NEW PORT RICHEY
Rebeca Martinez moved here from New York in 1997 with her parents, who said the small-town feel reminded them of their home in Puebla, Mexico. She and her husband tried a two-month stint in New York, but couldn't adjust. Now, they've settled in Jasmine Trails. "You can actually go out walking at night, and you don't have to worry," said Martinez, a 20-year-old homemaker. "You see kids running around. I have a son of my own and I like it here for him."
Paco Cano-Zacarias was still a kid when he came here eight years ago, looking for construction work. He left Hidalgo, in eastern Mexico, with his uncle. Now 23, he still works the odd construction job, but spends most days as a cook at the International Latin Market, a small Mexican grocery on U.S. 19. He also earns extra money with a cleaning job in the afternoons.
"I imagine people come here from all over for education, but I think mainly they come for work," he said, in Spanish. "That's why I came."
Martinez and Cano-Zacarias are part of the younger, more diverse face of west Pasco. The older neighborhoods along U.S. 19 — once home to mostly white retirees — are now starting to look a little more like Florida as a whole.
In about a dozen neighborhoods along the highway, newly released U.S. Census data show the white population dipped by 10 percent in the past decade, while both the black and Hispanic populations nearly tripled. Total population in those areas rose only 1 percent from 2000 to 2010, meaning minorities moved in while white people died or moved out.
Overall, those areas are now about 80 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic and 3 percent black. In 2000, the breakdown was 91 percent white, 4 percent Hispanic and 1 percent black.
"I look at the diversity of our kids, and it's certainly changed," said Terri Mutell, principal at Marlowe Elementary in New Port Richey. "It is a very different change than this area's been used to."
For decades, the area was used to retirees flocking from places like New York and Ohio, lured by advertisements for a two-bedroom, one-bath home starting at $6,995. The homes were passed from one retiree to another, often in the same family. Now, the smaller, affordable properties are ideal starter homes — what was once a couple's last home is now another couple's first.
"Families that are trying to get a first foothold economically are attracted to that," Mutell said.
Other changes she's noticed include families moving closer together to support each other in a down economy and more students identifying as more than one race or ethnicity.
"People are connecting more to their other roots that they have," she said. "Which is a very cool thing."
Many Hispanics who used to visit for only a month or two for short-term work are staying. For Cano-Zacarias, it was the pull of family and an affordable cost of living. Others supplement a tight job market by working seasonal jobs such as picking blueberries in Spring Hill. Others are having a tough time getting by.
Longtime County Administrator John Gallagher remembers when these communities were filled with retirees who had a stable source of income.
"They all had Social Security, they had retirement checks. They sold their house up North. The house they were living in was paid for," he said. "Life was good.
"Now, you've got young families that are struggling in these same houses." That lower buying power, he said, "has hurt a lot of the businesses along the (U.S. 19) corridor."
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The International Latin Market is a community hub of sorts, where people can wire money to family in Mexico and pick up staples like masa or dried guajillo and morita peppers.
But the real draw is the small restaurant in the back, where Cano-Zacarias serves up overstuffed tacos filled with meat, cilantro and onions. Steak and marinated pork are popular fillings, and adventurous Anglos should try lengua, or beef tongue.
Javier Bernal, 44, the store's owner for the past three months, is proud of the food. He says, with a smile, that people who go elsewhere for their favorite Mexican food just don't know about his store yet. Regarding the area's growth among Latinos, he gives an understated answer:
"That's good for us."
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Of course, Pasco's growth in the past decade wasn't uniform. There are still many pockets of west Pasco that are largely white. And some boom areas near Wesley Chapel saw even stronger growth among Hispanics in the past decade. But neighborhoods along U.S. 19 are the only area with both an influx of minorities and a drop in the white population.
Minorities began moving to west Pasco in large numbers over the past decade or so, while areas such as Dade City have long had sizable black and Hispanic populations. Another difference is many east Pasco communities are divided along racial lines after decades of institutionalized segregation. Minorities on the west side tend to be spread throughout neighborhoods.
"You're not going to see concentrations of minority populations," said George Romagnoli, Pasco County's director of affordable income housing programs to help revitalize neighborhoods.
Data from Pasco schools also show that the county's Hispanic population tends to be younger. Nearly 20 percent of about 67,000 children in Pasco schools identify as Hispanic, compared with slightly less than 12 percent for the total county population.
More than half of the Hispanic students in a handful of east Pasco schools are learning English — an indication their families recently moved to America. For some schools along U.S. 19, such as Marlowe and Richey elementaries, that figure is about a third. Other elementary schools have about 15 or 20 percent of their Hispanic children in English for Speakers of other Language classes.
When Martinez first got here and went to school, she said, "there was no Spanish kids, no Spanish teachers, nothing." A couple of years later another Hispanic girl arrived, but the district hadn't yet developed an ESL program at her school.
"Instead of a teacher translating for her and helping her, I translated for her," she said. "Without that, she wouldn't have known anything."
Jeff Morgenstein, the former director of the school district's ESL program, said he also sees a variety of small communities on the west side, including people from China, Vietnam, India and the Middle East.
"There's more of a variety of population there" compared with other areas of the county, he said.
Gulf High School, for instance, has students speaking 30 different languages, including Russian, Mandarin, Samoan and Arabic. West Pasco has a growing medical community that has attracted physicians from the Middle East and Asia, as well as several agencies serving immigrant and refugee families.
The demographic changes also are a shift for neighborhood groups, which find it difficult to recruit many of west Pasco's younger families. Leaders of those civic groups tend to be older, and don't regularly interact with the new arrivals. Dominick Scannavino, president of the umbrella group Council of Neighborhood Associations, said busy parents simply don't have the time that retirees have.
"They've got to work, or if they're out of work, they're trying to hustle a job," he said. "They're truly trying to raise a family."
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.