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Spanish heard more and more in Tampa Bay, according to U.S. Census.

Arnold Fernandez waits with son Arnold Fernandez Jr., 6, as his younger son, Adrian Fernandez, 3, has his hair cut by Alejandro Crespo at El Guille Barbershop in Tampa. Fernandez thinks it is important that his boys grow up bilingual.
Published Jan. 1, 2016

TAMPA

The 3-year-old sits still on the booster seat in the Cuban barber shop as Alejandro Crespo cuts his hair, speaking in Spanish with the boy's father.

Arnold Fernandez, who immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba in 2000, wants his four kids to be fluent in both Spanish and English. He knows their English will be honed in school; it's their Spanish that worries him. That's one reason Fernandez takes his sons to El Guille Barber Shop on Armenia Avenue. It also helps explain why 1 in 5 people in Hillsborough speaks Spanish at home.

According to five-year estimates released last month by the U.S. Census Bureau, Spanish was the primary language spoken at home for nearly 21 percent of those five years old and older in Hillsborough.

While the percentage of Tampa Bay's overall population speaking Spanish at home — 13 percent — matches the national average, it lags behind the state's 20 percent average because of counties like Miami-Dade, where 64 percent of its residents speak Spanish at home.

But Tampa Bay is catching up. In the last five years, the number of people in Florida who speak Spanish grew more than 500,000, or 16 percent. During the same period, Tampa Bay saw an increase of 64,200, or 22 percent.

Make no mistake: Tampa Bay is overwhelmingly native born — with 84 percent of the population. It's just that of the foreign-born population, which grew slightly, Hispanics are dominating. More than half of those born elsewhere hail from Latin America. Those from Asia (19 percent) and Europe (18 percent) trail far behind.

Without Hillsborough, Tampa Bay would not be skewing this way. The share of those speaking Spanish at home in Pinellas, Hernando and Pasco counties ranged between only 6 percent and 9 percent.

"Hillsborough pretty closely reflects the United States, generally speaking," said Avera Wynne, executive director of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Commission. "Hillsborough, more than the other counties, mirrors the country when it comes to growth and trends."

•••

Fernandez first moved to Miami in 2000, but it was a shot at better work and a better life that brought him to Tampa.

"There's more opportunity here, for jobs, for kids, for everything," Fernandez said. "It's better to raise kids here than in Miami. Life in Miami is too fast."

Some point to agriculture when trying to explain Hillsborough's draw. But Randy Deshavo, the principal economic planner for the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Commission, pushed back against that notion. Farm workers tend to move a lot. And they're not necessarily a population measured by the census.

Instead, it's more likely related to Hillsborough's ties with Latin America as a trading partner.

"People need to keep in mind that there's a fairly sophisticated foreign-born population that's involved in trade and pushing our local economy ahead," Deshavo said.

Hillsborough was created as an industrial business center, founded on the backs of cigar factories, said Ray Chiaramonte, executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. Those who wanted recreation went to Pinellas. Those looking for work came to Hillsborough.

"Hillsborough is pretty dominant in the employment center, the non-touristy type jobs," Chiaramonte said. "It's a different type of place."

•••

Fernandez's 76-year-old mother moved to Tampa a couple of years ago. She speaks no English and, at her age, Fernandez doesn't expect her to learn.

He wants his children to be able to talk with her and to maintain that part of their culture. But his other son, Arnold Jr., doesn't like to speak Spanish. Fernandez knows the 6-year-old understands what he hears, but it's difficult to get the boy to speak it.

Arnold Jr. is shy when asked why he prefers English, sliding into a chair at the barber shop and ducking his head. But part of it might have to do with the fact that most of his friends, he says, speak English.

"I have to encourage him more to speak Spanish," Fernandez said. "My daughter, she's happy to speak both."

While it's unclear how the rising foreign-born population will influence the area, one way it has already started to manifest itself is through the development of more multigenerational homes, said Melissa Zornitta, executive director of the Hillsborough Planning Commission.

"I think it might take awhile to see how these cultural and demographic shifts play out," Zornitta said. "But over time we might begin to see, is there a trend in how that influences how people want to commute, what type of employment they're looking for or where they want to live."

•••

Unlike others who make the move to Tampa Bay, Fernandez didn't have family in the area, but he knew there was a strong Cuban community.

"Here, there's more Hispanic restaurants, people and culture," Fernandez said. "More than St. Petersburg or Clearwater."

That might be why more immigrants from Latin America choose to settle in Hillsborough. Finding that pre-existing cultural hub along with a community that speaks the native language can be key, said immigration lawyer John Ovink.

"We've seen that throughout the century: Newcomers flock to areas where they can speak their native language," Ovink said. "That happened with the Scandinavians and Germans over a century ago and that continues to happen."

But Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn thinks immigrants are drawn to the city for more than just the comfort of interacting with other Spanish speakers. He said it's the city's long-held reputation of welcoming and embracing other cultures.

"Tampa has a history of celebrating that diversity as a strength and not as a weakness," Buckhorn said. "And of incorporating people into our community fabric quickly, because we've had 200 years of doing that."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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