Will Miami, the Spanish-Speaking Capital of Latin America, Run Into Anglo Resistance?
May 9, 2019
Since the Cubans fleeing Castro’s Communist tyranny began to arrive in 1959, Miami has morphed from a sleepy southern resort and retirement town into the largest and most glamorous Latin American city not actually on that continent. In 2017, there were 1,887,226 people of Hispanic origin, or 69 per cent of the population, living in Miami Dade County according to the American Community Survey (ACS). Three-quarters of the population of Miami speak a language other than English at home and over 35 per cent of the people speak English less than “very well” (ACS, 2017).
The other side of the coin from the expanding Hispanic population of Miami is Anglo white flight. Since 1960, when the Latinos first started to arrive in Miami in large numbers, the Anglo white population of Dade County has fallen by a half. This is an indication that many English speakers don’t feel comfortable living and working in a Spanish-speaking environment. And while it is illegal to discriminate against a job applicant because of their national origins under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer can require Spanish or bilingual Spanish/English fluency if it is required to do a job.
Reflecting their numbers, Hispanics naturally predominate in city and county government. Carlos A. Gimenez is the mayor of Miami Dade County. Francis X. Suarez, the second generation of his family to be the city of Miami mayor, is also Cuban-American. The majority of county and city commissioners are also Hispanic. Cuban-Americans are no longer outsiders but are in charge.
The links that tie Latin America and the Caribbean to Miami have grown over the years along with its Hispanic population. Miami International Airport, which ranks only behind JFK in New York and LAX in international passengers, is now the air transportation hub for the southern part of the Western Hemisphere. The Equinix Data Center downtown off North Miami Avenue is the primary internet exchange point for Latin America. Shut it down and Latin America is unplugged from the modern information economy.
The TV production studies of Univision and Telemundo broadcast to the Spanish-speaking world from Miami-Dade. And the three major record companies have their Spanish labels in Miami. Some of their hits like the remix of and Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s Despacito with Justin Bieber and Camila Cabello’s Havana have taken the U.S. pop charts by storm.
Even the U.S. Military’s USSOUTHCOM, which is responsible for Central America and South America and the Caribbean, is based in a large office building in Doral.
In Latin America, Miami has become the most admired city in the world thanks to its television, music, and dazzling vibrant Latin culture, not to mention its much higher salaries and lower crime rates. Living in Miami is the Latin America dream.
The other side of the coin from the expanding Hispanic population of Miami is Anglo white flight. Since the Latinos first started to arrive in Miami in large numbers, the Anglo white population of Miami-Dade County has fallen by a half. This is an indication that many English speakers don’t feel entirely comfortable living and working in a Spanish-speaking environment. And while it is illegal to discriminate against a job applicant because of their national origins under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer can still require Spanish or bilingual Spanish/English fluency if it is required to do a job.
A casual inspection of advertisements for job openings in Miami on the internet reveals that a significant proportion of the ads either list a Spanish language requirement or are written in Spanish. This constitutes at least a prima facie case that there isn’t a level playing field between English and Spanish speakers in the Miami labor market and that English speakers may be getting the short end of the stick.
Over the years, the growing number of Hispanics and the increasing use and visibility of the Spanish language has created some tensions. Concern caused by the arrival of the Marielitos led to the passage of a Miami-Dade County ordinance prohibiting “the official use of any language but English.” This was only overturned thirteen years later. In the meantime, the Florida Constitution was amended by Initiative Petition to make English the official language of Florida. Article II Section 9 declares that “English is the official language of the State of Florida .... The legislature shall have the power to enforce this section by appropriate legislation.”
Once passed in the 1988 election with an overwhelming 84 per cent of the vote, however, the English as official language amendment turned out to be a paper tiger and was never actively enforced. If it had been, though, it could have run afoul of Federal laws such as the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights and Voting Act Rights. But its real importance is as a symbol of the desire of the English-speaking population not to become an officially bilingual state like, say, Canada. If Spanish is ever going to be proposed as a second official language, it’s going to be a real cockfight. The constitutional marker has been laid down.
In 2013, the Mayor of Doral, a Miami suburb, which was predominantly Hispanic, unsuccessfully tried to make Spanish the town’s second official language. His proposal was rejected by every council member and by large numbers of his Spanish-speaking constituents.
Spanish usage is growing in Florida because of immigration from Latin America. But, at the same time, it is dwindling among the descendants of the Hispanic immigrants. It’s not uncommon for a grandparent to speak to a child in Spanish, only to have the child respond in English. The public-school system is, as it always has been, a powerful force for spreading the English language. The Miami-Dade School system is having problems teaching Hispanic children their native tongue. According to a 2016 Pew Research Institute study, nationwide, the share of children age 5 to 17 speaking English “only” or “very well” has grown from 73 per cent in 2000 to 88 per cent in 2014. While Spanish usage is likely to be on the rise as immigrants from Latin America continue to arrive in droves, it will not necessarily displace English as the primary language, even in Florida.
However, Florida is sailing in uncharted waters. The number speaking Spanish exceeds that for any previous non-English languages in the United States and could easily lead to Spanish becoming the de facto official language, at least in Miami-Dade County. This would encourage even more English-speaking people to leave because of their inability to function in Spanish. This is what happened in Montreal, Canada after French was made the sole language by the Quebec provincial government. Indeed, Anglo flight has already been underway for many years in Miami. But so far, everything has gone smoothly with relatively little backlash even though the proportion of Anglos, of all races, has already shrunk to around a third.
This article explores and updates themes from Florida Dreams: All About the Amazing Rise of the Sunshine Mega-State (Amazon, 2019).
Florida Dreams is available from Amazon.com.