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Because it’s strange and beautiful and hot, people from everywhere converge on Florida and they bring their cuisine and their traditions with them. The Zest celebrates the intersection of food and communities in the Sunshine State.

'Latino Orlando' author Simone Delerme on the rise of Florida's Hispanic restaurants and markets

Learn how marketing tactics by housing developers led to an influx of Puerto Ricans to Orlando in the 1970s and '80s. What followed was a proliferation of restaurants, supermarkets and small food businesses targeting Latinos in Central Florida.

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A decade ago, when cultural anthropologist Dr. Simone Delerme sought a place that exemplified the growing Latino influence on American suburbs, she turned to Orlando—specifically the Buenaventura Lakes community in Osceola County.

Herself the grandchild of Puerto Rican and Haitian immigrants who settled in New York, Delerme observed firsthand the departure of many Puerto Ricans from Spanish Harlem.

“I realized Puerto Ricans were going South, and they were going to Orlando,” says Delerme, a professor of anthropology at the University of Mississippi. Others migrated to Orlando directly from Puerto Rico.

This mass migration was no coincidence.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, “there were very deliberate marketing attempts” to attract Puerto Ricans to Orlando’s suburbs, Delerme says. Housing developers targeted their marketing at Puerto Ricans, even offering free accommodations for folks checking out the area. Once one family member relocated, chain migration brought many more Puerto Ricans and other immigrants from other Latin American countries to Orlando.

“Some people talked about it like a frontier. New York was already expensive. It was overpriced,” Delerme says. “Here, you could have the suburban lifestyle with the front lawn and the two-car garage. So there was a lot of opportunity that I think people saw.”

Businesses also saw opportunity to capitalize on the influx of Latinos in Orlando.

“It’s funny, ‘cause I didn’t go there to study food. That was the last thing on my mind. I wanted to understand suburban development and the migration process,” Delerme says. “And it was in the everyday life activities that I was documenting in my field notes where food kept arising.”

Supermarkets beefed up their international aisles with Latin American products. Publix opened a handful of now-defunct stores called Publix Sabor, grocery stores full of Latin American foods, Spanish-speaking employees and salsa music playing over the loudspeaker. Bodegas sprang up, offering groceries and hot food.

Other efforts were less formal, such as enterprising Latinos selling pinchos—Puerto Rican-style kabobs—in front lawns and parking lots.

The Latinization of Florida and other Southern states has influenced Southern foodways.

“There’s been what we call cultural hybridization in anthropology,” Delerme says. “You have these fusions that are really exciting and eclectic,” such as crawfish burritos.

Delerme says food provides a gateway for discussing immigration, racism and other social issues.

“We’re only going to see more of this over time,” Delerme says. “I just hope people will embrace the exciting diversity that comes with food.”

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