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P1060472

December 11, 2015 —
One thing I noticed after a week in Miami is that being greeted in Spanish by almost every stranger I encounter is a daily occurrence that doesn't happen as much when I visits other cities with high Latino populations.

For example, whenever I visit my hometown of El Paso, most conversations start off in English, and then switch to Spanish when it becomes apparent that both speakers can converse more easily in Spanish. During this trip to Miami I found that most people first speak to you in Spanish, and it is expected that you will most often respond in Spanish and continue the conversation that way.

My feeling is that if you are not a native Spanish speaker and want to become more fluent in that language without having to leave the country, Miami is a great place for you. In El Paso or anywhere in the Southwest, where Latinos are the majority of the population, I would be shocked if someone automatically assumed that because I am of Mexican heritage that they could address me first in Spanish, and then carry on in that language.

So why is that?

Well, remembering the Texas-Mexican history taught to me in 5th grade, most cities in the Southwest date back to the 1500s when the Spanish Conquistadores arrived and, in the case of El Paso, to the 1800s.

Miami Cubans are a “younger” population, with Cuban exiles making their way there as recently as the late 1950s and early 1960s. Many of the Cubans who arrived in Miami in those days were professionals – entrepreneurs, educators, doctors, lawyers – all who had a desperate desire to hold on to their Cuban roots because they felt their stay in Miami was temporary, and that they would quickly return to Cuba some day soon.

This reminds me of the Cuban Rhode Islanders who I interviewed for my Latino Oral History Project who shared personal stories of how as children they would huddle around Spanish-language radio or T.V. listening for news about Cuba, waiting to hear that Fidel Castro’s reign was over. Many were children who had been sent to the U.S. as “Peter Pan/Pedro Pans,” and were waiting then to be reunited with their families back in Cuba (and not in the U.S., as it eventually happened).

Of course, it’s been 60 years and Fidel Castro is still handing on.

So, what I witnessed in Miami is that the Spanish language is a much-celebrated language and that the locals – Latinos and non Latinos alike – all feel Spanish is not at all linguistically subordinate to English. What I also observed is that those who are in the highest level of economic and political power in Miami are Latinos, so they serve as role models and remove any stigma to speaking freely in Spanish by Latinos, whether they are from Cuban heritage or from other Latin American countries. That may be why Spanish is used so often and so casually in restaurants, stores and on the street.

I think about Miami and how it is and also is not a border city. The Cubans here seem not quite here nor there. My hope is that some day people here can soon find the bridge they need to become whole again.

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