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Hispanics Grow More Diverse

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Hispanic diversity grows in S. Florida

By Jennifer Peltz
Staff Writer

May 30, 2001

When Dr. Stephen Kuhnel opened his dental practice in West Palm Beach 20 years ago, it was one of few Spanish-speaking dentists' offices in the area -- thanks to the language skills of his Cuban wife, Marta. Now, the office has staffers from Mexico, Colombia and El Salvador, as well as patients from all over Latin America.

In Lake Worth, the former WLVS, AM 1380 switched to Spanish broadcasting about five years ago. Now the station, called WWRF or Radio Fiesta, gets an estimated 175 or more callers an hour, their homelands ranging from Mexico to Argentina.

And the South Florida Fairgrounds west of West Palm Beach hosted a Mexican rodeo on Sunday -- as well as the county's first big Colombian Independence Day festival in July.

As new 2000 census figures indicate, the Hispanic population of South Florida, once dominated by Cubans, is becoming far more varied, its character spiced with cultural influences spanning the breadth of Latin America.

In Palm Beach County, Mexicans now are the biggest single Hispanic group, outnumbering Cubans for the first time. In Broward County, Puerto Ricans were the fastest-growing Hispanic community during the 1990s. In Miami, the city that Cubans have defined for more than 40 years, Cubanos now make up only a narrow majority of the Hispanic population.

And throughout South Florida, the ranks of "other Hispanics" are by far the fastest-growing group of all. These are all those who aren't in the three big groups that the Census Bureau counts separately: Cubans, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.

As the numbers suggest, Hispanic leaders throughout the region are grappling with how to represent a community that really is scores of communities -- how to honor differences while building strength in numbers, how to reconcile laws that make the path to citizenship easier for some Hispanics than for others, how to widen the tent without weakening it.

"I wish we would all eventually talk about ourselves as Hispanics," says Henry Saldaña, a real estate broker and president of the year-old Latino Leadership Institute in Palm Beach County. "I think there's more things that unite us than separate us."

Consider his family. Saldaña is Mexican. His wife is Puerto Rican. That makes his two children -- " ... Mexi-rican?" he suggests.

"What are you going to call them?" he says. "They're going to be Hispanics."

Palm Beach County has one of Florida's fastest-growing Hispanic populations. The group more than doubled during the 1990s to total almost 141,000 people, or about 12 percent of the county population. Hispanics, defined as people with roots in a Spanish-speaking country, can be of any race.

The county's fastest-growing group is the Mexican community, which accounts for more than a fifth of Palm Beach County Hispanics. The Mexican population nearly doubled to 30,000, concentrating in Lake Worth. The city now has 2,400 Mexicans -- two-thirds as many as Miami, a city more than 10 times bigger.

That's no surprise to Dante Medina, better known as "El Comandante" to his morning listeners on Radio Fiesta, which reaches all of Palm Beach County. He says about 80 percent of his hundreds of daily callers are Mexican.

For many listeners, Radio Fiesta isn't just a source of news and entertainment. It's a community center on the airwaves.

Whether it's a favorite song or a government agency's phone number, "whatever they need, they call us," Medina said.

"Some people call us and tell us, 'Listen, we're going on vacation: We have to record the shows and take them with us so we can keep in touch,'" he said.

The county's Puerto Rican and Cuban communities each number about 25,000. The biggest contingents are in West Palm Beach, the county's biggest city -- but Puerto Ricans' presence may be felt most in Boynton Beach, where they make up almost a third of the 5,500 Hispanics. And Wellington has the fastest-growing Cuban population, up about 170 percent to 1,250 people.

For now, the census is silent on who makes up the county's 60,000 "other Hispanics." The federal Immigration and Naturalization Service, however, says that Colombia, Honduras and Peru were among the most frequent countries of origin for "other" Hispanics given permanent residency in the West Palm Beach-Boca Raton area in 1998, the last year available.

The influx of Colombians has grown especially as their country's political and economic situation has deteriorated in recent years.

Many leave careers as doctors, lawyers and engineers "because they don't have opportunities there now," says Marta Pardo, who came to Palm Beach County from Colombia in the mid-1980s. She now runs the Centro Cultural Latinoamericano in Lake Worth, where offerings range from math tutoring to salsa lessons.

LucioPerez-Reynozo Elsewhere in Lake Worth, Lucio Perez-Reynozo works to remind people of another history of violence and political turmoil in Latin America -- that of Guatemala, the country he fled as a pre-teen in 1980. He runs the Guatemalan-Maya Center, a social service agency for an immigrant community that sometimes feels marginalized in this new land.

Although many Guatemalans consider themselves political refugees, they don't enjoy the same special consideration given to Nicaraguan and Cuban refugees in applying for permission to live in the United States.

"Right now, the political system here dismisses us" because many Guatemalans are not entitled to vote, said Perez-Reynozo, whose agency serves 250 or more families a month.

"They don't realize that eventually we're going to be a political force in this county, because our children are growing up here, and they're the ones who are going to be able to participate in the political system."

In west Lake Worth, Saldaña of the Latino Leadership Institute is thinking about political participation, too.

He sees a need to unite the various Hispanic communities to make their voices heard.

He'd like to see more lessons on Latin American history in school curriculums. He'd like to find more bilingual services and Hispanic workers in government offices. And he wants to make sure elected officials are "aware of Hispanic issues."

To bring that message to Palm Beach County legislators, he and a group of Hispanic and Jewish leaders went to Tallahassee this spring. And they are planning a meeting next month on the mechanics of redrawing legislative districts, which the state must do next year.

"I think it could be the beginning of something very interesting," says state Sen. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach, who heads Palm Beach County's legislative delegation. "With the growth of the Hispanic community, the time is now for them to get involved."

The Hispanic community's changes are reshaping the political landscape even in Miami, where Cubans have held sway in politics for years.

"We're no longer alone in being the big Hispanic group, and we need to forge coalitions with the other groups," mused Pedro Freyre, a Miami lawyer and the president of the advocacy group Facts About Cuban Exiles. "We've got to row together to get the boat across."

Jennifer Peltz can be reached at jpeltz@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6636.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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