The Hispanic population of Pinellas County has surged in the past 10 years, growing more than 71 percent since the 2000 U.S. census despite a drop in the total county population. That tops the growth rate of the U.S. Hispanic population — around 43 percent — and the Florida rate of about 57 percent.
And some Pinellas cities have seen triple-digit percentage increases in their Hispanic/Latino populations since 2000.
The impacts are everywhere, from more books written in Spanish on public library shelves, to more signs printed in both English and Spanish, to growing congregations at churches offering services in Spanish. Pinellas may have to provide bilingual ballots for elections because of the increase. The school district is racing to help teachers prepare for more students who aren't fluent in English.
And social service agencies, already hamstrung by thin revenue, struggle to find the resources and methods to help low-income Hispanics, who some local advocates say feel increasingly pushed aside and cut off from access to the American dream.
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The 2010 census found the total population of Pinellas declined by almost 5,000 to 916,542 between 2000 and 2010. But during the same period, the Hispanic population grew 71.3 percent to 73,241 — 8 percent of the county population.
Break the numbers down by cities, and some of the percentage increases in Hispanic population are startling.
Tiny Belleair Bluffs, with just over 2,000 residents, saw its Hispanic population jump almost 254 percent. Several bigger cities also saw triple-digit increases: Seminole 206 percent, Kenneth City 146 percent, Largo almost 141 percent.
(Looking at percentage increases gives a sense of demographic changes, but can be a little misleading if the population base is small. Belleair Bluffs' big percentage jump still gives it only 99 Hispanic residents.)
St. Petersburg has the largest Hispanic population among cities with 16,214 — a 54.4 percent jump since 2000.
But Clearwater, less than half St. Petersburg's size and with a Hispanic population of 15,200, had the highest concentration. Hispanics make up 14.2 percent of Clearwater's population, for the first time topping the percentage of African-Americans.
While higher numbers can be attributed in part to a better response to the census by Hispanics, the population shift has been visible in some cities.
Largo Mayor Pat Gerard has watched her city growing more diverse. She is happy about the trend because Largo traditionally has lacked diversity, she said.
Pinellas Park wasn't surprised by its 84.4 percent growth in Hispanic population, because the city tracks its demographics with annual surveys. But Pinellas Park spokesman Tim Caddell said the change has been visible in small ways — more Hispanic groups reserving the city auditorium for special events, for example.
Restaurant owner Marvin Rivas has watched the Hispanic community grow from inside his Kenneth City Mexican restaurant, El Marguey. He said many of the new residents come from other countries to find work, and some come from other states seeking a place where they don't feel like outsiders.
"I know that there's other parts in the United States where they don't feel welcome," he said.
The Rev. Gilberto Quintero of St. Cecilia's Catholic Church in Clearwater, where Spanish Masses are full, said he performs a steady 15 to 20 baptisms in Spanish every month, compared to two or three in English.
Robin Gomez, Clearwater's city auditor and Hispanic liaison, is a native of the Mexican state Hidalgo, where much of Clearwater's Hispanic community has its roots. Gomez has noticed something else about the changing demographics. He's hearing different accents from those who identify themselves as Hispanic.
Gomez is picking up on another trend: Pinellas' Hispanic population isn't just growing, it is getting more diverse.
Census numbers show that among those who say they are Hispanic, about 20,000 identify themselves as Mexican, and about 20,000 say they are Puerto Rican. About 8,000 are Cuban. Another group of around 20,000 respondents answered "other Hispanic or Latino," meaning their country of origin might be the Dominican Republic, Spain or a Spanish-speaking Central or South American country.
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What is the impact of Hispanic population growth on Pinellas governments and institutions, and what might the growing numbers portend?
For the Pinellas school district, the challenge is making sure schools have the environment and tools students need to learn, even if English isn't their first language. Parents are asked if a language other than English is spoken at home. If so, students are tested to determine their English proficiency. If not proficient, they are tracked into a program to help them.
The school district must provide bilingual assistants to any school that has 15 or more students speaking a language other than English, said Natasa Karac, the district's coordinator for the English for speakers of other languages program. The district already employs 90 full-time bilingual assistants — a number likely to grow. Teachers are getting special training so they can better help students get beyond the language barrier.
At the Clearwater Library, director Barbara Pickell is strapped for cash but also needs to expand the library's services for the Hispanic community. The library foundation covers the salary of a Hispanic liaison for the library.
The library has an important role to play, Pickell said, in helping all children develop their reading skills and become lifelong learners. So it offers programs and story times. It has a collection of about 2,000 books written in Spanish but needs more, she said. And Pickell wants more bilingual books, so parents who speak Spanish can read along with their children who are rapidly mastering English.
At the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, the staff has watched a Hispanic business district develop along a couple of major city thoroughfares. But figuring out how to serve Hispanic business owners wasn't easy, said president and chief executive Bob Clifford.
"They do things dramatically differently than the traditional businesses in the U.S.," Clifford said. For example, Hispanics traditionally distrust banks, he said, so financing their business ventures was difficult. They like to network, but not at daytime meetings in board rooms — they want night events with a heavy dose of socializing, Clifford said. And they search out people who speak their own language to do business with, which can mean they face higher costs for products and services businesses need.
The Clearwater chamber now has a growing Hispanic networking group, provides monthly programs offering business advice, does grand openings for Hispanic businesses, and is acutely aware that it must bring along bilingual representatives when working with the Hispanic community.
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Some might question why time or resources should be spent to reach out to local Hispanics. Sandra Lyth has a blunt answer: "If you value the peace and stability of your community, you reach out."
To leave a minority group stranded, isolated from the broader community by a language barrier and feeling discriminated against, invites social problems no community wants, said Lyth, a Canadian who is the CEO of the InterCultural Advocacy Institute in Clearwater.
The nonprofit has two branches: the Hispanic Outreach Center, which offers services such as counseling, legal help and translation services to Hispanics living north of Ulmerton Road; and the Hispanic Leadership Council, with members representing business, education, human services and government. Lyth said there is no similar organization in south Pinellas, but there is a need.
Educated, professional Hispanics are doing well in Pinellas, Lyth said, but it is another story for the low-income Hispanics who make up most of her organization's clientele. For them, she said, "life is miserable."
Many Americans, though descended from immigrants themselves, have turned against Hispanic immigrants, leaving them feeling "discriminated against, marginalized and dismissed," Lyth said. The construction industry on which many depended for work has dried up. Many men have returned to Mexico to find work, leaving wives and girlfriends stranded here with their children who were born in America. Dual citizenship and passports must be obtained before the children can move, Lyth said.
While some groups and institutions are catching on to the wisdom of helping the Hispanic community assimilate, Lyth said more is needed: more services, more bilingual employees at local businesses and institutions, more reaching out to ensure this growing segment of the Pinellas population isn't left behind.
"If we all see one another as human beings," Lyth said, "that's a good place to start."