That Latin Flavor

By staff January 1, 2003

At La Abejita Latin Market at the corner of Ringling Boulevard and Tuttle Avenue in Sarasota, customers are lined up at the cash register. Their arms are full of chayote, a squash from Costa Rica; yerba mate, an Argentinean tea; and Inca Kola, a Peruvian drink made from purple corn. "!Hola!," Lola Yengle says to the next person in line, as her husband Luis bustles about in the back of the store, stocking shelves and talking to employees.

The Peruvian-born Yengles bring in products from Central and South America to satisfy a mushrooming base of Sarasota customers who come from all over Latin America. There is an aisle of Mexican products, one for Peruvians, another for Brazilians and still another for Argentineans. Every shelf is filled with gnarled-looking roots, mouth-searing peppers, exotic-sounding drinks, canned goods and flours.

"My business has grown 800 percent since we opened in 1996," says Luis. "We're opening another store in Venice."

The Yengles are part of the biggest demographic story of the last decade in the United States: the explosive growth of the Hispanic community. It's a story that includes even the quiet, predominantly white, coastal county of Sarasota. In the Yengles' case, the story started with political violence in Peru. They left the danger-and their families and middle-class lives-behind, joining Luis' brother, a chemical engineer, who had already moved to Sarasota. "Yes, we were scared," Luis recalls. "We didn't know what we'd find. We started from nothing. We didn't know any English."

They arrived in Sarasota in 1993. At first, Luis, an industrial engineer in Peru, became a dishwasher at the Longboat Key Club. His wife worked in housekeeping. Then for three years they went from one low-paying service job to another. "We worked very hard," he says. When they had saved enough, they opened La Abejita at Gold Tree Plaza. Business grew, and they became Sarasota County Chamber of Commerce's "Minority Entrepreneur of the Year" in 2000. In 10 years, they've achieved what most U.S. immigrants risk everything for. They have two daughters in private schools, their own businesses and two homes. "Here, after a year, you are like new people," Luis says. "In other countries, if you work hard for 10 or 20 years, you still have no car, no house."

And now Luis has done what Hispanic immigrants-or any immigrants for that matter-do: He has brought over two more of his brothers to Sarasota, adding to what demographers, planners and politicians say is the "Latinization" of America.

Nationally, the trend is obvious. Performers such as Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek and Ricky Martin are bringing Latin rhythms and style to major films and MTV; Hispanic characters populate TV specials and sitcoms. In a commercial for Levis, a jean-clad Hispanic teen contorts his body like wet spaghetti as he dances across a city street in hip hop style.

The Hispanic presence in Sarasota shows up more subtly. Ritz-Carlton Tower construction workers taking their hard hats off at the end of the day turn out to be Latinos. Golf course landscapers and restaurant cooks converse in Spanish, and hotel maids and retirement home staff speak English with Spanish accents. Your dentist, lawyer, car salesman or realtor may have a Latin last name. Churches are offering Masses in Spanish, and almost every ATM machine asks you whether you want the instructions in English or Español.

"When I came here six years ago," admits Sarah Hernandez, a Mexican-born professor at New College of Florida, "I thought it was a fairly white town. I didn't hear many people speaking Spanish, and I couldn't get the things I wanted at the store. It has definitely changed since then, most of it in the last two or three years."

In addition to a number of small Latin grocery stores like La Abejita, new restaurants have opened, serving Peruvian, Mexican and Cuban cuisine. Publix has entire aisles devoted to Hispanic foods and condiments. Several Spanish-language newspapers and a glossy magazine are published locally. Some city neighborhoods have become Hispanic "villages"; and Booker Middle School in Sarasota County, is one-third Hispanic.

The 2000 Census puts hard numbers to the perceptions. There are now 35 million Hispanics living in the U.S.-about 12.5 percent of the total population, just above the African-American population at 12.3 percent, shocking demographers who didn't figure Hispanics would outnumber blacks so soon. Florida is home to 2.7 million Hispanics, again outnumbering African-Americans as the predominant minority group and ranking fourth in the country in total numbers of Latinos, behind California, Texas and New York.

In Sarasota County, with a total population of 335,323, Hispanic numbers have increased 140 percent, from 5,882 to 14,142 between 1990 and 2000, surpassing African-Americans. In the city of Sarasota, Latinos comprise almost 13 percent of the population. And, in general, the Hispanic population, both nationally and locally, is a young one and tends to have more children, which means it will continue to grow even if there were to be no more immigration.

Washington D.C.'s Brookings Institution labels Sarasota-Bradenton one of the top 18 "hypergrowth" metros for Latin growth in the United States. In fact, we ranked No. 9 on the list. (Keep in mind that since we had so few Hispanics to begin with, even a modest increase in their numbers would give us a huge percentage jump.) Why are Hispanics coming here? For a better life, of course. In general "hypergrowth" areas are places of economic and population growth, and thus, opportunity. Growth means jobs. But hypergrowth cities also attract Hispanics because they have less congestion and crime than the major cities. Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Tulsa, Oklahoma; West Palm Beach and Orlando are other examples of "hypergrowth" destinations.

According to the Brookings report, 38,682 Latinos live in the Bradenton-Sarasota area, an increase of 538 percent since 1980. And everyone agrees that these numbers are low. The census never captures everyone, and immigrants are especially difficult to count. Many are here illegally, living with other illegal immigrants in one household and doing everything they can to avoid the government.

Luis Baron, a Colombian-born national who came to Sarasota in 1999 and started his own Spanish-language newspaper Siete Dias and magazine La Guia del golfo, says his marketing research indicates that there are probably closer to 60,000 Hispanics in the Sarasota-Bradenton area.

Puerto Rican-born Edna Apostal, executive director of Gulfcoast South Area Health Education Center, Inc. and a founder and former president of Sarasota's Hispanic/Latino Coalition, is a little amused that everyone's talking about the "new" presence of Hispanics in Florida. "We were here before you!" she chides, reminding Anglos that the Spaniards Ponce de Leon and Hernando de Soto landed here before English speakers.

But if you want to stick to the 20th century, the presence of Hispanics along the Southwest coast of Florida is fairly recent. First there were the Cubans who came to work in Tampa and then spread south. Then came the Mexican farm workers, picking tomatoes in Florida before heading up the Eastern Seaboard. Nicaraguans and other Central American political refugees came in the '80s, along with more Mexicans; and the latest wave, within the last two to three years, are South American immigrants, often educated professionals, who are fleeing civil war and economic chaos in countries such as Colombia, Argentina and Peru.

Baron, who was an architect and a successful television soap opera producer in Colombia, says he is part of that last wave. Originally, he and his wife had planned to come to America for a year, just to ensure that their children would become fluent in English. Then, he says, the reality of life in Colombia hit. He was commuting 20 minutes through a mountain pass each way to work in Bogota. Dozens of people were being kidnapped, tortured and killed-people he knew. When Baron and his family finally arrived in Sarasota, Baron remembers sipping a drink at Marina Jack's outdoor restaurant on the downtown bayfront where many newcomers have fallen under the spell of sailboats bobbing on the bay and pelicans wheeling overhead. "I knew I would stay," he says.

Sarasotans who work with the Hispanic community say Baron is typical of the South American immigrant who has come here in the last couple of years-educated and middle class. While many of these professionals enter the job market by washing dishes and busing tables in restaurants-for example, a Peruvian judge is now working in a Sarasota deli-their education and ambition often propel them into higher-paying jobs and businesses of their own.

But while South American immigrants are a growing group of Hispanics in Sarasota, more typical are the stories of Mexican immigrants-Sarasota's largest group of Hispanics. At a recent English-language class at the Sarasota County Technical Institute, Omar (no one gives his or her last name) describes walking 12 hours through the desert to get here after four previous failed attempts. Or there's Enrique, a young Mexican who swam for hours across the Rio Grande to come to Sarasota to work on a Bradenton golf course. Remembering the terrifying experience is so painful he can barely speak of it. "I came here for work. I swam for seven hours, maybe more," he whispers, quickly looking away. Just telling his story is risky. Like many Mexican immigrants in Sarasota, he's here illegally.

C.J. Czaia, a Sarasota lawyer with a Nicaraguan mother and a "gringo" father, who ran as a Hispanic from the Democratic Party for the District 21 Florida Senate seat, says there's a lot of hypocrisy in the way the U.S. Government handles illegals. The government wrings its hands in public over the number of illegal aliens, he says, but in reality, it winks as they cross the border, because so much of the economy-including in Sarasota-is fueled by the low-paying, back-breaking work illegal aliens perform. "If you want to shut the border, you will," he says. "We put a man on the moon; we can shut the borders. Legalize them, give them status. These people are not takers, they're givers. They just want to be a part of society."

And since 9/11, things are only getting worse for illegal Hispanic immigrants-or any immigrants, for that matter, say social workers and teachers who work with Sarasota Hispanics. Florida now mandates that all immigrants present documentation before they can receive a new driver's license or renew the old one. For thousands of illegal aliens this means driving without valid licenses or insurance.

"It's really creating a problem," says Cuban-born Alex Chavez, who owns JCB Insurance of Manasota and is on the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for the Southeast United States. "It's affecting cheap labor. Some people are leaving Florida. In my business since April, more than 15 clients have left as word spreads in Florida that the situation is bad. Why would Hispanics come to Florida when they can go to North Carolina, Tennessee or Indiana?"

The Mexicans probably have it the worst, says Vanessa Opstal, a Venezuelan-born immigration lawyer in Sarasota who sometimes describes her job with illegal immigrants as "the bearer of bad news." Mexicans do not receive political asylum as the Cubans and many of the South Americans do, she says. And if they have no "sponsor," no employer or family member who petitions for them, then they have no rights and almost no recourse to become legal. Even with a sponsor-a spouse, mother, father, sister or brother-it can take 12 to 15 years for a Mexican immigrant to receive permanent resident status. For other immigrants the process may only take five years. "It's because there are so many Mexicans," she says, and the government has set quotas.

In general, Mexican immigrants in Sarasota come with less money, less education and fewer job skills. Some still find employment as migrant farm workers, but Sarasota's growth has created thousands of new jobs. The immigrants are leaving the fields and finding work in hotels, golf courses, restaurants, factories and construction. "They work harder than most Americans," says Valerie Borland, the human resources director at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, where 15 percent of the employees are Hispanic.

"They leave at 6 a.m. and work until 3 p.m. in the fields or construction, and then they work from 4 to 11 in the restaurants," says Manuel Chepote, a Peruvian-American insurance agent in Sarasota.

In affluent Sarasota, which relies so much on service workers, Hispanic immigrants are a key part of the labor force. Last summer, dozens of Hispanic employees in housekeeping and food service at Sarasota Memorial Hospital resigned when it was discovered that they didn't have valid Social Security numbers. While Eddie Rundle, Sarasota Memorial Hospital's human resources director, says the hospital quickly replaced most of them, he notes, "There would be a tremendous shortage of service workers all over the county if we didn't hire them." Attorney Opstal says that when the INS raided National Linen Service a while back, linen service to local restaurants stalled. "It wasn't until Michael's On East and other restaurants began to complain that they couldn't get any napkins and tablecloths that these workers were rehired," she says.

Laurel Chase, the supervisor of the school district's ESOL (English as a Second Language) program for adults, has a long list of businesses that request onsite English-language classes from the Sarasota County Technical Institute. Aladdin Equipment, Atlantic Teleconnect, Baker Electronics, Hyatt, Daiquiri Deck, Plymouth Harbor and Sarasota Memorial Hospital are only a few. Around the county, about 2,600 adult students go to ESOL classes several nights a week. "Seventy percent of our students are Hispanic," she says, "and our numbers have doubled in the last three years." And more and more English speakers-including the Ritz-Carlton's Borland-are learning Spanish so they can communicate with their workers.

"I go to a Spanish class every Wednesday night," says Borland.

Adriana Robledo, a Colombian-born ESOL teacher, has been teaching immigrants English for years in night classes in a portable at the Sarasota County Technical Institute. Her students continue to increase; and most of them, she says, are Hispanic. "The first year is the hardest," she tells one of her classes. "It takes five years to feel OK. You'll feel excitement at first, then depression, then anger that things can't be the same." After class, she tells a visitor, immigrants often begin to feel more at home after they have children.

Children may be the crucial element to adjustment in this country. Even if the children were born outside the borders, they go to public schools, learning the language and American culture. Almost 3,000 of Sarasota County's 38,000 students are Hispanics. Booker Middle School ESOL teacher Laura Rodriguez says students come in with a wide range of backgrounds. "But in five years, they're all in the same place," she says. There is a higher dropout rate among Hispanics in Sarasota-a national problem as well-but the district has brought it down from 7.1 percent to 4.1 percent in the 2000-2001 school year by offering tutorials before and after school and trying to meet the needs of the Hispanic community.

But for many undocumented Hispanic teens, no matter how gifted and ambitious, a high school diploma is as far as they can go. Without papers, they can't receive in-state tuition or financial aid. And some observers think that many Hispanic children face other challenges, as their parents strive to survive and succeed in a new land.

"Parents work hard at two jobs more than 12 hours a day," Baron says. "They have no time to take care of their kids-and we have a lot of kids. They are alone and on the streets. We don't have enough after-school programs, tutors and mentors, especially in the poor neighborhoods."

Perhaps what's most interesting about the increase in Hispanics here is that their numbers haven't affected most Sarasotans more. For now, there are few cross-cultural experiences in Sarasota. If you're not Hispanic, chances are you're not shopping at La Abjeita, reading La Guia or attending a Spanish Mass. "Other than Taco Bell, it hasn't affected the Anglo community in terms of changing habits," New College's Hernandez says. "People aren't going to Latin festivities or shopping at Latino stores."

And few Hispanic leaders have emerged. "The Hispanic community is less visible from a city hall point of view than any other ethnic minority," says Michael McNees, city manager of Sarasota. "There are no gadflies, no advocates. We need to find a way to connect with them." Linda Holland, president of the Gillespie Park Neighborhood Association in downtown Sarasota, says her group has repeatedly tried to get its Hispanic neighbors to attend meetings. "For 20 years we've been trying," she says. "There is no leadership. I wish there were some way to have representatives to honestly talk about neighborhood issues so we can work them out."

To some degree, this may be due to the newness of the community and its origins in countries where the political climate was repressive or dangerous, says Christina Gonzalez, coordinator of the Hispanic Program for Coastal Behavioral Heathcare. In addition, illegal Hispanics want to keep a low profile. Cultural factors may also play a role. Hispanics tend to rely on family and community, not the government, says Migdalia Aponte, the current president of the Hispanic Latino Coalition. Moreover, the Hispanic community is not unified. It's splintered into groups from 21 countries, including Spain, and includes people of every skin color. "We're so divided among ethnic lines," Chavez says. "The national origins play a very divisive role. I'm not sure of the solution."

Perhaps that solution will come from the American-born generations of Hispanics. Czaia predicts this new generation will get more involved. "I did a wedding as a notary at G.T. Bray Park," he says. "Most of the people were undocumented. Their children were born here, though, and in 10 years, these children will vote."

This has tremendous implications for Sarasota. If Hispanics become a larger voting population, says Nestor Rodriguez, the co-director of the Center for Immigration Research in Houston, we will have two well-defined populations-a retired population on a fixed income that resists higher taxes and public spending and a young population with pressing educational and social needs. "You've got some social problems," he predicts. "And unfortunately, people only think about these things as they arise."

June Nogle, a demographer at the University of Florida, agrees that Floridians need to think about the ramifications of the growing Hispanic community, but she says the 2000 Census data hasn't been analyzed yet, so policy makers are waiting. "You can't base policy on a pretty sure bet," Nogle says. "It's like throwing a Frisbee in the wind."

For now, all that's sure is that Sarasota's Hispanic population will continue to grow. In his busy store, Luis Yengle pours a visitor a cup of purple Inca Kola and explains why. "If you give me an opportunity," he says, "I'm going to take it."

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