FOUR CORNERS – In 1493, Christopher Columbus arrived at an island he initially called San Juan Bautista. It was the gold in the river, though, that gave the island a different name: Puerto Rico, or “rich port.”
Soon enough, Puerto Rico became a Spanish colony that produced cattle, sugar cane, coffee and tobacco.
By the turn of the century, Puerto Rico came under the sovereignty of the United States, and today it remains both a popular tourist destination and manufacturing center that produces high-tech equipment and pharmaceuticals.
It’s that rich history that convinced Debbie Centeno that celebrations of Puerto Rico’s heritage don’t necessarily have to be done on the island – even though Centeno, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, has experienced some great festivals there.
“What they mostly have is arts and crafts, but ones that are native to the island,” she said. “It’s more like things that are hand made by the citizens right there, and a lot of displays of clothes, and they sell them, and there are always groups playing, and dancing – and, of course, food, and activities for the kids. Sometimes they have parades, too.”
Centeno has been in Central Florida since 1996, and she now has a restaurant that she operates in the Four Corners area, Richie’s Puerto Rican Grill. Next month, the restaurant at 9350 W. U.S. 192 in Four Corners and its spacious parking lot will be the location for a festival that Centeno hopes will be good enough to become a regular event, the first Puerto Rican Heritage Day festival. Centeno said it would be a “fun-filled day of food, arts and crafts by local vendors, and music with the live performance of Ya Plena.”
The event is on Saturday, Nov. 19 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“This festival came about because a lot of people in Florida always celebrate the Hispanic Heritage Month in October or November,” she said. “My restaurant is Puetro Rican, and the discovery of Puerto Rico was actually on Nov. 19.”
She decided to start something that reflects the traditions of the island, and the festivals held there that she remembers from growing up in Puerto Rico.
“There are a lot of festivals that go on at this time, but our restaurant is focused more on the traditional celebration,” she said. “We wanted to start this festival aimed basically at the commemoration of Puerto Rico. We wanted to be very, very traditional.”
There’s certainly a lot of history to celebrate – and not just on the island. Orange, Osceola and Polk counties have some of the fastest growing Latino populations in this state, and it’s easy to spot the heritage and influence the Puerto Rican community has brought to Central Florida in the many restaurants, shops, and businesses started by Puerto Ricans living here — including Centeno.
In 1990, the U.S. Census recorded 63,075 people of Puerto Rican descent living in Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties. By 2000, the number had ballooned to 162,555. Between 1940 and 1960, half a million people left Puerto Rico looking for work, and while not all of them came to Florida, many did, bringing with them a rich heritage and a close kinship with friends and neighbors.
Centeno said she wanted to celebrate that history, by starting an event that she hopes becomes an annual celebration in Four Corners.
“This is our first year,” she said. “I have people trying to guide me, and guiding me through this, so I’m very excited about it. Everything is coming through, little by little.”
She’s encouraging local businesses to take part in the festival, and let area residents in fast-growing Four Corners know what they have in their own back yard.
“I want to aim it more toward the local community, to give them an opportunity to sell their stuff,” she said.
It makes sense to hold an event like this here, she said, because while Four Corners has a growing Latino population, there are no cultural events being held now in Four Corners.
“Everything has always been in Orlando,” she said. “In the Four Corners area, we have a lot of Hispanics, and there’s nothing for us like that.”
She’s hopeful that this celebration attracts a good crowd, and brings the community together.
“It’s an outdoor event, in the parking lot,” she said. “We’ll see where it leads.”
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