MIAMI -- A new generation of Latinos is changing the face of Florida politics.
They are more diverse, tracing their roots to more Latin American countries and identifying, in increasing numbers, as Democrats.
There are also signs that they are becoming increasingly vocal.
Cristina Albright, a Colombian-born U.S. citizen who has lived here for 35 years, told The Huffington Post that Democratic Hispanics weren't always welcome in Florida's Hispanic community.
"We were always Democrats," she said, "but we were afraid to say so. Now, we're activists."
Two weeks ago, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition -- traditionally associated with a more conservative political stance -- announced that more than 300 churches nationwide were pushing for support for "poverty programs, comprehensive immigration reform, and education equity," said the Rev. Peter Vivaldi, the group's Florida representative.
Tuesday night, Albright joined a group of supporters of President Barack Obama who gathered for a State of the Union watch party. Out of 30 people who attended, at least 10 were Latinos.
Perhaps even more significant, the gathering took place in the heart of the Republicans' Hispanic stronghold in Florida. Up until just four years ago, the majority of the state's some 1.5 million Latino voters were Republican. Not anymore.
Ronald Reagan counted on a predominantly Cuban-American population to give him his Florida win. Since then, waves of Nicaraguans, Colombians, Venezuelans and, mostly in Central Florida, Puerto Ricans, have diluted the Cuban-Americans' voting dominance.
In 2008, the numbers shifted, and it has been downhill for the Republicans ever since. In the past four years, new registrations of Latino Democrats have outpaced Republican registrations 7 to 1. The GOP added 7,093 Latino voters between 2008 and 2012; Hispanic Democrats increased by more than 50,000.
South Florida is the last sizable place in the state where registered Republican Latinos outnumber their Democratic counterparts. In all, about 11 percent of the state's Republicans are Hispanic. Almost 60 percent of them are in South Florida, and many are Cuban-American. But even in the heart of the Republicans' Hispanic stronghold, that's giving way to the new political reality.
"I was a Republican until four years ago," Jose Lopez-Capiro told The Huffington Post at the State of the Union party. "I became disenchanted with the party because it went too far to the right."
Lopez-Capiro, a Cuban-American who came to this country when he was 11, said it's something he sees continuing today, with the Republican presidential candidates generally espousing hard-line positions on immigration and the DREAM Act, which would give children of undocumented immigrants legal status under certain circumstances.
"I would say they are frightening the Latino community, and the Cuban community, a bit," Lopez-Capiro said, "because they are going too much to the right. Things like the DREAM Act, although it doesn't affect us directly because of our special [immigration] status. They see that as cruel, it's un-American."
Lopez-Capiro, a computer programmer, has stepped up his pro-Obama activism. He now knocks on doors in the Latino community, encouraging people to vote for the president. He doesn't always get a warm reception, he said, but never a rude one. And, he said, he's seeing an unexpected groundswell of activism.
"I see an undercurrent of enthusiasm to do volunteer work, to do canvassing -- 4 to 6 years ago, this was not done," he said. "I think it's more accepted. Younger Hispanics are giving their time to volunteer. I go to events and I see young people."
The Latinos watching the president's speech on large flat-screen TVs over a restaurant bar Tuesday night cheered and applauded enthusiastically as Obama touched on themes that resonated with them.
Sonia Diaz, raised in Houston, Texas, by Dominican and Venezuelan parents, nodded vigorously as the president said GM has come back from the brink of collapse to become the largest automaker in the world. She pointed to herself as evidence not just of the change in Florida, but of what candidates may see as they move on to face large, non-Cuban-American Latino groups of voters in other states.
"Immigration is a bigger issue in Texas than it is here," she said. "I think the challenges are much different, and they definitely speak more to what the U.S. Hispanic in this nation is suffering than what the Latino here probably feels the issues are."
Immigration reform clearly struck a chord with the Hispanics in the watch party audience, brought up time and again as they discussed the speech with The Huffington Post.
Claudia Lopez-Duckenfield, a U.S. citizen who came to this country from Colombia 14 years ago, applauded loudly as the president called for comprehensive immigration reform. She likened anti-immigrant stances and illegal immigration crackdown laws to the Jim Crow laws and racism of the past.
She said, "That's the discrimination of our generation."
A LOOK AT U.S. LATINOS:
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