Boricua Boom: Will Puerto Ricans Change South Florida's Latino Landscape?

Oct 18, 2016

On Labor Day there was a good Puerto Rican party on Hollywood Beach – classic Willie Colón salsa music playing on the boom box – hosted by a South Florida group called Boricuas Realengos.

Boricua means Puerto Rican, and so the group’s name translates to “Far-Flung Puerto Ricans.”

Boricuas Realengos started just two years ago – but it already has 4,000 members. That’s because one of its missions is to help Puerto Ricans migrating to the U.S. mainland from their Caribbean island, which is a U.S. commonwealth.

“The situation is very bad in Puerto Rico,” says Angie Flores, a Boricuas Realengos director and an industrial engineer in Miramar who left Puerto Rico 21 years ago.

“It’s very hard to live there. So we want people from Puerto Rico to feel that family touch here and tell them, you know, how the system works.”

RELATED: Island Crisis Makes South Florida Puerto Ricans a Fast-Growing 'Watchdog'

That emergent "family touch" is helping newcomers like Norah Rodriguez more easily network job opportunities – like the math teacher position she found at Palm Beach Lakes Community High School soon after she arrived last year from Arroyo, Puerto Rico.

“Neither my husband nor I would have moved here if we didn’t have that kind of support,” says Rodriguez.

And that includes comfort food.

When Rodriguez moved to Lake Worth, so did The PR Bakery By Diana. It has her favorites, like mofongo, a fried plantain dish; quesitos, sweet cheese pastries, and mucho más.

Pastelillo de guayaba, arroz con gandules, tostones de pana,” Rodriguez chants as she scans the PR Bakery’s selections. “That’s the stuff your grandmother makes!

“I was really surprised to know that so many Puerto Ricans are now staying here in southern Florida.”

We want to have the Puerto Rican community to stay together – the same way that the Cubans do. –Angie Flores

She’s not the only one surprised.

One of the worst economic crises in Puerto Rico’s history is driving tens of thousands of people from the island each year. All of them are U.S. citizens – and most are coming to Florida. The state’s Puerto Rican population has grown 110 percent since 2000 to more than a million.

The majority live in Central Florida locales like Orlando. But what’s less known is that South Florida is experiencing this Boricua Boom too. More than 300,000 Puerto Ricans now live in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties.

“South Florida – the culture is a lot more like Puerto Rico,” says Forth Lauderdale software engineer Carlos Hernandez, one of the Boricuas Realengos at the Hollywood Beach fiesta.

“It’s got more of a Latin way of life,” says Hernandez, who’s originally from Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, as he plays a güiro, a rhythm instrument made from a gourd.

That cultural factor is one reason Puerto Rican business is following Puerto Ricans into South Florida more than elsewhere in the state. National Lumber and Hardware is Puerto Rico’s largest home improvement chain, and it opened its first U.S. store last year in Lake Worth.

DOCTOR EXODUS

“It’s refreshing that I could go out and find a lot of the things I found in Puerto Rico,” says E.R. doctor Brian Mendez, who recently moved from Bayamón, Puerto Rico, to Miramar – which along with Pembroke Pines may be South Florida’s Puerto Rican epicenter.

Mendez loves the fact that he can now walk into WalMart there and buy Puerto Rico’s most popular bread, Cidrines, or its best-selling coffee, Yaucono.

Lake Worth newcomer Norah Rodriguez talks with Heber Santiago, owner of The PR Bakery.
Credit Tim Padgett / WLRN.org

But what matters most to Mendez is that he can practice medicine at a higher level here – and at a much higher salary. In Puerto Rico, the crisis is forcing many hospitals and clinics to close. At least one doctor is leaving the island each day.

“Yeah, I feel sad,” says Mendez. “We’re in a big hole in Puerto Rico, and we need to do something about it.”

Until its dysfunctional political parties get their acts together, Puerto Rico will keep losing professionals like Mendez. And those who follow Puerto Rican migration say that while many working-class arrivals find theme park jobs in Orlando, nurses, engineers and entrepreneurs are gravitating to South Florida.

“In South Florida, you get more opportunities for professionals,” says Benjamin Caban, who heads the Puerto Rican Professional Association of South Florida (PROFESA). “We’ve seen that more and more Puerto Rican professionals are coming to South Florida.”

Because Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, Caban says they often have an easier time establishing themselves here – and building professional bridges.

“Definitely I think the Puerto Ricans, any place you put them they could get along with everyone,” Caban says. “We could definitely connect different dots.”

South Florida Puerto Ricans celebrating Puerto Rican heritage at a Miami Marlins game in August.
Credit Courtesy Boricuas Realengos

Caban says Puerto Rico’s crisis is South Florida’s gain in that sense. He thinks Puerto Ricans are poised to become a Latino force here on par with Cubans. But that will take more growth – and unity.

Says Flores of Boricuas Realengos: “We want to have the Puerto Rican community to stay together – the same way that the Cubans do.”

Next week we’ll look at whether Puerto Ricans are coming together strongly enough to alter the political equation in South Florida.