Neighborhood Transformation
Neighborhood Transformation
CitiStates Report:
In Any Language, We Must
Celebrate our Diversity

By Neal Peirce
Web-posted: 11:33 a.m. Nov. 24, 2000

In the new world of the South Florida city-state, perhaps the bravest thing a citizen can do is try to speak his new neighbor's language.

Just making the effort, even imperfectly, is a significant sign of respect. And it's tough to hate someone who makes the effort.

In the long run, the learning of a neighbor's language might be the most important commitment of all to the vision that recognizes South Florida can have a more powerful place in the world because of its multicultural diversity.

Touch the language button in South Florida these days however and you're in for a deluge of heated opinion. That's what we discovered when we floated the idea in this newspaper, last July, that the region might capitalize on its international positioning, and enrich young peoples' lives, by promoting full literacy in both English and Spanish.

A majority of the letters and e-mails coming back were negative.

"English, English!" and "This is the United States, period" some of them exclaimed. Louis Prossen thought failure to focus exclusively on English is a threat to "Americanism."

Do hostility toward Hispanics and their language go hand in hand? Sometimes, our responses suggested. One reader e-mailed: "Immigrant Hispanics who avidly accept the Yankee dollar should also be forced to accept the Yankee language -- English."

"English," wrote Bob Hoelscher, is not only the United States' predominant tongue but making headway as the world's principal business and diplomatic language, used globally for airline and ship communications. What's more, Hoelscher added, "most of the significant research done by scientists and academics around the world is published in English. Here in America we should capitalize on those realities -- as arrogant as they may seem."

Others noted that practically all successful Latinos in Miami speak English fluently. Brud Hodgkins of Hialeah, who reports his four decades of selling yachts out of Miami included customers in such nations as Argentina, Columbia, Venezuela and Ecuador, asserts "I never sold a yacht in South America to a person who did not speak English."

Spanish a necessity?

In Fort Lauderdale, then-city Commissioner Carlton Moore told us that learning both English and Spanish is "a necessity" in the new global economy: "We need to be proficient in other languages to survive and compete -- even if there will be resentment among many non-Spanish speakers."

"It is crazy, given our geography and advantages, not to nourish the future with a generation of fully bilingual young people ready to seize the hemispheric opportunities out there," said Max Castro of the North-South Center at the University of Miami. Emphasizing that people should be fluent in both English and Spanish, Robert Melleda of Miami wrote us about the immense advantages to South Florida in a fully bilingual work force: "It will keep our talented, smart people from leaving for better opportunities elsewhere. Latin American as well as U.S. companies will feel confident in opening branches or headquarters here because they'll see a large pool of people who can communicate effectively in both languages. That means more jobs, a stronger economy."

One might imagine a companion reason: Spanish is now spoken in one of eight U.S. households. Spanish language channels are popping up in television markets across the country. And in the business of translating Hispanic and U.S. cultures -- through business, entertainment, the Internet and tourism -- South Florida is a hot spot now and has strong growth potential in the next decades.

For South Florida's Hispanics, learning English has clear and immense advantages. Based on a 1990 analysis of Miami-Dade residents who speak Spanish at home, those who spoke English "very well" had an average income almost 22 percent higher than those who spoke English just "well" at home -- and an astounding 282 percent higher than those who spoke no English at all.

The Hispanic population of Miami-Dade has big acculturation challenges: In 1999, no English was spoken in 57 percent of the county's Hispanic households. But in Broward County, only 18 percent of Hispanic households spoke no English. In Palm Beach County, the figure was 15 percent. Still, the Spanish imperative is hard to escape in this region with its heavy flow of Latin visitors and high percentages of Hispanic population (56 percent of households in Miami-Dade, 13 percent in Broward, 10 percent in Palm Beach).

Spanish capacity, reader Fred Bluestone e-mailed us, is moving from a second language issue to "a given piece of knowledge that must be mastered." Then he added: "In today's business world, you have to know English, Spanish and WINDOWS. Period! End of story!" The point's well taken: Spanish literacy and computer literacy are skills today's adult South Floridians owe, at a minimum, to youth who'll have a chance to compete successfully in this gateway region. We make the point even aware of some serious problems. Many of our readers complained -- some bitterly -- about stores where Spanish-only speaking clerks don't understand their requests. Or even more disturbing, requirements that job applicants -- even for many low-level positions -- be required to speak Spanish. Many black South Floridians in particular think Spanish is being used as a weapon against them. In the long run, notes Otis Pitts, renowned community leader and developer in Miami's black community, the best defense is to equip black youth with enough Spanish proficiency to get by such barriers. The fact that the region's economy is dominated by small businesses, historically less willing to reach out to minorities, simply underscores the gravity of the problem.

The good news is that all three counties' public school systems keep increasing their second-language curriculums, most particularly for Spanish, with the emphasis on elementary schools. Miami-Dade's school system now has several dozen schools that have mastered the art of dual-language education ... not just extra bilingual courses as a crutch for Spanish-speaking youngsters, but a blend of English and Spanish (or other foreign language) instruction covering a variety of courses.

For high school students, the choices are somewhat more limited, with both Broward and Miami-Dade, for example, offering Spanish language curriculums at specific magnet schools.

As each counties' student bodies become more diverse, the school districts also are responding with more programs targeted for teaching children to function in English quicker. Many of these programs, however, are dependent on federal dollars. They are special projects still subject to the verities of the federal budget cycle.

Start a dialogue

What are some other ways to talk to each other? Other ways to break down barriers that would keep us from understanding shared goals?

Here's a thought from our friend Daniel Yankelovich, one of America's premier public opinion analysts. There's "too much showboating" in public forums of prominent individuals, he suggests. Why not bring together a group of people who as individuals so faithfully represent certain perspectives that the public will identify with them, see them as expressing what they would want said?

In another series, one might combine respected former elected officials with a couple of Internet-time techies from Boca Raton, and throw in a public school teacher from Miami-Dade and a Broward social worker. The whole bunch should be asked: how to ensure that the next generation of South Florida workers has world-class competitive skills? Predictably, such a series would produces flashes of tension. But as such discussions unfold, reports Yankelovich, mutual respect builds, positions modify and the possibilities for a middle ground are found. True dialogue develops -- an almost magical alternative to today's dysfunctional "advocacy culture in which we don't really communicate." Such a series, widely broadcast in South Florida and then redistributed through school, social and business clubs, could start as a surrogate for the thoughtful debate so rarely heard in the region today.

Mix it up

Another idea. Mix up races, income groups. Broward County's middle class bedroom community of Coral Springs, known for its physical safety and high quality schools, has seen a big recent increase in its Asian, Haitian and Hispanic population. But this suburb doesn't fight the new population; it goes out of its way to mount multi-cultural activities, all focused on making newcomers welcome. Surveys show the outreach has 90 percent approval within the community.

City Commissioner Rhonda Calhoun told us proudly about Unitown. Some 50 high school students from Coral Springs, Lauderhill and North Lauderdale (three very diverse communities in terms of race, income and elderly population) ride off for a weekend to discuss race, gender and diversity issues.

"We have to push the kids on the buses kicking and screaming," says Calhoun. "But at the end of the weekend, they insist they want to go for a week next time."

Could such programs work in more communities? Answer: with the right leadership, clearly yes. Some solutions

The Internet -- With the Internet so much a part of South Florida's economic future, why can't it be used as a tool to repair torn social fabric. The idea here is to reach out for informal conversation opportunities with individuals or even small groups of people from different ethnic, nationality or income backgrounds -- not about what divides you, but about mutual interests from sports to arts to environmental challenges to the community.

If individuals, churches, civic groups across South Florida would work systematically to start and widen such conversations -- operating below the radar line of emotional stand-offs, or the confrontational talk radio world -- some of the walls of indifference, or natural tendencies to scapegoat others, would start to crumble. Courses on South Florida's diversity -- How about a course or set of short multi-media courses, focused on the history and hopes of the rich mix of peoples and cultures in South Florida? The idea's exquisitely simple: Awaken South Floridians to the historic heritage of the people they're living with -- from the Miccosukee native Americans to the more newly arrived Nicaraguans now in such dominance in Little Havana. Surprise a lot of people in the discovery that the first chronicles of Florida life were actually written in Spanish, long before the pilgrims landed on Plymouth rock.

The region's colleges and universities also seem like the logical production ground for courses and materials on South Florida's amazing cultural mix. While more business- and trade-oriented so far, the Latin American and Caribbean Center at FIU, along with the North/South Center at the University of Miami and FAU's Judaic Studies Center, could be tapped. More public events. Already, we're told, ethnic festivals such as the Hollywood Beach Latin Festival attract more than 80,000, a lot of them not Hispanic. Miami Bookfair International each year brings 250 authors and more than 500,000 visitors across the region and country to celebrate literature and reading.

And indeed, who wouldn't learn something walking through a festival of arts and crafts, music and dance (and food, don't forget food), changing forever the way you think of Haitians, or Bahamans, or Brazilians? These exposures should be seen as a bonus of South Florida life.

Arts organizations, we discovered, are already linked across the three counties and perfectly positioned to create an imaginative range of performances and exhibitions that celebrate the special heritages of the people of South Florida.

And the media? -- Could the media help South Florida's disparate peoples communicate better? Presenting news objectively and clearly in a region of clashing ethnicities and passionately held convictions isn't easy. But the newspapers, with zoned editions, aid and abet some of South Florida's disjointedness by focusing disproportionately on their own counties (or even parts of counties).

Even the television stations, with their wide viewing areas, are faulted by many citizens for providing little coverage beyond their home base counties. We've seen clear exceptions -- excellent pieces of newspaper coverage crossing the county lines. The series you're reading right now is a conscious attempt, backed by major foundations and printed by major newspapers, to take a new look at some serious South Florida-wide issues.

But on an ongoing basis, a lot more might be tried. Indeed, with the 21st century's information distribution capacities, the building of a South Florida that communicates, exchanges, and uses news in innovative ways isn't an insurmountable challenge. It's waiting to happen.