Puerto Ricans choosing Florida over other states

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – Juaniuska Saldana thought about leaving Puerto Rico for years, but it took a two-week government shutdown earlier this month to get her to hop a plane to the U.S. mainland and scout out a new life.

Unlike previous generations, though, the 34-year-old computer technician and single mother skipped New York and other northern cities. Instead, she headed straight for Florida.

“I lived in New York City six years as a kid. It’s a busy, more accelerated city, too much,” she said. “I wanted to find a place that is safe for my son.”

Saldana is not alone. In recent months, Florida business and Puerto Rican community groups have been flooded with calls and visits from people looking to escape the island’s latest political turmoil. The calls have subsided somewhat since Puerto Rico’s legislators and governor reached a budget agreement that reopened the commonwealth’s government offices and schools.

But experts say the frenzy highlights a demographic change that could have significant political effect in Florida and throughout the country. Unlike other recent Hispanic immigrants, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and can vote.

“You don’t have to wait for these immigrants to become naturalized and politicized,” said Carlos Vargas-Ramos, a researcher at Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies.

For more than a decade, Puerto Ricans have slowly moved to the Sun Belt. And nowhere is the change more noticeable than in Florida, which has supplanted New Jersey as the No. 2 state for mainland Puerto Ricans, behind New York. The number of Puerto Ricans in Florida was estimated at 656,300 in 2004, the latest year available, up 165 percent since 1990.

Nearly half of Florida’s Puerto Ricans have settled in Orange and Osceola counties, in the central part of the state.

Experts say Florida’s southern and central counties have drawn Puerto Ricans because they are more affordable than northern cities, have a booming service industry from tourism – think Disney – a warmer climate and a more laid back pace of life. They are also a 2 ½-hour plane ride from the island.

Luis Martinez-Fernandez, director of the University of Central Florida Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies Program, says central Florida is also attracting Puerto Rican professionals, like Saldana, who are less drawn to the isolated enclaves that earlier generations sought out – or were forced into.

The critical mass is also starting to get notice from both major political parties. While Puerto Ricans tend to vote Democratic, Republicans are eagerly wooing those in Florida. Earlier this month, the Republican Party’s booth was the first to greet visitors at the regional Hispanic Business and Consumer Expo in Orlando.

State Rep. John Quinones, a Republican and the first Puerto Rican in the Legislature, has been touted as an up and coming leader by the state’s top politicians since his 2003 election.

Democrats, though slower to dig in, are also beginning to see the Puerto Ricans as a “counter” to Miami’s predominantly Republican Cuban community, Vargas-Ramos said.

But for Saldana, moving to Florida is not about politics.

“I want a place where I can find work, good schools for my 15-year-old son,” she said from her home in San Juan. “I want a place where the government is not going to shut down.”

AP-ES-05-27-06 1338EDT

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