Puerto Ricans weaving strong network in Orlando, where they find reminders of home

The aroma of the café con leche wafted through the hall.

The chatter at every table was in Spanish, peppered with Puerto Rican idioms.

And there was that sound — “thwack!” That sound — so familiar, always sure to etch a smile across a face and to send a heart aflutter.

It’s the dominoes hall on Herndon Avenue in Orlando, a popular haunt co-founded by Manuel Oquendo, a Puerto Rican, for fellow Puerto Ricans, who have been streaming into Central Florida at record rates, propelled by the ever-deepening financial crisis there.

Oquendo wanted to replicate the sense of home, the nostalgic pleasure of the familiar, in Orlando that he found so riveting when he first came here in 1999.

“I came to Orlando on vacation to bring my daughters to Disney, and I loved the climate, it was like Puerto Rico’s,” Oquendo said in his moderate-size office, its walls and furniture bedecked by dominoes of a variety of sizes and colors. “And it’s closer to Puerto Rico than Texas, where I lived. But it was welcoming to Puerto Ricans, too. It was welcoming to see Puerto Rican products in supermarkets and Puerto Rican meals I liked eating on the menus in the restaurants.”

Oquendo’s dominoes hall is just one part of an expansive network of businesses, cultural centers, churches, media outlets and civic programs, among other things, run by Puerto Ricans in Orlando to cater – initially, at least – to their fellow Puerto Ricans, whether they just arrived from San Juan or are transplants from another U.S. city.

“When people come here, they feel at home, and they feel taken care of,” said Rev. Roberto Candelario, the pastor of Centro Internacional de la Familia, which has 1,400 parishoners. “There are hundreds of thousands of Latinos now in Central Florida, and thousands more come every month.”

Candelario’s church sits on a sprawling 91,000-square-foot campus that offers numerous activities and social services to the Latino community.

After a period in his life when he struggled with drug addiction, he vowed to his wife that if one day he could manage to, he’d set up a place where people could turn for help with similar problems as well as for guidance and basic services.

The non-denominational church also hosts summer camps and even “date nights,” where people can meet prospective partners.

“My business is familia,” Candelario said.

“We have on this [campus] a medical clinic that has served 400 people in the last year, our ‘House of Bread,’ which gave food to over 500 families in the past year,” said Candelario, who came from Puerto Rico as a 17-year-old teenager in 1969 and then moved to Orlando in 1989. “Now we are working with the homeless. We are engaged with the community.”

A record 64,000 Puerto Ricans left the island last year for the U.S. mainland, many of them settling in Orlando and the surrounding area.

That was a 31 percent increase over the previous year, 2014, when some 49,000 people left, according to the island's Institute of Statistics cited by the Associated Press.

The surge in departures comes as the U.S. territory of 3.5 million people struggles with a nearly decade-long economic slump.

Overall, more than 200,000 people are estimated to have left Puerto Rico between 2010 and 2014, the majority of them families and young educated workers.

One of the draws to Orlando for many of them are the comforting reminders of home.

“Yesterday a man came who arrived six weeks ago from Puerto Rican, looking for a place to meet people,” Oquendo said. “He was looking for a place to play dominoes. He said that in Puerto Rico, he played dominoes in a bodega every afternoon. He was glad to find us and immediately became a member.”

Like Oquendo, Candaleria recalls how important it was to come across something that reminded him of his Puerto Rican roots when he first arrived in Orlando, where he came originally to work as a translator for a pastor in Orlando Christian Center.

“You had to drive a long way to find Latino food,” he said. “There was one supermarket Latinos from everywhere around here would go to. When you got there, it was like a gathering spot. You’d look up and there was so-and-so from your neighborhood back in Puerto Rico.”

The city was not very hospitable to Latinos a generation ago. He remembers a Latino who opened a bodega when it was still a novelty here.

“Some redneck burned it down,” Candelario said.

“Now, about 40 percent of some of the population in some areas are Latino,” he said. 

In his church, he added, “Puerto Ricans are still the majority, but now, since the year began, I’ve seen a trend of Venezuelans coming like never before. And I’m amazed by how many Colombians have settled here.”

“That’s why we call it ‘Centro Internacional,’” Candelario said.

But the biggest stream of new arrivals, he reiterates, is Puerto Rican.

“I’ve seen lately many Puerto Rican professionals coming here – lawyers, doctors, accountants,” he said.

To feel an affinity with their new hometown, many Puerto Ricans need to do nothing more than turn the dial on their radio.

Radio shows targeting them, as well as other Latinos to a smaller degree, have proliferated over the decades. Most are done in Spanish.

Candelario uses the airwaves most often to address family values.

Anthony Suarez, another New York transplant and president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association, uses his radio program to talk mostly politics. Recently, speaking from his makeshift studio, which is just a few feet from his office in his law practice, Suarez, who is a former Democrat-turned-Republican, asked callers to weigh in on a favorite topic in the local Latino community — Donald Trump.

Of 12 callers, only two said they supported Trump, that they thought he speaks the unvarnished, discomfiting truth.

Suarez retorted in Spanish: “There’s a legitimate debate to be had about immigration reform, but what matters here is the troubling, divisive tone that is dominating that debate.”

To Sami Haiman-Marrero, who came from New York 11 years ago, it soon became clear that new arrivals from Puerto Rico needed orientation for the most basic things – how to build credit here, find housing, find and keep a job, all of which work differently here than in the commonwealth, she said.

“We’ve seen a crescendo,” said So Haiman-Marrero, who owns a marketing and business development business in town. “First we had 30,000 come, then 40,000, then last year 50,000, and it continues.”

So Haiman-Marrero launched “Talleres de Bienvendia,” which means “Welcome Workshops” in English.

Held in conjunction with the Orlando Public Library as the venue, the talleres are offered once a month and each focuses on a different topic to help newcomers navigate their new surroundings.

“People who are new here need information on how to get a job, what is fair market value for housing, what you need for rent – you need two months, not one month, for rent up front,” Haiman-Marrero said, as her friend, Lara Rodriguez, a lawyer who settled in this town from Puerto Rico two years ago, nodded knowingly. “We tell them – we stress that it’s important to have good credit, and how to be careful with their information. Florida is the number one state for identity theft.”

Last year, City Commissioner Tony Ortiz, a former Marine who came from Puerto Rico as a young man, also launched an orientation program, but one aimed at civics and teaching newcomers from Puerto Rico – and immigrants who might also be interested – about the political process on the mainland.

Rodriguez said that even she, who had been on the mainland for periods at a time before moving here to work on political campaigns, was barely ready for a permanent life here when she settled in Orlando.

“In Puerto Rico, if you don’t have credit, which many people don’t, you can still rent an apartment, still do all kinds of things,” Rodriguez said.

Orlando, they both said, can be quite inbred, the challenging side of its small-town feel that attracts so many Puerto Ricans here in favor of past gateways such as Miami.

Longtime locals are known oftentimes to take a while to measure up a newcomer – be they from San Juan or Brooklyn – and embrace them into the clique.

“You go through that initial initiation, and you gain their trust,” Rodriguez said. “All my biological family is in Puerto Rico. My friends here became my other family.”

Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for, and can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.