Percentage table of migratory growth to Florida
The modern history of Puerto Rican migration to Florida dates to the late 19th century. The first wave of Puerto Rican emigrants, between 1885 and 1940 approximately, mainly settled in the Tampa Bay area, particularly in Ybor City, the center of the cigar industry in the United States. Hillsborough County was the center of the small Puerto Rican population in Florida until 1930.
Between 1940 and 1980, Puerto Ricans mainly moved to southern Florida, especially to Miami, which provided seasonal jobs in agriculture, in assembly and in tourism. A small number of prosperous business owners and professionals from the Island also settled in the Miami area in the 1940s and 1950s. Several prominent families, such as the Serrallés, Roig, Ramírez de Arellano, García Méndez and Ferré families, bought large plots of land in the Everglades region south of Lake Okeechobee. There they established the first sugar mill backed by Puerto Rican capital, Fellsmere. Later they imported technical personnel, including engineers, mechanics and electricians, to work there. In 1947, the Miami Herald praised the Puerto Rican contribution to the city’s economic progress, pointing out that many immigrants were retired millionaires, business people, doctors, dentists, educators and artists.
Long before the rise of Orlando as the main migration destination, Miami Dade County registered 17,329 Puerto Rican residents in 1970 and 44,656 in 1980. The Cuban exodus after the 1959 revolution eclipsed the Puerto Rican population in Miami, however. Since the 1980s, most of the Puerto Rican migration has been to central Florida, especially the area around Orlando. Among these migrants are military veterans who had been stationed on the many military bases in Florida or engineers recruited by NASA for the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.
The first large-scale movement of Puerto Ricans to Florida began under the agricultural workers program sponsored by the Puerto Rico Labor Department’s Division of Migration. From the 1940s to the 1960s, this program recruited thousands of Puerto Ricans to work on U.S. farms, mainly in the northeast. Hundreds of migrants settled in southern Florida, especially in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Most were seasonal day laborers working the harvest and processing vegetables such as potatoes, beans, avocados, corn, tomatoes and lettuce. Many traveled north to work on the farms during summer and returned south for the winter. In 1953, some 3,000 Puerto Ricans worked on farms in Florida, which was about a fourth of the hired agricultural workers in the state.
Puerto Rican emigration to the central part of the state intensified in the late 1960s, when hundreds of Island residents acquired properties in the city of Deltona in Volusia County with plans to retire there. The opening of the first Walt Disney theme park in Orlando in 1971 led to real estate speculation in the area and many middle-class Puerto Ricans saw an opportunity for a lucrative investment there. According to news accounts, the first wave of immigrants consisted mainly of retired people from the Island who sought a quieter and safer lifestyle in central Florida. The migratory flow later included other Puerto Rican populations from New York, New Jersey and Illinois. The 1980 census counted 6,662 residents of Puerto Rican descent in Orange County, which includes the city of Orlando.
Puerto Rican migration to central Florida, both from the Island and from other parts of the United States, took off in the middle of the 1980s. Since then, small Puerto Rican enclaves have risen in various central Florida counties, particularly Orange and Osceola. Later, thousands moved to new suburban communities such as Buenaventura Lakes in Osceola and Meadow Woods in Orange, both developed by Landstar Homes.
The city of Orlando experienced the greatest increase (142%) in the number of Puerto Ricans in all of the United States between 1990 and 2000. In that decade, Orange and Osceola counties became the main destination for Puerto Rican migrants, displacing the Bronx in New York. By 2019, the Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford metropolitan area was home to the second largest concentration of Puerto Ricans (385,177) in the entire United States, after New York (669,605).
Central Florida, and especially the Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford metropolitan area, was witness to the biggest expansion of the Puerto Rican population in the state during the early decades of the 21st century. The exodus after Hurricane Maria, which occurred on September 20, 2017, only strengthened the position of Orlando in Puerto Rican migratory patterns.
Duany, Jorge. “Entre la Isla y la diáspora: Los estudios sobre la migración en Puerto Rico y la Revista de Ciencias Sociales”. Revista de Ciencias Sociales #12. Río Piedras: Universidad de Puerto Rico. https://rcsdigital.homestead.com/files/Nueva_epoca_no12/Duany__Jorge.pdf. Retrieved 1/8/2021.
EFE Florida. “Presencia boricua crece en la Florida”. El Nuevo Herald, 11 de noviembre de 2001. http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/immigration/boricuas-florida.htm. Retrieved 1/8/2021.
“El huracán María acelera la emigración de puertorriqueños a Estados Unidos”, Hoy Los Ángeles, 11 de octubre de 2017. https://www.hoylosangeles.com/efe-3405608-13456043-20171011-story.html, Retrieved 1/8/2021.
Author: Dr. Jorge Duany
Updated: May 11, 2021
Revision: Dr. Lizette Cabrera Salcedo, May 13, 2021