San Angel, an award-winning Mexican restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. ``My dream was to take the flavors and history of Mexican cuisine to international heights and I have been able to do it here in the last 11 years.''
South Florida's Mexican population of about 61,000 is modest but growing fast. It has nearly doubled since 1990, though it's still a small component of the region's 1.7 million Hispanics. However, many Mexicans say they do find cultural comfort in multiethnic South Florida.
''In California, even though there are millions of Hispanics, they are treated differently than here,'' Salinas said. ``For 20 years, I have been dreaming of seeing a Hispanic mayor in Los Angeles. In Miami, how many Hispanic mayors do we have, how many council people? We are the leaders of this community, the owners of the banks, the attorneys and the famous architects. It gives you a sense of pride.''
The cultural impact is already being felt in South Florida. Two years ago, the Mexican Consulate in South Miami opened a cultural center, and it has been exhibiting the works of painters, sculptors and musicians from Mexico. The consulate, whose work had largely focused on assisting migrant workers, also has stepped up its social and business agenda, staging events for well-to-do Mexicans to network.
''Many moneyed Mexicans are buying apartments in the new projects going up in Brickell Avenue, Aventura and Miami Beach,'' Mexican Consul General Jorge Lomónaco said. ``They are investing in the development of this city, which has a unique economy that behaves in a unique manner, a Hong Kong of the Americas.''
Before well-heeled Mexicans started coming in significant numbers about three years ago, Miami had ''a nearly complete Latin American recipe -- lots of Brazilians, Argentines, Colombians, Central Americans -- but the Mexican ingredient was missing,'' Lomónaco said.
''We've come to add the picante [spice],'' he quipped.
The slick Mexico City magazine Expansión acknowledges the trend in its November 2003 cover story, The Miami Attraction: The Complete Story of the Florida Jewel that Seduced Mexicans (And Their Money). The magazine devotes dozens of color pages to show Miami's competitive edge over hubs once preferred by Mexicans -- Houston, San Diego and Los Angeles.
''The city,'' the magazine said, "is a magnet for entrepreneurs in search of business opportunities and the Mexicans know it.''
But what is it like to live in Cuban-dominated Miami versus Los Angeles or the Southwest, where Mexican Americans are a majority?
''For us, it's like living on vacation,'' Cassave said. "In Mexico, we left the city every weekend to avoid the pollution. In school, children can't even go outside for recess because the contamination is so bad, and in the pictures they paint, the sky is always gray because that's all they know.''
Legaspi, a cancer surgeon practicing in Miami since 1987, says Miami-Dade County's multitongued ambience is a big factor in his comfort level.
''I can move very comfortably in the Anglo world and the Latin world.
That to me, makes it very vibrant and very stimulating. I like to speak
Spanish and I just switch modes dependiendo de la preferencia de la gente,''
he laughed, noting he speaks in whatever language people prefer, "Spanglish