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Desireé Torres with her sons in a Super 8 hotel.
Desireé Torres with her sons in a Super 8 hotel. (Carla D. Martínez Fernández)

Orlando, Florida - The devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in the community where Desireé Torres used to live was the last straw for her. Long before the hurricane, she had plenty of reasons for deciding to leave Puerto Rico and move to central Florida seeking for better opportunities for her and her three children.

And although the road has not been easy, it seems that life has been getting better for this 31 year old woman. Recently, she managed to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to extend her stay at the small hotel in Kissimmee where she has been living since she arrived in Florida three months ago.

"The stay was extended until March 20 and, after that date, they say they will not extend anyone else’s. That's why I started looking for a job and I got hired. I went to an interview for a housekeeping position and they told me that I did not qualify for that position, but that I qualified as a housekeeping supervisor at the Wyndhan Cypress," she said, with a smilling, triumphant face. She starts working on Friday.

"I'm really happy. It is a growth opportunity for me and I will be able to give my children a better life. With this, I know I can move forward and I will be able to stay, because on the island things were bad. In my town in Las Piedras there were no jobs and there was too much crime. The hurricane came to give me a push to leave at once," she said.

Torres' story is not the only one. It repeats constantly in other stories where the names change, but not the reasons to migrate.

This is reflected in one of the first studies on the Puerto Rican exodus to Florida, which predicts an upsurge in the depopulation of Puerto Rico that had begun during last decade recession and that was boosted after the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria on the island almost five months ago.

The study, titled The Puerto Rican Exodus to Florida; before and after hurricane Maria, was done by anthropologist Jorge Duany, an expert in Puerto Rican migration, who directs the Institute of Cuban Studies and is a professor of Anthropology in the Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies at the Florida International University. It is based, mainly, on a telephone survey made to 351 residents of the island between January 10 and 12, 2018.

The paper presents details about how Puerto Ricans live in Florida and predicts that the projections about the scope of the Puerto Rican migration to this state could be higher than previously thought.

According to the data provided to El Nuevo Día by Duany, all the people interviewed answered that they intend to move to the United States at some point. 65.2 percent said that once they emigrate, they would stay indefinitely.

Among the states selected for a potential emigration, the majority of the interviewees (36.8 percent) said they would move to Florida, 26.5 percent, to New York, and the rest mentioned other states such as Texas, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Among those who said they would move to Florida, 45.7 percent said they would settle in Orlando, 24.8 percent in Miami, and 7 percent in Fort Lauderdale.

"This suggests that the potential of Puerto Rican migration after María could be higher than what has been speculated so far," says Duany in the study.

According to the Census, between 2000 and 2017, the island's population declined from 3.8 million to 3.3 million people, due mainly to high emigration rates. The Census calculated that net migration from Puerto Rico to the United States amounted to 311,198 between 2000 and 2009 and to 428,421 between 2010 and 2017.

47 percent of those interviewed said that the economic crisis is the main reason to leave Puerto Rico. 18.5 percent mentioned the lack of job opportunities and 15.7 percent mentioned that they would move seeking for a better quality of life.

"This result reflects the severe deterioration of living conditions in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. However, very few people (5.4 percent of those interviewed) specifically pointed out the damage of the hurricane or having lost their home as motivation to move to the United States," says the anthropologist.

In the survey, those who were being interviewed were asked to evaluate the government. The majority evaluated municipalities, state and federal agencies negatively. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) got a better evaluation. 35.6 percent said that the work of the agency was good or excellent.

 51.3 percent considered Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s management as poor or very poor, while the president of the United States, Donald Trump, got the worst rating: 65.5 percent considered his management as poor.

Duany refers to the work of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, in New York, which after the hurricane estimated that between 114,000 and 213,000 Puerto Ricans would move next year and that, between 2017 and in 2019, Puerto Rico would lose 470,335 inhabitants and that most of them  would go to Florida.

Duany points out that these estimates - which surprised many because of the significant number they showed - could be too conservative in light of the behavior observed in the flow of Puerto Ricans traveling to the United States after Hurricane Maria.

"Everything seems to indicate that the Puerto Rican exodus will experience an extraordinary surge in the immediate future and that the depopulation of the island, that began during the last decade economic recession, will accelerate," Duany says, noting that, for the 2020 Census, the Puerto Rican population in Florida will surpass that of Puerto Ricans in New York and will become the main base of the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States.

Historical movement

The exodus of Puerto Ricans to Florida dates back to the 19th century, when a first wave of migrants, which began in 1885 and extended to 1940, led them to settle in the Tampa Bay area -particularly, in Ybor City-, which was the core of the tobacco manufacturing industry in the United States.

In the central area, the arrival of Puerto Ricans began in the 1960s, when hundreds of Puerto Ricans bought land and properties in the city of Deltona (Volusia County) with the intention of retiring there.

Florida now has three of the first 10 metropolitan areas in the United States with the largest Puerto Rican populations. These are the Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford region, Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, and Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater. In fact, this southern state has a greater proportion of people born on the island (43.9 percent) than New York, where the percentage reaches 25.4 and that in the entire United States (31.5 percent), according to census data cited by Duany.

Duany's analysis indicates that many Puerto Rican businesses have followed migrants to Florida and mentions companies such as Banco Popular, Casa Febus, Los Cidrines, Cooperativa de Seguros Múltiples, Empresas Fonalledas, the Ana G. Méndez University System, Goya, Martin's BBQ, El Mesón Sandwiches, Novus, Plaza Gigante, PRICO, Banco RG, Carlos Albizu University, Interamerican University and Polytechnic University, among others.

Potential political influence

Regarding the political leanings of Puerto Ricans, the study validates a trend already known: while in the United States, 71.2 percent of Puerto Ricans identify themselves as Democrats, 22.8 percent as Republicans and 5 percent as independents, in Florida the percentage of Puerto Ricans affiliated to these parties has been reduced, but the group of non-members has grown. In this state, the percentage of Democratic Puerto Ricans fell to 55.3 percent, Republican Puerto Ricans fell to 14.1 percent, but that of non-members increased to 27.5 percent.

"In a Latino electorate dominated until recently by Cuban-American Republicans, the thriving Puerto Rican presence could alter the political map of Florida, that is itself a key “undecided” state in presidential elections," says Duany.

However, he immediately clarifies that this "boom" of the Puerto Rican population in this state has not yet translated into a proportional representation in the state policy in spite of small advances in that direction. As an example, he recalled when, in 1966, Maurice Ferré became the first Puerto Rican state representative in Florida who, in addition, was mayor of Miami between 1973 and 1985.

Other Puerto Ricans have joined the Florida political scene, such as legislators Bob Cortés, Tony Suárez, John Cortés, John Quiñones, Amy Mercado and Víctor Torres;  councilors Viviana Janer, Emily Bonilla, Edward Martinez and Micky Rosado, and the first Puerto Rican congressman for this state, Darren Soto.

"The increase in the exodus after Hurricane Maria will likely affect the results of the upcoming elections in Florida," says Duany.

Cultural imprint

The growing Puerto Rican presence in Florida has also shaped the social geography of this state, mainly in the central region. For example, local churches - Catholic and Protestant - have adopted masses and services in Spanish and, even, incorporated Puerto Rican folk music into their rituals.

Puerto Rican traditions are also culinary, and they accompany the Puerto Ricans who have moved here. This is so strong that there is a significant demand for particular products such as coffee, malt, stir-fries, among others, and that is what explains the increase in sales in numerous grocery stores, supermarkets and restaurants that offer these products, says Duany.

The same goes for cultural activities. Events such as the Fiestas of San Sebastián (“San Sebastián St. Festivals”) in Orlando, the Puerto Rican Parade and celebrations that are symbols of the Puerto Rican identity -like the Three Kings Day- can be seen in this area.

Although Duany does not mention it, during Christmas, the well-known Sea World theme park dedicated its installation to the Three Kings Day and experts in Hispanic marketing interpreted the action as a move to, precisely, appeal to that growing Puerto Rican market.

"The Puerto Rican diaspora has impacted Florida demographically, economically and culturally, and could also expand its political effects in the near future," says the expert.

"Despite the opposition of some groups, the Puerto Rican and Latino populations in Florida, as well as in the rest of the United States, will continue to increase in the coming years. The effects of Hurricane Maria will probably intensify the growth rate of Puerto Rican emigration to Florida," the anthropologist predicted.

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