Florida’s history and present are shaped by the irreplaceable role of diverse immigrant communities, many from Latin America.
They comprise more than a quarter of Florida’s labor force. They account for a third of all self-employed Floridians. They mold Florida’s culture with both their traditions and insights, transforming the state into a global melting pot of art, culture, and history.
More than one in five Floridians are immigrants, with many Floridians hailing from Cuba, Haiti, Colombia, and Mexico, according to the American Immigration Council, a Washington DC-based nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.
Kathleen Arnold, director of the Refugee and Forced Migration Studies program at Chicago’s DePaul University, says immigrant communities have always played leading roles in Florida’s storied history, and they continue to shape and strengthen the Sunshine State today.
“Florida was populated by indigenous peoples, influenced by European colonizers, and one of the more diverse territories in its early history. While some treat migrants as outsiders to a state’s history, we have to remember that migrants founded this country. Florida, because of its proximity to Caribbean countries, has always been a site for migrant arrivals,” says Arnold, author of five books including 2018’s Arendt, Agamben, and the Issue of Hyper-Legality: In Between the Prisoner-Stateless Nexus.
“Learning the history of a state with such diversity and such a rich history of migration is important to understand that any anti-immigrant policies authorize forms of bias against Florida’s residents,” Arnold continued.
By no means an exhaustive list, read on to learn about both the rich histories and current-day restaurants, festivals, and neighborhood gathering places that center the unique cultures of some of Florida’s most populous immigrant communities.
A half-century ago, the first documented Haitian immigrants to Florida arrived on the shores of Pompano Beach in efforts to escape the deadly dictatorships of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The 65 travelers, including two children, were promptly detained and jailed. This event set the tone for a long history of Haitian Americans enduring unjust treatment, including the Centers for Disease Control temporarily adding them to their list of groups considered to have the highest risk of contracting AIDS. Today, Haitian Americans, many of whom speak Creole, comprise 8% of Florida’s immigrant population, making them the state’s second most populous immigrant group behind Cuban Americans.
The doors of Piman Bouk Bakery open every morning at 5 a.m. in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. By the time the sun reaches high noon, hungry customers of this mainstay, also known as The New Florida Bakery, have often eaten every last Haitian patty, each one expertly crafted with a puff pastry shell. Plan ahead to visit this family-owned restaurant serving baked Haitian specialties like traditional pain next spring when the Haitian Compas Festival returns to Miami on May 18, 2024, for its 26th year of spotlighting Haitian music, art, and food.
Since the mid-1990s, Colombians have been immigrating to south Florida’s Miami-Dade and Broward counties because of both political and economic instability, according to research conducted by Florida International University’s Latin American and Caribbean Center. Even though a civil war raged in their home country, Colombians were not granted Temporary Protected Status by the US Department of Homeland Security when they arrived. This rendered the group unable to easily obtain permanent or work visas, leaving the threat of deportation looming over them. In the years that have followed, the Colombian American population has grown to become 6% of all Floridian immigrants, making them the Sunshine State’s third most populous immigrant group, tied with Mexican Americans.
Today, Colombian culture can be found far beyond the reaches of south Florida. Located in Tampa, La Cabaña Restaurant is a family-owned and operated eatery and gathering place where authentic Colombian flavors coalesce to create an unforgettable experience. No visit to La Cabaña is complete without tasting their renowned pollo a la brasa (rotisserie chicken), though you may not have any room left after devouring their bandeja cabaña, a platter piled high with multiple meats, beans, rice, fried egg, plantain, avocado, and lemon.
Mexican immigration to the US began in earnest as early as the 1890s, according to historian and Library of Congress Kluge Fellow Julia Young. Some Mexicans left their homeland to seek fresh economic opportunities in the American Southwest’s burgeoning mining and agricultural industries, while others were political exiles and war refugees escaping political and religious persecution during the Mexican Revolution. Research conducted by Washington DC’s Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that today, 14.9 million Mexican Americans are counted among the US labor force, with the group comprising 62% of the nation’s Hispanic workforce.
For the last 14 years, Mexican culture and traditions have transformed downtown Orlando into a site for family-friendly revelry during the annual Día de los Muertos and Monster Party. On Oct. 19, the event returns with live performances by Mexico Lindo Folklorico Ballet of Orlando as well as local food, drink, and artist exhibitions in honor of the Mexican holiday when families welcome back the souls of their deceased loved ones for reunion and celebration.
Though most Floridians know that Cuban immigration to the US occurred in a succession of waves between the 1950s-1990s, largely in response to Fidel Castro’s one-party communist state and the collapse of the Soviet Union, few are aware that Cuban Americans have carved out a presence in Florida since the mid-to-late-1800s.
In 1869, Cuban cigar manufacturer Vicente Martinez Ybor built a cigar factory in Key West, and two decades later, he moved operations to Tampa. By 1910, Tampa — specifically the neighborhood now referred to as Ybor City — was home to 150 cigar factories, each of which employed droves of Cuban American immigrants who worked alongside skilled Cuban cigar rollers from Italy and Spain.
Today, Cuban Americans make up nearly a quarter of the Sunshine State’s immigrant population and their culture and history remain intact in Miami’s Little Havana. Stroll down the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, Calle Ocho (8th Street), to visit iconic sites of Cuban American history. Be sure to look down to learn the names of many important people whose contributions to Cuban American culture are etched in perpetuity along the Little Havana Paseo de las Estrellas, or Walk of the Stars.
Start your trek at Máximo Gómez Park, affectionately referred to as Domino Park, where locals play dominoes and sip Cuban coffee. As evening gives way to night, follow the sounds of salsa and rumba to live music venues like the historic Ball & Chain, which has hosted music and cultural events since 1935, and the Cubaocho Museum and Art Center.