ORLANDO, Fla. — While all eyes went to the Puerto Rican community after Hurricane Maria, Dr. Fernando Rivera, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida, had been studying the impact of the Puerto Rican community on Central Florida for years.
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His work is now part of the University of Central Florida’s new Puerto Rico Research Hub that launched recently.
“The Puerto Rico Research Hub is sort of an answer to the needs of the Puerto Rican community,” said Rivera about the needs that have been going on for years in Central Florida.
The Puerto Rican professor, originally from Barceloneta, explains Central Florida has seen growth of the Puerto Rican community for almost a decade.
“I say since about 2006 or so, Puerto Rican families have been moving out of the island,” said Rivera.
Recently, the headlines show an influx of Puerto Ricans coming after Hurricane Maria, but Dr. Rivera said other factors drove Puerto Rican families to leave the island before then.
“Economics -- people were looking for better opportunities. One of the things with the designation of being bankrupt, the Puerto Rican government took on very restrictive measures, cutting jobs, raising taxes, utilities priced through the roof,” he explained.
Central Florida almost becomes a natural transition, thanks to the tourism appeal and familiarity with the area.
“And now with advancement in technology, you can be here in two and half hours,” said Rivera about the short flights to and from the island.
Yet back then, the challenges were not as big as they are now for families — affordable housing is critical, as are language barriers and cultural differences.
More needs to be done to connect with this growing community.
“The research can drive those partnerships with the community and try to come up with some answers, to the challenges that we’re facing right now,” said Rivera.
Rivera says politicians have also noticed the growth in the Puerto Rican community, reaching out to get their vote. But Rivera says everyone should pay attention to what politicians are promising to do for the island.
It’s how the island recovers that could potentially dictate how many more Puerto Ricans choose to make Central Florida home.
“Demographic changes are going to happen whether you like it or not, and basically in Florida, we have a great opportunity. What are we going to do that is different to accommodate the needs of a population that have these challenges, right?” Rivera said.