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The Latinization of Orlando 
Delerme Latino Orlando Image.jpg



One of the most notable migratory shifts in recent decades is Latino migration and community formation in non-traditional destinations in the US South. In 2010, I began ethnographic fieldwork, a research methodology used by anthropologists, to document the demographic transformations to Osceola County, Florida and the resulting Latinization. I moved to the Buenaventura Lakes (BVL) community or Boricuas Viven Libres (Puerto Ricans Live Free), a nickname the suburb earned for the large population of Puerto Ricans. During an interview with the County Sheriff, a Central Florida native, he paused only for a brief moment before responding to my question about the changes he observed over the years: “we went from a rural county to mouse house, sea world, and the large influx of Hispanics.” Many of the residents that arrived in the early 80s remembered a time when orange groves dominated the landscape and cattle outnumbered people. “Osceola County had more than 20 animals for every person,” one interviewee remarked. However, a number of migratory push-pull factors led to an influx of Latinos, primarily Puerto Rican.[i]

By 1991, it became evident that Osceola County experienced one of the nation’s largest Hispanic population surges since 1980 with the population increasing by an astounding 1,081 percent. Jorge Del Pinal, Ethnic and Hispanic Statistics Chief for the U.S. Census Bureau commented, “‘I can’t think of any place where I’ve seen that . . . That’s an amazing figure.’” [ii] Latino residents in Osceola County rose from 2.2% (1,089) of the total population in 1980, to 11.9% (12,866) in 1990, 29.4% (50,727) in 2000, to 45.5% (122,146) of the total population in 2010.[iii] Five years later, the 2015 American Community Survey 1-year estimates recorded 51% or 165, 344 of the county’s population as Latino. As the population grew, Latinos became increasingly visible and their economic, political, and cultural influence intensified and contributed to the Latinization of the region. The public schools were amongst the first institutions to experience the changes, and as one journalist reported, “the Latin influence at the school is obvious from homeroom to homecoming” before going on to describe a typical day at Gateway High School:


                    When the morning papers carried news of a South American drug czar death, a Nicaraguan student gave her class

                    an impromptu lecture about cartels. When Miss Vasquez’ English literature class decided to perform scenes from

                    Shakespeare this year, Lady Macbeth had a Spanish accent. When the students in a Spanish literature class had

                    a discussion about the macho image in Hispanic cultures, the macho image made a personal appearance: Some

                    of the more tradition-bound Hispanic boys loudly disagreed with some of the more progressive, independent-thinking

                    Hispanic girls in the class.[iv]



One of the other signals of the ensuing Latinization that particularly interested me was the gradual formation of a distinct cultural landscape. When a number of individuals of the same ethnic background in a particular geographical area collectively use a shared set of fixed-feature or semi-fixed feature elements a distinctive cultural landscape is created.[v]  In Osceola County, the most common feature elements were displays of a national-origin flag or symbol, house color, lawn ornaments, and Spanish language advertising and storefront signs. Semi-fixed feature elements such as these cost less to alter and are therefore accessible to individuals of all socioeconomic levels. Architectural style, building interiors and exteriors including walls, floors, and ceilings change rarely and slowly; but, in Osceola County there was evidence of both. Latino-owned restaurants, bodegas, supermarkets, and other small businesses serve as symbolic markers sending the message that the population has reached a critical mass.[vi] During an interview with the Osceola County Superintendent, she recalled having to drive to Orlando, to an area close to Church Street and Orange Avenue to find “Hispanic products” in the late 1980s: “It took between forty-five minutes to an hour to get platanos or pernil.  As time progressed the food changed.” Food, she explained, was a measure of the change: “Eventually the supermarket created an “international” food aisle and you knew that was your section.” Before long entire supermarkets replaced the international food aisle.


In a 2005 Orlando Sentinel article entitled, “Orlando develops Hispanic Accent” the opening of the first Publix Sabor supermarket in Buenaventura Lakes is mentioned  as evidence of the growing Hispanic population and the impact. At the time, the Publix Sabor was one of four supermarkets in the state of Florida introduced by the Publix Supermarket, Inc. chain. Publix Sabor makes all product information and signs bilingual, and offers a wider variety of Latin American and Caribbean products than the other Publix stores. Five years later Sedanos, a Miami-based, Cuban-owned supermarket chain that started in 1962 and grew to a chain of 30 South Florida supermarkets entered the Central Florida market. Sedanos purchased three already existing Albertsons markets and planned to keep them open while the conversion took place. When the first Orlando Sedanos opened a cart by the supermarket entrance sold churros and piraguas, and the stores played salsa music, sold pastelitos in the café, and clerks greeted customers in Spanish.  The storeowners prided themselves on the wide variety of products they were able to offer their customers since shoppers were not limited to Goya, which opened a distribution center in Orlando back in 2003, but also gave customers access to brands like Iberia, Conchita, and Norteno amongst others. According to Augusto Sanabria, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund, “‘Anytime that a big Hispanic company comes into town, it just re-emphasizes the power of the Hispanic community here in Central Florida. . . That’s recognizing that in Central Florida, the Hispanic community is growing and it is powerful. It’s music to my ears.’”[vii]



[i] These factors included Puerto Rico’s economic instability and the social consequences: growing incidents of crime and the fear of violence. Orlando’s appeal was connected to real estate marketing and the opportunities for homeownership, labor recruitment, social networks, and the perception of a” better quality of life” based on Florida’s tropicality, frontier nature, and the powerful imagery resulting from Disney’s presence in the region

[ii] Phil Fernandez, “Hispanic Population Surges In Osceola,” Orlando Sentinel, March 9, 1991.

[iii] “Social Explorer: Census 1980,” accessed 2/5/16, “Social Explorer: Census 1990,” accessed 2/5/16, “Social Explorer: Census 2000,” accessed 2/5/16,

“Social Explorer: Census 2010,” accessed 2/5/16,

[iv] Michael McLeod, “Diversity 101: Variety and Just a Pinch of Trouble is The Spice of Life at Gateway High-School, A cosmopolitan Enclave in the Middle of Once-rural Osceola County,” Orlando Sentinel, March 13, 1994.

[v] Daniel Arreola, ed, Hispanic Space, Latino Places: Community and Cultural Diversity in Contemporary America, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004).   

[vi] Philip Kasinitz, Caribbean New York: Black Immigrants and the Politics of Race. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 39.

[vii] Sandra Pedicini, “New grocer in town,” Orlando Sentinel, December 29, 2009.

Osceola County Census Data & Demographic Profile 
Prepared by: Florida Legislature Office of Economic and Demographic Research 
December 2016 
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