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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Changes in Rhythm for Florida

The Spanish-speaking heritage of the state now reflects all of Latin America, not just Cuba. From politics to parks, the shift is profound.

June 28, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

COCONUT CREEK, Fla. — The gaudy plastic palms blaze with light, speakers boom the cucu bop, cucu bop rhythm of salsa -- and the floor at the Goldcoast Ballroom quickly fills.

A Mexican American relocating from Chicago for her sales job swivels on the gleaming hardwood with a Peruvian student. A long-haired paparazzo from Ecuador whirls beside a woman from the Dominican Republic. Elegantly turned out in a slate-gray suit, and making catlike moves, there is one of the legends of Latin dance: Pedro Aguilar, 77, known as "Cuban Pete."

Despite his nickname, Cuban Pete is Puerto Rican, raised in the barrios of New York. Perhaps the most celebrated mambo dancer of all time, he moved to the Miami area in 1982, and has been witness to the large-scale arrival of New Latins.

"It's not just Cubans in Florida anymore," Aguilar says. "It's people from all over Latin America."

In a major demographic shift with implications for politics as well as the humdrum minutiae of life -- including the use of parks and the kinds of foods sold in supermarkets -- Florida's Latinos, more than 2.6 million strong and growing each day, are undergoing a metamorphosis. Cubans and Cuban Americans, long the majority in the state, have been reduced in the last decade to a distinct if still dominant minority.

What's more, in large part due to the newcomers, people of Spanish language and heritage are no longer concentrated in a few locations like Miami's Little Havana, settled by refugees fleeing Fidel Castro's Cuba, or the older cigar-rolling Cuban district of Ybor City in Tampa.

There is now a Little Caracas of Venezuelans in the Miami suburb of Doral, a Colombian enclave in the Broward County city of Weston, and pockets of Guatemalans in Lake Worth near Palm Beach.

In rural inland towns like Immokalee and Sebring, food markets with names like Azteca cater to Mexican farmworkers and sell votive candles with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint. In formerly Anglo suburbs of Fort Lauderdale, gas stations offer hot Argentine beef turnovers.

For the mayor of Orlando, Florida's sixth-largest city, the most significant trend in his area is the surge in Latinos, chiefly Puerto Ricans.

"We now have about 400,000 Hispanic residents in central Florida," said Buddy Dyer, a Democrat.

Even in Miami and environs, long labeled Havana North, the ethnic mix has been transformed. There are so many newcomers from South America and Caribbean islands other than Cuba that in the last three years the Miami-Dade County Parks Service has built 26 soccer fields and plans at least 23 more. (Cubans traditionally prefer baseball.)

To meet the needs of a changing readership, the county public libraries have bought cookbooks from Venezuela, Mexico, Nicaragua and other Latin countries, including works by a celebrated Argentine cook, the late Dona Petrona C. de Gandulfo.

One of the sharpest differences between Florida and California is the extraordinary variety of the Latino population, says Dario Moreno, professor of political science at Florida International University. In California, an overwhelming 77% of Latinos are Mexican or Mexican American. In Florida, people of Cuban birth or descent constitute the largest group, but these days, only about a third of the whole.

"Just because you speak Spanish, no one assumes you're Cuban anymore," Moreno said.

Nearly half a million Puerto Ricans make up 18% of Florida Latinos, Mexicans another 13%. The 2000 census found close to 1 million Floridians with other Latino roots -- including Colombians, Venezuelans, Dominicans, Nicaraguans and Argentines.

Some of Florida's New Latins are poor, illiterate or in the United States illegally. Many, though, are entrepreneurs or professionals, in contrast with most of the Latino immigration to California.

"Whatever country you talk about, with the exception of the Mariel boatlift [from Cuba], it's the middle and upper class," said John T. Gaubatz, a law professor at the University of Miami. "Just pick your Latin American country, and if things get dicey, there'll be another wave of successful and well-off people to Florida."

Because of Argentina's economic collapse, Colombia's ongoing guerrilla war, Venezuela's political turmoil and the woes of other nations in the Southern Hemisphere, there are countless new Dairy Queen franchisees, restaurateurs and business owners now in the Sunshine State.

New Latins have injected new life into the places they have settled. One seven-block strip of Collins Avenue in Miami Beach was suffering from the exodus of Jewish retirees but has been revitalized by new businesses representing half a dozen South American nations, including a Brazilian martial arts studio, a Peruvian seafood restaurant and an Argentine grocery.

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