The Council on Aging hosts CLEO, a Hispanic congregate dining club. PHOTO/COUNCIL ON AGING

We are at the midpoint of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which is celebrated across our nation Sept. 15- Oct. 15. With millions of Latinos living in the U.S., and Osceola County having nearly 207,000 residents of Hispanic and/or Latino descent, representing 56 percent of our population, we felt it important to highlight our interest in National Hispanic Heritage Month.

With the Osceola Council on Aging (OCOA) the largest social services organization within our community, it stands to reason much of our client base is Hispanic. So, how do we support our ever expanding and growing Hispanic population? Simply, we provide an expansive array of support services and programs to meet the social needs of the community. More than 55 percent of those served by the OCOA identify as Hispanic.

Hispanic Heritage Month began as Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 under President Lyndon Johnson. The designation expanded twenty years later, from a weeklong celebration to a month long observance under President Ronald Reagan. According to Wikipedia, the beginning of the observance was chosen based on the commemoration of independence of five Hispanic countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, who declared their independence in 1821. In addition, Mexico, Chile, and Belize celebrate on Sept. 16, 18 and 21. Columbus Day or Día de la Raza, Oct. 12, also falls during the Hispanic Heritage observance period.

The Census Bureau estimated 60.5 million Latinos were living in the United States in 2019, or 18.5 percent of the overall population. By 2020, the population grew to 62.1 million. Latinos account for 51.1 percent of our country’s growth. According to Pew Research Center, Osceola saw the largest percentage point increase in Hispanic residents between 2000 and 2018, rising from 29 to 55 percent. The only other county in Florida with a larger Hispanic demographic is Miami-Dade County at 69.1 percent.

Osceola’s Hispanic community includes substantial numbers of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Venezuelans, Brazilians, and Colombians. However, it is the Puerto Rican migration which has made the largest impact. Puerto Ricans have been coming to Florida for more than 60 years, with many relocating to the Kissimmee/St. Cloud area as a result of Walt Disney World opening in 1971. (Happy 50th, Disney!) New residents arrived from all over the country over the past few decades including those who vacationed in Florida. Tourism was a large draw for many Puerto Ricans as they are U.S. citizens free to move between the island and mainland without special documentation. As our local economy became more tourism based, the need for workers and housing became apparent.

Throughout the 1980s, real estate development companies conducted intensive marketing campaigns aimed at Puerto Rican islanders as well as Puerto Rican communities in the New York and Chicago metro areas. A dramatic expansion of both real estate development and population numbers resulted locally with Hispanic communities such as Buenaventura Lakes and Poinciana becoming established. Four years ago, Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico also forced thousands of families to relocate to Central Florida. With such a large Puerto Rican population in place, those who fled Maria’s devastation had family and friends they could turn to in Osceola County.

With the OCOA serving many in the Hispanic community, we have created additional programs with that in mind. We host a congregate dining club, Centro Latino Americano Edad De Oro (CLEO), where we serve ethnic meals, celebrate holidays (Three Kings Day, Cinco De Mayo, Good Friday), and provide entertainment and informative presentations. These offerings have proved so popular that our non-Hispanic clients also enjoy participating. In addition, we have programs through our Health Clinic aimed at those suffering from chronic illness with support services which help manage their health issues more effectively. Our Hispanic population suffers from chronic illness at higher levels, especially diabetes.

We have a thriving Latino community full of wonderful businesses which cater to and support our Hispanic population, such as local Hispanic grocers, Goya Foods and other local partners. As our community continues to grow, we plan to see an exponential increase of Hispanic residents while also welcoming many other cultures into our already diverse community.

Happy National Hispanic Heritage Month to the wonderful residents of Osceola County!

Wendy Coschignano-Ford is the President/CEO of Osceola Council on Aging

To see more guest columns by Wendy, go to

Published Tuesday, October 5, 2021