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Puerto Ricans Weaving Strong Network In Orlando – Reminders of Home


Photo credit:Flickr: Vik Cuban

Photo credit:Flickr: Vik Cuban

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…
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