The Miami Herald
Wed, August 13, 2008

Recession drives educated Puerto Ricans to South Florida


As a salesman for a health club in a suburb outside Puerto Rico's capital, Frank Oquendo saw up close how his earnings and the gym's membership base tanked along with Puerto Rico's economy.

Earlier this year, Oquendo's bosses cut his pay by 25 percent as a third of the Caguas club's members canceled their contracts because they were leaving Puerto Rico. After two years of soaring inflation and desperation, Oquendo finally packed up and joined his former clients, moving his family to Miami in July.

He joined thousands of middle-class professionals who have fled Puerto Rico in the past two years, becoming what some people are calling ``FloRicans.''

'Sometimes you feel like a traitor when people ask, `Why don't you stay here and work for your country?' '' said Oquendo, 35. ``How long are we supposed to sacrifice our families for unfulfilled promises? I want to help push Puerto Rico forward, but what about my kids?''

Central and South Florida are increasingly becoming home to members of Puerto Rico's middle class, who are fed up by an island wracked by inflation, unemployment and the perception of crime grown out of control.

The recession that recently struck Florida hit Puerto Rico first. It resulted in masses people moving here as first-time voters in a presidential election year, banking that the Sunshine State would provide new opportunities.

Sociologists say the wave of emigration could rival the 1950s exodus to New York, which helped reshape Manhattan's political and social fabric. This time, the Puerto Ricans leaving the island are highly educated professionals whose departure both provides a safety valve to growing unemployment and threatens the island's skilled workforce.


''We are committing collective suicide,'' said Elías Gutiérrez, who runs the graduate school of planning at the University of Puerto Rico. ``This is going to become a country of elderly and poor people.''

Census figures show at least 200,000 of Puerto Rico's 4 million people moved to Florida from 2000 to 2006, including 14,000 to Broward County and about 8,000 to Miami-Dade. About half of Florida's nearly 700,000 Puerto Ricans live in Central Florida, particularly the Orlando area.

But census figures do not reflect the wave that began two years ago, when a budget crisis forced the Puerto Rican government to shut down for several weeks. More than 70,000 people were temporarily furloughed, so it was not long before nurses, doctors and police officers joined the teachers and out-of-work public servants who headed for Florida.

Many of them found jobs before leaving Puerto Rico as recruiters from employers as varied as NASA, Disney World and the Baltimore Police Department went to Puerto Rico to find highly skilled bilingual labor. The shutdown was followed by an unprecedented increase in the sales tax to as high as 7 percent, which hit Puerto Rican wallets hard as a political crisis gripped the U.S. territory.

Then gas prices climbed, and people saw their electric bills reach as high as $1,000 a month. Government statistics show food prices have increased 12 percent this year, and housing 15 percent.

''People in Puerto Rico make around $24,000 a year,'' said Oquendo's wife, Wilma Nieves, 39. ``Day care centers and private schools cost $600 or $700 a month. Our car payment -- for a Suzuki -- was $500 a month. We were falling behind in our mortgage and other loans. You can't just stay behind and complain. You have to find opportunities.''

Nieves, an educational coordinator, has decided to be a stay-at-home mom, and Oquendo just lined up a job with Humana. They live in the Fountainebleau community in West Miami-Dade with their children, ages 7 and 2.

Experts say it's impossible to know exactly how many Puerto Ricans have arrived in Florida in the past two years. But government estimates show some 65,000 are leaving the island each year, said political analyst Luis Davila Colón.


University of Puerto Rico professor Jorge Duany, who coauthored a 2006 study of Puerto Rican migration patterns, said the island's government has largely ignored the dilemma, because it offers a much-needed safety valve for an economy experts say shrank by 2 percent last year.

''Unemployment is at 12 percent. If all those people had stayed, it would be 24 percent,'' Duany said. ``In the point of view of the individual who decides to emigrate, for the people looking for a job, it's a solution -- a way out. For Puerto Rico collectively, it's a problem.''

He's quick to note that Puerto Rican migration to Florida is nothing new: it began in the 1940s with elite landowners. In 1973, Miami elected its first Hispanic mayor, Maurice Ferré, a member of one of Puerto Rico's wealthiest families.

The 1950s saw waves of farm workers, while many more arrived in the 1970s to participate in government migrant worker programs.

But experts say they have never before seen such a drain of the middle class. The Puerto Rico Surgeons Association says its records show a loss of 800 doctors a year in the past three years.

''We would all like to stay here, eat our local food, dance salsa, speak Spanish all day and be around our friends and family,'' said association president Eduardo Ibarra. ``But when a hospital in the United States is offering four or five times your current salary, it's almost irresponsible to stay here to dance salsa. You have doctors making the painful decision to say goodbye to their mothers and fathers.''

Many doctors are out of work and even have trouble paying their rent, Ibarra said, citing ongoing problems with insurance carriers.

''The opportunities in Puerto Rico were minimal or zero,'' said Xavier Vilaro, 31, who moved to Miami in April to start looking for a job in sales, marketing, hospitality or operations after getting laid off in San Juan. ``You have to start looking somewhere else for opportunities or you get stuck.''

An experienced sales executive with a masters degree in hospitality and international business, Vilaro is still looking for work in South Florida after four months.


Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce President José Julián Alvarez said the island has seen at least 55,000 manufacturing jobs go away in the past eight years, just after losing federal subsidies for corporations. Puerto Rico Development Bank statistics show the labor force of 1.3 million people shrank by 47,000 people last year alone.

Rafael Rivera Rosario, director of employment services for Puerto Rico's Department of Labor, said he thinks the flow of people leaving for work is normal, and that Puerto Ricans are just participating in what is a worldwide crisis.

But Alvarez blames the government for the reality that more and more people find Florida's safer streets, nicer housing and lower prices too irresistible to pass up.

''It becomes a no-brainer,'' Alvarez said. ``We are going to struggle to make Puerto Rico a better place to live. We are staying and struggling to make this economy move.''

Félix V. Matos-Rodríguez, who coauthored the migration study with Duany and is now secretary of Puerto Rico's Department of Family, says the exodus could be temporary, particularly as people realize Florida is suffering job losses, too.

Emigration is part of the Puerto Rican psyche, Matos said -- and so is returning home after several years abroad.

''Let's put it this way,'' said photographer Héctor Torres, who arrived in Miami Beach this spring and has yet to find the client base he had in San Juan. ``I have a one-year lease on my apartment in Miami Beach.''