Carlos and María Petkovich left Uruguay when a severe crisis roiled their country. Kidnappings were rampant, and the economy was near collapse.
So, four days after their wedding on April 11, 1970, the couple went on their “honeymoon” to New York and never returned to live in Uruguay.
In 1977, after the birth of their first son, Alex, the family moved to Miami, becoming pioneers of the Uruguayan community in South Florida, which has grown dramatically in recent years. Today, it is the largest in the United States, according to statistics cited by the Uruguayan consulate in Coral Gables.
“When we arrived, the Uruguayan colony was tiny,” said Carlos Petkovich, 62. “There were not enough of us to put together a soccer team.”
Partly due to the community’s unprecedented growth in South Florida, the Uruguayan consulate recently announced two initiatives designed to strengthen the bonds among Uruguayans who live in the area.
One of the initiatives involves opening, possibly in Coral Gables, a cultural center where children of Uruguayan immigrants can learn about Uruguay’s history and traditions. The center, to be named Artigas School in honor of national hero José Gervasio Artigas, is being organized by the consulate in coordination with Horacio González, one of the leaders of the Uruguayan community.
The other initiative, already in effect, is the issuance of a consular ID card similar to the one given by the Mexican consulate to its nationals in the United States.
Although Uruguayan consul Diego Pelufo Acosta y Lara said he did not know how many undocumented Uruguayans there are in South Florida, consular cards are generally issued to help undocumented immigrants identify themselves for certain things such as opening a bank account or renting an apartment.
“Our consular card has a double purpose,” Pelufo said. “First, it can be used to complete procedures at financial institutions, primarily banks, whether to open an account or cash a check. And it also has the innovative component in that it offers discounts at various stores.”
Details on how to obtain the Uruguayan consular ID card can be found at www.tarjetaconsularuruguaya.com
Pelufo said the consulate expects to issue thousands of cards. It is estimated that there are at least 14,500 Uruguayans in Florida, 80 percent of them in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
“The state of Florida is where most Uruguayans live,” said Pelufo, citing figures from the 2010 U.S. Census. “It was the fastest-growing South American community, proportionately, in all of Florida.”
South Florida’s Uruguayan community has grown as a result of several waves if immigration.
When the Petkoviches arrived 40 years ago, many Uruguayans were escaping political and economic turmoil caused in part by the bloody confrontation between left-wing guerrillas and security forces. More arrived after Uruguay was added in 1999 to the list of countries whose nationals did not need a tourist visa to enter the United States.
However, the waiver for Uruguay ended in 2003 because many Uruguayans were overstaying their visas.
Uruguayan immigrants have specific places where they gather to have fun.
One of the best-known is the restaurant-bakery Los Gauchitos at 4315 NW Seventh Street, opened by the Petkovich family after they arrived from New York, where the couple had worked in factories, cleaning offices and painting houses.
Los Gauchitos started as a small bakery and butcher shop. Then the family added the restaurant offering Uruguayan specialties.
Another pioneer of the Uruguayan community, Jorge Sánchez, 65, today owns the popular restaurant Zuperpollo at 1247 Coral Way, which he opened upon arriving in Miami in 1986.
Sánchez directs and takes part in a show on Fridays and Saturdays, when he sings tangos, boleros and ballads.
Alicia Gómez, 49, arrived in 2000 with her husband and their 13-year-old son Sebastián during the wave prompted by the visa waiver.
“We wanted a stable place for the future of the family,” said Gómez, who works at a beauty salon while her husband works at a liquor store in Miami.
Sebastián, now in the Army, has served tours of duty in Iraq and will soon leave for Afghanistan.
“I love my native country, but this country has given us a lot,” Gómez said. “My son has gone to fight for the country that today is our home.”
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