Big changes for Florida with mass Puerto Rican immigration

Orlando (AFP) –


Cristina Sanchez is one of thousands of Puerto Ricans fleeing their hurricane-ravaged island for Florida, a mass migration set to shape the southern US state as much as migrants from communist Cuba in the late 20th century.

Sanchez left the island with three suitcases, her small dog -- and no plans to return.

As her flight departed the capital San Juan, she glanced out the window at what she was leaving behind: a sun-drenched Caribbean island turned into a hellhole by Hurricane Maria.

On September 20, powerful Maria tore across Puerto Rico, destroying homes, shattering the island's rickety power grid and phone network, and leaving its 3.4 million residents in the dark and incommunicado. Many remain so today.

"It's a relief to be off the island and to be away from where everything is so difficult," said Sanchez, a 43 year-old bilingual school teacher.

Chico, her Shih Tzu, was given a sedative and slept at her feet during the flight.

After the hurricane, Sanchez's home was left without running water or electricity. A diabetic, she could not keep her life-saving insulin refrigerated without power.

"I'm literally fleeing to get away from it, from everything that's going on there," she told AFP.

"It takes its toll emotionally and mentally."

The official hurricane death toll in Puerto Rico stands at 58, though large areas were isolated for weeks after the storm -- and news reports now place the toll as high as 500.

Since Puerto Rico is a US possession, its residents -- known as 'boricuas' -- are US citizens and have no immigration obstacles.

- Destination: Orlando -

Sanchez headed to Orlando, a central Florida city best known for its amusement parks, including Disney World and Universal Studios.

Central Florida, especially the Orlando area, has long attracted Puerto Rican immigrants fleeing the island's economic woes.

Since the hurricane struck, at least 212,000 people have traveled from Puerto Rico to Florida -- mainly central Florida, according to figures from the State Emergency Response Team (SERT).

Around one million Puerto Ricans now live in Florida, mostly in the central Tampa-Orlando corridor.

At Orlando's airport Sanchez went straight to one of three special "Welcome Centers" set up by the state government for Puerto Rican immigrants.

There she received information on how to start her new life, how to get a temporary Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) housing subsidy, and how to get a job.

Sanchez was optimistic that she'd be able to find a fresh start before the FEMA hotel subsidy ends in January.

- 'Lost their homes' -

However Debora Oquendo, another 43 year-old Puerto Rican refugee, is anything but optimistic.

"I hope to have work by January," she said, speaking in a listless tone.

Oquendo said she doesn't know what will happen then, when her federal housing subsidy runs out. With a 10-month old baby she can't go to job interviews, let alone work.

Maritza Sanz, president of Latino Leadership, a group that helps Puerto Rican immigrants, worries about the future once FEMA housing subsidies expire.

The first and biggest challenge is to find housing for the new arrivals.

"Employment will be the second one. And schools and resources for the family," she said.

"We have been serving families that have been living in the car with the kids," she said.

What makes this wave of migrants unique is that they are fleeing a disaster zone, often bringing little beyond what they can carry, said Luis Martinez-Fernandez at the University of Central Florida.

There is a sense of desperation among these migrants, who have "lost their homes, with no possibilities of rebuilding anytime soon. They've lost their jobs overnight as well," he told AFP.

Also, he noted, there is "an over-representation of elderly people from the island, people who need medical attention."

This is likely to put a strain on services for the elderly in Florida, already a popular destination for US retirees.

- 'Puerto Ricanization' -

"The so-called 'Puerto Ricanization' of Orlando and even Florida could have a larger impact than that of the Cuban immigrants to Miami since '59," said anthropologist Jorge Duany, referencing the year that Cubans began arriving in Florida in droves as they fled the island's communist regime.

The heavy flow of Cuban migrants, mainly to south Florida, lasted into the 1980s. Since then, Cubans have continued to trickle in but migrants from places like Haiti and South America have diversified Miami.

That diversification, however, "is not taking place in Orlando," said Duany, a Florida International University specialist on Puerto Rican migration.

"The growing presence of Puerto Ricans in central Florida is redefining the culture of the area, which used to be mostly Anglo-American," he said.

There is also a political aspect, which could have tremendous national consequences: as US citizens, Puerto Ricans can vote.

Florida is a delegate-rich swing state in US electoral politics, a state that can hold the key to who wins the White House or which party controls Congress.

And Puerto Ricans are overwhelmingly Democrats.