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Tue February 5, 2013

One-Way Tickets To Florida: Puerto Ricans Escape Island Woes

Originally published on Tue February 5, 2013 5:09 pm

Puerto Rico's population is dropping. Faced with a deteriorating economy, increased poverty and a swelling crime rate, many citizens are fleeing the island for the U.S. mainland. In a four-part series, Morning Edition explores this phenomenon, and how Puerto Rico's troubles are affecting its people and other Americans in unexpected ways.

According to the most recent census, the 4.6 million Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland now surpass those on the island of Puerto Rico. For years, they've been migrating out of the U.S. Caribbean territory — many to escape the escalating crime rate and economic crisis.

Today, Florida replaces New York as the primary destination for Puerto Ricans coming to the U.S. In Osceola County, Fla., the population has tripled over the past two decades largely because of the migration. It's one of the nation's fastest growing areas, and about half of the population is Hispanic — most of them Puerto Rican.

Bringing Puerto Rico To Florida

In Kissimmee, south of Orlando, many of the signs are in Spanish, and some businesses resemble what you might find in a city like San Juan.

One of those businesses is Miguel Fontanez's restaurant, Pioco's Chicken. It's a spot that was started by his father, also named Miguel.

The elder Fontanez owned a chain of successful restaurants in Puerto Rico. But in 1996, he brought his family to Central Florida after his brother, a police officer, was killed.

"It was very bad; it was very tough," Fontanez says. "So [my father] just wanted to move somewhere fresh and start something different. And my grandmother at that time was living already here. So the first place that came to mind was Florida."

Many of his customers, he says, are still newcomers from the island.

"Just last week, I had a big group, a family that just moved from Puerto Rico here because of the economy, because it's very bad," Fontanez says. "They're more in the truck business, and over here it's expanding more than over there."

Other businesses — larger endeavors — are also migrating from the island.

A number of Puerto Rican colleges and universities have opened campuses in Central Florida, offering bilingual education to the area's fast-growing Hispanic population.

Mech Tech Institute, for example, is a technical school that launched its first U.S. campus last year in Orlando at a defunct Saturn dealership. The institute offers training in everything from heating and air-conditioning repair to diesel machines.

A Long History With Florida

The connection between Florida and Puerto Rico stretches back decades. But many say the Big Bang — the event that created the huge wave of Puerto Rican migration — came on a specific date: Oct. 1, 1971, the day Walt Disney World opened its doors.

Disney World, and the theme parks that came after it, created thousands of jobs in an area that had been largely rural. Opportunities were especially ripe for bilingual speakers like John Quinones, a Puerto Rican who's now a commissioner in Osceola County.

"I used Spanish a lot," Quinones says. "A lot of the [people from] Latin American countries that would come to visit the parks — that would certainly cater to them."

Quinones was 14 when his family moved to the area from Puerto Rico. He worked at Disney World's Frontierland, at the Pecos Bill cafe, to support himself while in college.

The opening of Disney World came at a critical time for Puerto Rico, as the 1970s saw the beginning of an economic slowdown on the island that continues to this day.

But Jorge Duany, a professor of anthropology at Miami's Florida International University, says the financial troubles arrived after decades of prosperity on the island — an era that greatly expanded the middle class.

"And there was substantial economic growth," Duany says. "The educational system expanded. So there was actually a large group of people who were then capable of investing, migrating or at least buying land in Florida so they or their kids could use it later on."

A New Home

Some of the Puerto Ricans in Osceola County say they came to be with family, some to get away from rising crime. But many, like Arlene Bonet, moved to find work. Bonet came from what she describes as a beautiful area on Puerto Rico's southwest coast — a town called Cabo Rojo.

"I used to live right on the corner by the beach. I used to go every day to the beach to see the sunsets," she recalls.

She says she misses those sunsets and the mountains nearby, where she would meditate and practice yoga every Sunday. Her town is a vacation area, and for many years, she made a good living selling real estate.

"But then the economy and the bubble exploded all around the world, and real estate went down, mortgages went down, and business went down too," she says.

Bonet says she did what she could to keep going. She laid off her four employees and went back to school to get her MBA. But then Puerto Rico went into what she calls a second, politically driven downturn.

To combat a massive budget deficit, Puerto Rico's government laid off thousands of public employees. Bonet's business was dead, and she saw no signs of when it might come back.

After moving to Central Florida with her daughter, Bonet says finding a job wasn't easy. But now that she has one, she's grown to love the area and has no plans to return.

"It's pretty much like a Caribbean island because it's sunny, it's fresh, it's beautiful," she explains. "So we feel like it's home."

While the move was hard on her daughter, Bonet says it was crucial — both for her future and her eventual grandchildren.

"That's one of the reasons also I moved," Bonet says. "It's not just thinking about me. What kind of life can I give my grandchildren in the future if Puerto Rico, instead of going up, is going down?"

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, we have the latest chapter in a long-running story. It's the migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland United States. We're reporting this week on the most recent wave of that migration and what's behind it. Part of the story is the social and economic trouble in Puerto Rico, which is currently classified as a U.S. commonwealth, somewhere short of statehood. Part of the story is how the Puerto Rican migration continues changing the rest of the U.S. A major destination for today's migrants is Central Florida, which is where our colleague David Greene begins.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: I'm in Kissimmee, which is just south of the city of Orlando. And we're starting our story here, because the movement of people from Puerto Rico is having a huge impact in this area of Florida. Now, let's talk about the island. There is an economic crisis in Puerto Rico that has implications for the entire United States.

Drug cartels have moved in, and most of the drugs, they're ending up all up and down the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. The murder rate now on Puerto Rico is even higher than in Mexico. Now, all of those problems are driving people away. Many of them are arriving here in Florida. And I'm here with NPR's Greg Allen, who covers Florida. And, Greg, what kind of impact is all this having here?

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, first of all, David, this is one of the nation's fastest-growing areas, and much of it is because of Puerto Rican migration. In this county, the population has tripled over the last two decades. One of the ways it's changing things is in politics. In the last two elections, Puerto Ricans helped President Obama carry the state.

GREENE: And we can't forget, I mean, these are American voters. They're American citizens. This is not an immigration story. These are people moving from another part of the U.S.

ALLEN: Exactly. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. People migrate here just for the price of a plane ticket.

GREENE: Well, you've brought me to a shopping center. You asked me to meet you here. Why exactly at this spot?

ALLEN: Well, this does look like a typical Florida shopping plaza, but you'll notice - look around - these signs are mostly in Spanish. We're outside a very popular restaurant here. It's called Pioco's Chicken. You want to go inside?

GREENE: Yeah, sure. Smells good. Grab a seat. And you've spent some time talking to people here, right?

ALLEN: Right. Well, this is the kind of restaurant that you might find in San Juan. I spoke to the manager, Miguel Fontanez, earlier, and he told me people come here mostly for the chicken.

MIGUEL FONTANEZ: Well, first of all, we marinate it through different types of orange juices, and then we slowly roast it for 45 minutes to an hour, for it to cook perfectly, and it just comes right off the bone.

ALLEN: Pioco's was started by Fontanez's father, also named Miguel. The elder Fontanez had a chain of successful restaurants in Puerto Rico. But in 1996, he brought his family to Central Florida after his brother, a police officer, was killed.

FONTANEZ: It was very bad. It was very tough. So he just wanted to move somewhere fresh and start something different. And my grandmother, at that time, was living already here. So, first place that came to mind was Florida.

ALLEN: Many of his customers are still newcomers from the island who just arrived here.

FONTANEZ: Just last week, I had a big group, a family that just moved from Puerto Rico here because of the economy, because it's very bad. And over here, they have - in the truck business. They're more in the truck business. Over here, it's expanding more than over there.

ALLEN: Florida has replaced New York as the primary destination for Puerto Ricans coming to the U.S. People are migrating here from the island, and also businesses.

EMILY FIGUEROA: We just relocated from Puerto Rico. This is actually our eighth campus. In Puerto Rico, we have seven campuses.

ALLEN: Emily Figueroa is with Mech Tech, a technical school that offers training in everything from heating and air-conditioning repair to diesel mechanics. The school opened its U.S. campus in April in Orlando at a defunct Saturn dealership.

FIGUEROA: Now, this is actually our main laboratory. And this part of the front is going to be automotive mechanics.

ALLEN: Now, you call it a laboratory. I would call it a mechanic shop.

FIGUEROA: Shop.

ALLEN: In the last few years, other Puerto Rican colleges and universities have also opened campuses in Central Florida, offering bilingual education to the area's fast-growing Hispanic population. The connection between this area and Puerto Rico stretches back decades. But many say the Big Bang - the event that created the huge wave of Puerto Rican migration - came on a specific date.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISNEY SPECIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: On October 1st, 1971, Walt Disney World opened its doors to a small gathering to 10,000 smiling faces.

ALLEN: That's from a Disney special broadcast on the park's 10th anniversary. Walt Disney World and the theme parks that came after it created thousands of jobs in an area that had been largely rural. Disney recruited Puerto Ricans for jobs at the park because of their bilingual skills.

JOHN QUINONES: Surely, that was the case when I worked in the parks.

ALLEN: John Quinones is commissioner in Osceola County, just east of Disney World.

QUINONES: I used Spanish a lot. And a lot of the Latin American countries that would come to visit the parks, that would certainly cater to them.

ALLEN: Quinones was 14 when his family moved to the area from Puerto Rico. He worked in Frontierland, at the Pecos Bill's Cafe, to support himself while he was in college. As it happened, the opening of Walt Disney World came at a critical time for Puerto Rico. The 1970s saw the beginning of an economic slowdown on the island that continues to this day. But Jorge Duany, a professor of anthropology at Miami's Florida International University, says that came after decades of prosperity on the island, an era that greatly expanded the middle class.

JORGE DUANY: And there was a substantial economic growth. The educational system expanded. So there was actually a large group of people who were then capable of investing, migrating or at least buying land in Florida, so that either they or their kids could use it later on.

ALLEN: Today, about half of Osceola County is Hispanic, and by far the largest group is Puerto Rican. Many of the Puerto Ricans here say they came to be with family, some to get away from rising crime. But many, like Arlene Bonet, came to find work. Bonet comes from what she describes as a beautiful area on Puerto Rico's southwest coast, a town called Cabo Rojo.

ARLENE BONET: I used to live right on the corner, by the beach. I used to go every day to the beach and see the sunsets.

ALLEN: Bonet misses those sunsets and the mountains where she'd travel every Sunday to meditate and to practice yoga. Cabo Rojo is a vacation area, and for many years, she made a good living selling real estate.

BONET: But then the economy and the bubble exploded all around the world, and real estate went down, mortgages went down, and business went down, too.

ALLEN: Bonet says she did what she could to keep going. She laid off her four employees and went back to school to get her MBA. But then Puerto Rico went into what she calls a second, politically driven downturn. To combat a massive budget deficit, Puerto Rico's government laid off thousands of public employees. Bonet's business was dead, and she saw no signs of when it might come back. After moving to Central Florida with her daughter, Bonet says finding a job wasn't easy. But now that she has, she likes the area and has no plans to return to the island.

BONET: It's pretty much like a Caribbean island, because it's sunny, it's fresh, it's beautiful. So, we feel like home.

ALLEN: It's a story you hear time and again from Puerto Ricans in Central Florida. Bonet says the move was hard on her daughter, but is important both for her future and for her grandchildren not yet born.

BONET: That's one of the also reasons that I move. You know, it's not just thinking about me. You know, what kind of life can I give my grandchildren in the future if Puerto Rico, instead of going up, is going down?

GREENE: That's NPR's Greg Allen reporting there. And I'm still with Greg here in Central Florida. And, you know, Greg, it really sounds like, for Arlene, that there's no turning back.

ALLEN: Well, that's right, David. She says she misses her son and her mother, who still live in Cabo Rojo, but her home is here now.

GREENE: Yeah, her family is still there, and we're going to meet some of those family members tomorrow as we move our series from here in Central Florida to the island of Puerto Rico. Greg, thanks a lot.

ALLEN: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: And that's our colleague David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.