Puerto Ricans remember roots as they sink new ones
BETWEEN 2 WORLDS
Victor Manuel Ramos
Sentinel Staff Writer
In the New Orlando of 2020, nearly one in every three residents will be Hispanic -- with a new generation on the rise.
In Buenaventura Lakes and the surrounding neighborhoods, a slice of that New Orlando already exists.
Hispanics, mostly Puerto Ricans, are the majority there, creating a place some now call Orlando's Little Puerto Rico -- a version of Miami's Little Havana or New York City's Spanish Harlem.
Nearly one-fourth of the residents in the enclave are teenagers or younger. Many still come from the island, and others are New York transplants. But more now are native Floridians.
Wherever their birth, these New Orlandoans have this in common: the struggle to find their place between two cultures.
Local leaders say how Little Puerto Rico will evolve in coming years depends on what the community does for its youngest residents.
Among the challenges:
Teaching the children about their roots as they forge their own identities.
Preserving the home away from home it took a generation to build.
Helping the next generation -- many born on the mainland -- to thrive in school and in the community.
The demographic shifts within Little Puerto Rico -- the cluster of neighborhoods that combines Buenaventura Lakes with Meadow Woods in Orange County and some adjacent Kissimmee areas -- are representative of the Hispanic wave shaping the region.
Hispanics are planting new communities and bringing up a generation of New Orlandoans in the stretch of Azalea Park that extends to south Semoran Boulevard in southeast Orlando; in the Oak Ridge, Southchase and Pine Castle vicinity of southern Orange County; and in the burgeoning Poinciana neighborhoods in southern Osceola, among others.
Hispanics became the largest minority group during the past few years, now tallying more than 370,000 residents just in the metro area comprised by Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake, according to 2004 census surveys. Nearly 200,000 of them are Puerto Rican.
This reflects a national movement that researchers are trying to explain as Puerto Ricans leave urban cores for suburbia.
"It's something that we call the Florida phenomenon, because the Puerto Rican community there is unlike any other we have seen in the states," said Angelo Falcon, president of the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy in New York City. His 2004 analysis of population trends identified Orlando as the U.S. city with the fastest-growing Puerto Rican population.
Juan Rivera pounded the stretched goatskin of his drum, and more than a dozen dancers -- little girls to grown women -- waved the sides of their skirts to the rhythm.
One of the women led the song, echoed by all as they urged Stephanie Quirindongo, who stepped up to lead dancer, to "shake it" to the rhythm: !Remeneate, remeneate, casco 'e buey! !Remeneate, remeneate, casco 'e buey!
The rehearsal might seem out of place in other Central Florida subdivisions, but not in a home in BVL, as most residents call the neighborhood. Judith Magali Rojas is president of the Centro de Cultura Puertorriquena de La Florida, a nonprofit organization that promotes Puerto Rican culture in BVL. Months ago, while attending a community festival, she noticed the absence of teenagers and realized they are the ignored segment of the community.
Adults, Rojas said, have festivals, Masses and family gatherings, and they can easily drive to other events outside BVL. Even many of the Hispanic senior citizens enjoy weekly meals, aerobics, bingo and dominoes, but there is little for children and teenagers outside of schools.
Unable to find a meeting place for the traditional bomba dances, Rojas decided to use her living room.
Only one girl and her mother showed up the first day of rehearsals months ago. Now, Rojas has to turn people away. The group -- called Sembrando Raices, "planting roots" -- already has performed at community events. She is hoping the cultural immersion will help the girls develop self-confidence for life.
It has been nearly 30 years since the first families moved in. That's long enough for the neighborhood to establish itself as the epicenter of Florida's Puerto Rican community. But it is a time also distant enough that for many in the up-and-coming generation, this is the only Puerto Rico they know.
"I was born here," said Stephanie, a 16-year-old who lives in Buenaventura Lakes. "I haven't really lived there, but I feel like I miss Puerto Rico anyway."
Rojas wants other adults to join forces to help the youths -- and soon, if they hope to sustain the home away from home they worked so hard to create.
"We have a lot to do," she said.
A rapidly changing area
Buenaventura Lakes, where 55 percent of the residents are Hispanic, ties with the much smaller Harlem Heights neighborhood in Fort Myers as the place with the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans in all of Florida: About 37 percent of their residents indicated island ancestry on the most recent U.S. census.
The thousands who populated BVL and surrounding areas -- retirees to families, young professionals to tourism workers -- wanted to escape unemployment, crime and low-performing school systems, first in the Northeast and later Puerto Rico.
Residents say they now worry about BVL morphing into the urban areas they left behind, partly because of escalating housing prices, more newcomers competing for jobs and crowded schools.
"The way I see it, this community will continue growing," said Olga Gutierrez, who owns Piocos Chicken, a popular neighborhood stop where people can sample Puerto Rican food or sit to chat about island politics.
Gutierrez's family left the island for good in 1995, after a relative was killed during a carjacking. This area was her safe haven, but she is not alone in fearing this could change if growth also leads to a decline in quality of life. From 2004 to 2005, criminal acts such as robbery, larceny and car thefts rose in BVL, though other violent incidents waned.
"I just pray to God," said Gutierrez, "that all of those who are coming have their own betterment in mind, because none of us came here to spoil this place, but to seek progress."
Signs of the Puerto Rican community's vibrancy are everywhere. There are real-estate offices, car-repair shops, banks, supermarkets, dance clubs, churches, even funeral homes that cater to Hispanics and bind the community.
Banco Popular, a Puerto Rico-based bank, has been a mainstay since 1997. Goya Foods, a Hispanic-owned food company, has its Central Florida distribution center on the outskirts of Meadow Woods. Non-Hispanic companies seem to be taking notice, with Publix opening one of its first Sabor stores there.
Along Buenaventura Boulevard, U.S. Highway 192, Osceola Parkway and other thoroughfares, small businesses compete for their niche. Gutierrez's market, for example, is booming. Her customers consume more than 1,700 plantains and more than 3,000 chickens a month.
In addition, hundreds worship in Spanish at the Catholic church Santa Catalina de Siena or at any of a dozen other Hispanic evangelical churches, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses Salon del Reino nearby. Dances and bingo fill the local community center, named after the late Robert Guevara, the first -- and as yet, only -- Puerto Rican elected to the Osceola County Commission.
"BVL is like a Puerto Rican Levittown," said Norman Quintero, a Realtor who markets homes to Puerto Ricans. "It's one of the first places to which Puerto Ricans come before exploring the rest of Orlando."
Osvaldo Berberena bought the second home in Meadow Woods, an expansion of Buenaventura Lakes. A man of faith, he vacationed here and prayed for a sign on whether he and his wife should stay. The answer arrived as he drove on I-4 and saw a billboard advertising affordable homes.
"We weren't desperate in Puerto Rico. We had jobs, but we felt we were not going anywhere," said Berberena, 50, who founded the Centro Cristiano Genesis church from his home in the mid-1980s. It grew to occupy a 20,000-square-foot hall off Boggy Creek Road.
About 20 people gathered there recently for one of its Wednesday evening prayer sessions. Their prayer ascended from whispers to clapping and bursts of praise in a mix of English, Spanish and the inspired utterances of the gift of tongues.
That same night, less than four miles away, another crowd of about 100 people, most of them Puerto Ricans, assembled at the Robert Guevara Community Center. They were there for salsa classes.
Kaeila Soto, 25, is one of the regulars, joining the classes in 2001 to reconnect with her culture.
Soto, a mortgage broker, says she has found in Little Puerto Rico all she needs. She moved there from Miami when she was 14. Soto attends a Puerto Rican Baptist church on Sundays; hosts friends for dominoes at her apartment; and goes to local food stops for treats such as alcapurrias, an appetizer of meat-stuffed bananas and taro roots.
"I like the schools. I like the neighborhood. I like the attractions," Soto said. "I love it and wouldn't change it."
A struggle to belong
While many adults enjoy community life, the youth are trying to fit in. Many deal with language and academic-performance issues in school.
The schools that serve the Buenaventura Lakes area, from elementary to high school, are 66 percent to 72 percent Hispanic. They achieved C grades, according to 2005 FCAT scores, showing no grade improvement from the year before.
The district has a program for students learning English, but Dalia Medina, the district's Multicultural Department coordinator, said 91 percent of 390 10th-graders in the program failed the FCAT reading test in 2005. They will have a couple more years to pass the test, or they risk leaving school without a diploma.
Some say many teenagers and middle-school tweeners spend too much time alone, baby-sitting themselves because of the lack of after-school activities.
"The young people in this community," said the Rev. Jose Bautista, pastor of Santa Catalina de Siena Roman Catholic Church, "are going through cultural displacement. They are here, but they do not fully identify with just Hispanic culture because they're growing up with American influence, and they don't feel fully American because they are different."
A small segment of the teenagers give up when confronted with difficulties.
That was the case with three boys and three girls hanging out near the basketball courts off Florida Parkway during school hours.
They said their families had moved to BVL in search of better neighborhoods. But, while their parents worked, they wound up cutting classes. "It's a bad neighborhood. There are robberies, shootouts," said a 14-year-old girl, whose family moved from Bayamon about 11 years ago.
Two of the boys said they are not planning to return to school because they feel misunderstood.
The 14-year-old girl said she was on suspension from middle school.
"I used to get A's and B's in school," she said, "but sometimes they suspend you just because you talk."
Some in the community are trying to keep more from falling through the cracks.
It's why Rojas hosts the bomba dances at her home.
"I want them to have that love for Puerto Rico that I have, because when you see them dancing you know it's in their blood," she said.
Juan Rivero, a probation officer, started the Osceola Pilots, a baseball team for 12- and 13-year-old boys, but he needs money for uniforms and supplies.
"Kids in this area sometimes don't have a chance to play competitive sports before high school," he said. "And that's what I try to give them. . . . It's something that helps them grow as players and gives them something to do when not in school."
The Genesis church is saving to build a community center, where its members hope to have basketball courts, game rooms, maybe an Internet cafe -- a safe place to attract teens.
The challenges ahead, though, do not curb a sense of optimism.
At the church, Debby Rivera led a prayer session in which teens joined adults in song. They closed their eyes to envision a future full of promise in the New Orlando they inhabit.
"Listen to the words: 'Your latter [years] will be greater than the rest' . . ." Rivera said, quoting a verse from the song. "What we are in now is glorious, but it's going to get better."
Victor Manuel Ramos can be reached at email@example.com or