ORLANDO, Fla. – Central Florida is home to a melting pot of Hispanic and Latino communities and along Semoran Boulevard there are many restaurants and businesses that have become a staple of Orlando but specifically those owned by Puerto Ricans.
“The Puerto Rican population in Central Florida is huge and continues to grow,” Dr. Luis Martínez Fernández, a UCF history professor and author said.
Martínez Fernández estimates about 300,000 Puerto Ricans, or Boricuas as they are called, have called Central Florida home since the 1970s.
“Part of it had to do with veterans who were retiring and moved to this area,” Martínez Fernández said.
Another aspect he explained was that during the 70s, a real estate company by the name of Landstar introduced Central Florida to that minority group, as a place where they could thrive, enjoy a similar climate, and build a home right next to Walt Disney World.
“In the 70s and into the 80s (Landstar) had some very aggressive marketing, not just in Puerto Rico but also in New York City where the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans still is,” Martínez Fernández said.
Although the history professor was born in Cuba, he lived on the island many years and was among the group of people who left Puerto Rico in the 1980s due to its economic instability and lack of job opportunities.
“There were factors that were pushing people out of Puerto Rico. At the top of the list I would include large unemployment rate but also very low salaries,” he said. “Several companies, particularly in the south of the island that generated much employment and good-paying salaries, began to leave.”
In Central Florida, Orlando and Kissimmee are where most Puerto Ricans have established themselves -- making up a large part of its economic growth.
Conrad Santiago is a native of Puerto Rico and a well-known private financial advisor in Orlando.
“You have business owners who have expanded relocated to Central Florida, you have people who have relocated without really having a job but well prepared, educated and they’ve been able to excel by establishing their own businesses,” Santiago said. “Puerto Rico is well known for the arts, food. We have seen the contributions you know to the community throughout the years in different aspects.”
Santiago is one of the co-founders of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Orlando. He is also a board member of the nonprofit organization Prospera, which works with Latinos looking to open their own businesses.
“Those businesses from the start they have evolved developed and been successful,” Santiago said.
In 2019, 39% of Prospera’s clients were Puerto Ricans.
“The fact that Puerto Rican’s are raised in the same economic and financial systems that we have in the U.S. you know, -- we’re part of the U.S. and we understand the political system, the economic system -- it’s easier for Puerto Rican’s to adapt when they relocate to the area,” Santiago said.
For Martínez Fernández, Hispanic Heritage Month should be a time to look past the stereotypes of Latinos. It’s just as important to highlight the power Hispanics and Latinos have when it comes to politics and the workforce.
“Immigrants in general, bring a strong work ethic because we have to fight hard to reach positions of authority,” he said. “There’s certain aspects that we also bring to the table such as a sense of community, which is stronger. A sense of the family which goes beyond the basic unit of parents and children.”
In his latest column for the online publisher, Creators, Martínez Fernández also challenges the community to think beyond what makes up the essence of Latinos, which isn’t just their traditional foods, ethnic clothing and music.
“My position is: Please, let’s move beyond that and let’s have more serious events in which we display others aspects of our culture. Fine arts, cinema for example. Why don’t we think about that? Why don’t we invite a poet from Nicaragua or Uruguay,” Martínez Fernández said. “There’s some aspects of creativity, improvisation that we bring to the table and I wish, you know, there was a broader understanding of what we can bring to the table, which is not just the tacos and the empanadas.”
From Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, the U.S. celebrates the contributions of the Hispanic community during Hispanic Heritage Month.
News 6 intends to highlight the rich heritage found in our own backyard, the culture that was created overseas, thousands of miles away and now is embedded into Central Florida. Somos Central Florida -- We Are Central Florida -- recognizes how history has shaped the heritage here in Florida and the culture that’s creating the future.
For more Somos Central Florida stories, check out clickorlando.com/hispanicheritage.