Central Florida has become a hot bed of Puerto Rican immigration and migration. Florida now boasts nearly 850,000 Puerto Ricans in the state, which account for 18% of the nation’s entire Puerto Rican population. The population growth of Puerto Ricans has made it one of the largest ethnic groups in Florida, second only to Cubans. The area of highest Puerto Rican density in Florida is Orlando and Kissimmee, however some of the oldest Puerto Rican roots in the state are grounded in the Tampa Bay region. If you’re coming to Florida looking for authentic Puerto Rican culture, skip on Orlando and Disney, take care of the Budget car rental, and drive over to Tampa Bay.
The car ride will lead you along the I-4 corridor where 350,000 Puerto Ricans currently reside. There are 135,000 Puerto Ricans in the Tampa Bay area, which comprises 28% of the entire Hispanic/Latino population in Tampa Bay. The Tampa-St. Petersburg region has perhaps the oldest Puerto Rican community in Florida, dating back to the 19th century when Ybor City in Tampa was in its heyday as a cigar manufacturing, commercial center. If you plan to come to Tampa Bay for a genuine Puerto Rican experience, come in December.
Not only is the weather spectacular in the bay area in winter, but Tampa has lovely Puerto Rican “parrandas.” Parrandas are the Puerto Rican version of Christmas caroling, when a large group of friends gather together to surprise another friend. Parranderos not only sing traditional Puerto Rican Christmas songs called “aguilandos” but they also frequently play instruments, such as tamborines, guitar, guiro, and maracas among others. The parrandas usually start around 10 p.m. when the group arrives to a house, serenades the owner, and is invited in for drinks and refreshments. The group grows and they leave for another house, and this can last until 3 or 4a.m. For the luckiest parranderos, they can enjoy traditional Puerto Rican favorites like coconut flavored pudding, rice with pigeon peas, pig and Puerto Rican coconut rum, as well as other favorites from the island.
The biggest days to be in Tampa are December 24- Noche Buena (Christmas Eve); December 25 Navidad (Christmas Day); December 31 Despedida de Año. Of course no Latino holiday season would be complete without el Día de Reyes (Three Kings Day) on January 6th, which is the favorite of Latino children around the world. Check out Rancho Las Palmas of Tampa, at 5909 Hartford Street as they host Puerto Rican Parranda Navideña Sunday. After your holiday parties are over, take some time to explore more of the Puerto Rican gastronomy in the bay area.
Probably the most famous Puerto Rican restaurant is La Casona at 5709 N. Armenia in Tampa. Reviewers on their facebook page describe it as “absolutely the best Puerto Rican food in Tampa” and “best mofongo north of San Juan, best pollo salteado ever.” This should provide good reason to go there. Other favorites are masitas (fried pork pieces) and the camarones a la casona con pan (sautéed shrimp in butter and spices with bread). If you are looking for something earthier and without frills, go to Mi Pueblo Cafeteria.
Mi Pueblo Cafeteria is located at 1910 N. Lincoln Ave. in Tampa. The food is inexpensive, but many people consider it to be one of the finest examples of genuine Puerto Rican food in the region, right next to La Casona. Mi Pueblo Cafeteria serves up all the tradition Puerto Rican favorites: lamb, beans, sweet plantains, stewed beef, shredded pork, and stewed shrimp. The restaurant has a very friendly staff and welcoming family environment. Lastly, if you’re up for a road trip, consider eating at Casa de Caguas.
Cruise over the Sunshine Skyway to Bradenton, Florida and find Casa de Caguas 1714 14th St. West. Like most Puerto Rican restaurants, Casa de Caguas has a friendly, family environment. They also serve all the traditional favorites from mofongo to pork. The other fare on the menu includes: jibarito, pastalon, alcapurias, bacalaito, and empanadillas. You can quench your thirst with native Puerto Rican sangria as well as Puerto Rican Medalla Light, while enjoying the feast. Casa de Caguas also makes a variety of other Caribbean specialties that are made to order. The bridges between the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and Florida continue to grow.
Although Jacksonville is the #1 commercial port for Puerto Rican shipping, Tampa is working to improve relations with the Caribbean island. A concerted effort has been made over recent years, including events in Tampa that seek to nurture business ties between Tampa and Puerto Rico. Close ties and relations continue to flourish in the area as Medical Card System Inc., a health services company in Puerto Rico, recently appointed Jim O’Drobinak as chief executive officer. Mr. O’Drobinak lives in the Tampa Bay area and previously worked for Gorman Health Group and Universal Health Care.
Without a doubt, central Florida and especially the Tampa Bay area is a hub for blossoming Puerto Rican culture. With one of the largest concentrations of Puerto Ricans in the country, as well as extremely authentic culinary options and increasing business ties between Tampa Bay and Puerto Rico, there’s no reason to hesitate to come experience for yourself, Florida’s version of Puerto Rico.