When Maurice Ferré, nephew of a former Puerto Rican governor, enrolled in the University of Miami in 1953, the number of Puerto Ricans in Miami-Dade County barely reached 3,000 — with about 4,500 more in all of Florida.
Today, 64 years later, there are many more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans in the county and more than one million in Florida — largely in the metropolitan areas around Orlando and Tampa. And in the rest of the country there are more than five million people of Puerto Rican origin, more than on the island itself where the population is estimated at more than 3.5 million.
As the Puerto Rican economy worsens, resettlement in the United States is skyrocketing, especially to Florida, which many on the island view as more suitable than the traditional migration sites of New York, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Jorge Duany, director and professor at Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute, has described the “massive population displacement” in his new book, “Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know.”
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“I discuss the impact of the island’s economic recession since 2006 on the spectacular growth of the Puerto Rican exodus to Florida, especially the Orlando metropolitan area,” Duany said in an email to el Nuevo Herald.
The #QueVoteMiGente coalition recently said in a statement that by 2020, Puerto Ricans will become the largest Hispanic subgroup in Florida.
Currently, the country’s largest Hispanic group is Mexicans with more than 32 million people of the more than 50 million Hispanics in the United States. People of Puerto Rican origin, whether born on the island or in the U.S., are the second-largest Hispanic group in the United States, but far from Mexicans in numbers.
Puerto Ricans blame the island’s economy for the migration.
“We are here because the economy over there is bad,” said Aurea Inglés, 52, a Wynwood resident who has lived in the United States for more than 30 years. “When I was 18 and finished high school, I couldn’t find a job over there, and so I came here. Jobs are not abundant here, but there are more employment opportunities than over there.”
Although the size of the Puerto Rican population has increased, its numbers were not enough — same with other Hispanics — to change the course of the 2016 presidential election, but they did succeed in making Florida history anyway.
“The incontrovertible fact is that Puerto Ricans showed up in early voting and on Election Day in unprecedented numbers,” #QueVoteMiGente said in a statement. “Puerto Rican turnout had significant down-ballot impact, including a win for Darren Soto, who will be the first Puerto Rican congressman from Florida.”
Additionally, voters sent Amy Mercado to the Florida House, Victor Torres to the Florida Senate, and Emily Bonilla to the Orange County Board of County Commissioners, making her the first Puerto Rican Democrat elected to that office, the group said.
Although Soto is the first Puerto Rican from Florida in Congress, he is only the most recent of a long line of people of Puerto Rican origin who have won elected office throughout the country.
Ferré, 81, was the first Hispanic mayor of Miami and at the same time the first mayor of Puerto Rican origin in the United States.
Puerto Rican politicians have participated in local and state election campaigns since last century.
After the United States began controlling Puerto Rico in 1898 following after the Spanish-American War, Puerto Ricans have emigrated to the United States in increasing numbers. Some small groups first settled in Tampa where there were also Cuban pioneer settlers since the 19th century.
Shortly after the end of World War I, Puerto Rican emigration began to increase after Congress in 1917 approved a law granting U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans.
After World War II, emigration of Puerto Ricans to the United States continued growing, mainly to New York. Eventually, Puerto Ricans began to influence popular national culture.
The Broadway musical “West Side Story” premiered in 1957 featuring New York gang rivalries.
In 1961, the movie version added to the Puerto Rican cultural legacy. Natalie Wood played the starring role of Maria, sister of gang leader Bernardo, who dated Anita, a role played by Puerto Rico-born actress Rita Moreno, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004.
The 2005 book “The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Historical Perspectives” by Carmen Teresa Whalen shows in a chart the different waves of Puerto Ricans coming to the United States.
In 1910, the population of Puerto Ricans was estimated at only 1,513 people.
By 1950, there were about 226,110; by 1960, 892,513; 1970, 1.3 million; 1980, 2 million; 1990, 2.7 million; 2000, 3.4 million.
“By the 2000 Census,” wrote Whalen, “3,406,178 Puerto Ricans resided in the United States and 3,623,392 resided in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico became a ‘divided nation.’”
By the 21st century, Puerto Rican emigration became a tsunami due to the island’s worsening economic crisis.
Florida is attracting more Puerto Ricans than ever — though New York remains an important pole of attraction. The Puerto Rican population in Florida has grown this century from about 864,577 in 2010 to 1,069,446 in 2015, according to figures from the Census Bureau quoted by Duany.
“The modern history of the Puerto Rican exodus to Florida dates back to the late 19th century,” wrote Duany in his new book. “The earliest wave of Puerto Rican migrants, from about 1885 to 1940, settled primarily in the Tampa Bay area, mainly in Ybor City, the core of the U.S. cigar-making industry.”
It was between 1940 and 1980, Duany says in his book, “that most Puerto Rican migrants shifted to South Florida, especially to Miami, which provided job opportunities in seasonal agriculture, the garment industry, and tourism.”
And it was not until the 1980s, according to Duany, that Puerto Ricans moved to Central Florida, largely to the Orlando area.
“They included veterans who had been stationed in Florida’s numerous military bases and engineers recruited by NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in nearby Cape Canaveral,” Duany says. “The first large-scale movement of Puerto Ricans to Florida took place under the Farm Labor Program sponsored by the Migration Division of Puerto Rico’s Department of Labor.”
The Puerto Rican exodus to Central Florida began in earnest in the late 1960s, Duary says, when hundreds of islanders acquired properties near Orlando, especially in Deltona, Volusia County.
“During that period, Spanish-language advertisements in the island’s newspapers began to offer cheap lots in Central Florida,” Duany says. “The 1971 opening of Walt Disney’s first theme park in Orlando spurred real estate speculation in the region, and middle-class islanders saw a lucrative investment opportunity there.”
Although Puerto Rico is a commonwealth or a free associated state of the United States, the population on the island remains undecided on whether to remain in that status, become a full-fledged state or declare independence.
The option to become the 51st state received strong backing when Ricardo Rosselló — son of former island Gov. Pedro Rosselló — won the election in November.
During his campaign, Rosselló said he would work to make Puerto Rico a U.S. state.
“I want Puerto Rico to be like any other state in the nation,” said María Rios, 58, interviewed while she shopped last Wednesday night at the Jibarito food market in Wynwood, historically a Puerto Rican neighborhood of Miami. “There would be more benefits for the people and it would be better for the island’s economy.”
While many Puerto Ricans seem to favor transforming the island into a state, pro-independence supporters remain active, and many islanders admire or respect militant independence fighters.
For years, many prominent Puerto Ricans, such as singer Ricky Martin, had been advocating for the freedom of Oscar López Rivera, an old pro-independence militant in prison in the United States.
The fight to free López Rivera intensified in the days before President Barack Obama left office on Friday.
Obama commuted López Rivera’s sentence last week. Under Obama’s action, López Rivera will be released from prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, on May 17.
The San Juan newspaper, El Nuevo Día, described López Rivera as “the last revolutionary boricua [island slang for Puerto Rican] of the Cold War in American jails.”