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Not Just Cubans: Many Latinos Now Call Miami Home

Dr. Luis Arias, originally from Venezuela and Dr. Margarita Perez, originally from the Dominican Republic, are engaged to be married, and are making Miami their home. Only a little over half of Miami's Latino residents are now Cuban American. Carmen Sesín / Carmen Sesín

MIAMI — After studying medicine in Caracas, Venezuela, Luis Arias packed his bags and headed to Miami for his residency, and later to Boston to complete his fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital. But Miami was the city he decided to settle in and call home once he graduated as a rheumatologist.

Arias is engaged to be married to another doctor, Margarita Perez, a cardiologist who is from the Dominican Republic. Arias' sister just married a Cuban, he said, reflecting how Miami’s diversity is intertwining.

“I like that I'm surrounded by other Latin people," he said. "You have access to all the things you enjoy in your country while being in the US.”

Miami is a majority Latino city -- 70 percent of its population is Hispanic. And while Cuban-Americans still comprise over half of the city's population -- 54 percent -- the city's Hispanic composition is changing. According to a Pew Hispanic report, about 13 percent of Miami-Dade's Latinos are from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, and 32 percent are from other Central and South American countries such as Guatemala, Colombia, El Salvador, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Honduras and Brazil.

"Miami has a high share of foreign-born Hispanics compared with many of the other metro areas -- 66 percent of Miami’s Latinos are foreign born,” according to Eileen Patten, a research analyst at the Pew Research Center.

In recent years, says Susan Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, political changes as well as a boom in commodities across Latin America resulted in more investment and more migration to Miami.

“They were afraid their currency would be devalued so they preferred to take money out and buy condos here,” said Purcell.

Another reason is that entrepreneurs and professionals see the potential to make money. Jorge Salazar Carrillo, a professor of economics at Florida International University and director of the Center of Economic Research, says Miami-Dade’s Gross Domestic Output is currently at around $140 billion a year, which places it among the top 15 metro areas in the country, according to Salazar-Carrillo. The main driving force of economic output in South Florida is trade and the trade is with countries in Latin America.

Miami's more recent Latino residents benefit from the success accrued by previous generations of Hispanics, particularly Cuban Americans, who started immigrating in large numbers after Castro came to power in Cuba.

Since the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) was approved in 1966, Cubans have been the only Latino group who are eligible for green cards just one year and 1 day after arriving in the U.S. (Puerto Ricans are the only group who are U.S. citizens; Puerto Rico is a U.S.territory). A revision to the CAA in 1995 known as the wet foot/dry foot policy repatriates Cubans intercepted at sea, but those who step foot on dry land are allowed to stay.

This helped Cuban Americans integrate at a fast pace. "The city was transformed because of so many Cuban entrepreneurs,” Salazar-Carrillo recounted.

Roberto Izurieta, a professor at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, said the second generation of Cubans in Miami "has had access to better education, learned English as their first language, and have had higher income than Latino communities in other locations."

This had led to the formation of institutions which benefit the area's Hispanics. Florida International University (FIU), which opened its doors in 1972, was built because the influx of Cubans created a demand for an additional institution of higher learning. It currently graduates more Latinos than any other university in the country, said Salazar-Carrillo.

The successful integration of Miami's Cuban-Americans -- which greatly benefited the city -- points the way to the combination of factors necessary to bolster Latino communities around the U.S. Izurieta says these include education, income, legal status, community involvement and mastering of the English language.

“We are observing progress in most if not all of those variables in California, Texas and most everywhere else," said Izurieta. He said immigration reform would speed up the process.

For now, a growing number of Latinos from different nationalities continue to settle in Miami, and are building on the previous generations of Hispanics who settled there.

The city of Doral in Miami-Dade County recently elected its first Venezuelan mayor, Luigi Boria. And as Latinos continue to arrive in Miami, the change is inevitable. Salazar-Carrillo said, “they [Latinos] feel Miami is like them.

As for Arias, who is part of the newer generation of Latinos making Miami home, it works for him.

"It's a convenient hybrid for someone from a Latin country."