The number of Hispanics moving to Tampa Bay from other countries has spiked more than 200 percent in the past two decades, triggering social and economic change throughout the region.
People who identify themselves as Hispanic now account for about 16 percent of the overall population in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of U.S. Census Bureau numbers.
"It's actually been an explosion,'' said Victor DiMaio, co-chairman of the Hillsborough Hispanic Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group.
As the issue of comprehensive immigration reform plays out in Washington and across the country, the debate is being closely watched in the bay area, where the rapid influx of Hispanics is altering the makeup of schools, churches and business.
• About half of the 81 churches in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, which serves Hillsborough, Hernando, Pinellas, Pasco and Citrus counties, now provide Mass in Spanish.
• More than half of the Pasco Hernando Hispanic Chamber of Commerce's approximately 220 members are Hispanic-run businesses.
• During the 2012-13 school year, Hispanic students accounted for about 31 percent of the 200,000 students in the Hillsborough County School District.
The extraordinary growth in Tampa Bay does not surprise DiMaio, who points to an influx of immigrants from Central America, South America and the Caribbean.
"They see this as a familiar place to stay."
Ermelidia Silva, 56, moved to Tampa five years ago from Havana, one of 20,000 Cubans who migrated to Hillsborough within the past decade.
She didn't speak English. Didn't know how to drive. Lived with her son.
Five years later, she drives 30 miles to and from her job at a bread factory in St. Petersburg. She bought a house and is learning English.
"I never thought I would drive,'' Silva said. "I never thought I would own a house. I have them now."
Silva is among more than 300,000 Hispanics living in Hillsborough County, which has a total population of 1.2 million.
Census numbers show the number of Hispanics immigrating to Hillsborough increased more than 200 percent from 1990 to 2010.
But the increase was even greater elsewhere.
The number of Hispanics migrating to Pinellas during that same stretch quintupled. Eight percent of Pinellas' about 916,542 residents now identify themselves as Hispanic.
The growth in Pinellas is particularly "impactful'' because the county's total population has been stable for many years, said Sandra Lyth, chief executive officer of the InterCultural Advocacy Institute that provides services to immigrants in Clearwater.
In Pasco, Hispanic immigration increased more than sixfold from 1990 to 2010, leaving the county with a Hispanic population of 54,536, or about 12 percent of the total, according to the Census Bureau.
In Hernando, Hispanics now account for about 10 percent of the county's 172,778 residents.
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The Hispanic immigration has led to significant change for the Diocese of St. Petersburg.
"We recognize the number of Hispanics that have increased so greatly. They are the church of today," said Angelica Iglesias, associate director of Hispanic ministry at the diocese.
Beyond celebrating Mass in Spanish, several churches offer outreach for Hispanics, including English classes and prayer groups. Priests visit migrant workers in Hillsborough.
Similarly, the Tampa Bay business community is adapting.
Elena McCullough, board member of the Pasco Hernando Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber tries to reach "traditional Hispanic businesses that are new to the whole American system to learn successful strategies."
That includes teaching Hispanic businesses how to appeal to non-Hispanic customers, and vice versa.
More than half of the Pasco Hernando chamber's approximately 220 members are Hispanic-run businesses. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Tampa Bay also has more than 200 members, nearly all Hispanic.
While the Hispanic migration continues, many of those arrivals don't show up at polling places, said Edward Quinones, president of the Pinellas County Hispanic Caucus of the Democratic Party.
Only about 4 percent of registered voters in Pinellas County are Hispanics, according to recent elections office numbers. In Hillsborough, Hispanics comprise nearly 15 percent of registered voters.
"While we make a lot of noise about our rising expectations and rising numbers, the reality is that we don't turn to vote,'' Quinones said.
"We're paying a very high price, unless Hispanics get their act together, and turn out and vote, they're going to be ignored."
Times staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Laura C. Morel can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.