Image: Miami flower shop owner
Alan Diaz  /  AP
Melissa Green arranges flowers at her store in Miami The flower shop owner and Miami native says her inability to speak Spanish makes it difficult to conduct business in the city.
updated 5/29/2008 10:33:43 AM ET 2008-05-29T14:33:43

Melissa Green's mother spoke Spanish, but she never learned — her father forbid it. Today, that's a frequent problem in this city where the English-speaking population is outnumbered.

The 49-year-old flower shop owner and Miami native said her inability to speak "espanol" makes it difficult to conduct business, seek help at stores and even ask directions. She finds it "frustrating."

"It makes it hard for some people to find a job because they don't speak Spanish, and I don't think that it is right," said Green, who sometimes calls a Spanish-speaking friend to translate for customers who don't speak English.

"Sometimes I think they should learn it," she said.

In many areas of Miami, Spanish has become the predominant language, replacing English in everyday life. Anyone from Latin America could feel at home on the streets, without having to pronounce a single word in English.

In stores, shopkeepers wait on their clients in Spanish. Universities offer programs for Spanish speakers. And in supermarkets, banks, restaurants — even at the post office and government offices — information is given and assistance is offered in Spanish. In Miami, doctors and nurses speak Spanish with their patients and a large portion of advertising is in Spanish. Daily newspapers and radio and television stations cater to the Hispanic public.

‘The Anglo population is leaving’
But this situation, so pleasing to Latin American immigrants, makes some English speakers feel marginalized. In the 1950s, it's estimated that more than 80 percent of Miami-Dade County residents were non-Hispanic whites. But in 2006, the Census Bureau estimates that number was only 18.5 percent, and in 2015 it is forecast to be 14 percent. Hispanics now make up about 60 percent.

"The Anglo population is leaving," said Juan Clark, a sociology professor at Miami Dade College. "One of the reactions is to emigrate toward the north. They resent the fact that (an American) has to learn Spanish in order to have advantages to work. If one doesn't speak Spanish, it's a disadvantage."

According to the Census, 58.5 percent of the county's 2.4 million residents speak Spanish — and half of those say they don't speak English well. English-only speakers make up 27.2 percent of the county's residents.

In the mainly Cuban city of Hialeah and in the Miami neighborhood of Little Havana, 94 percent of residents identified themselves as Hispanic.

Andrew Lynch, an expert on linguistics and bilingualism at the University of Miami, said that the presence of Spanish-speakers first became an issue in Miami-Dade County in the 1960s and '70s with the arrival of Cuban immigrants and intensified in the '80s with immigrants from not just Cuba, but Argentina, Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America. The exodus of English speakers soon followed.

Difficulties for both sides
James McCleary, his wife and two children left Miami in 1987 for Vermont, where he is now a farmer. McCleary, 58, said his inability to speak Spanish made it difficult for him to find work — it once took seven months to get hired as a cook.

"The job market was very tough. It was very, very difficult," he said.

His wife, Lauren, was born and raised in Miami and they visit at least twice a year, but she feels that it's no longer her hometown.

"I don't like being there anymore. It is very, very different," she said. "I cannot live there anymore, I can't speak their language."

Nevertheless, she likes the diversity of the population of South Florida and regrets not learning Spanish in school.

Librarian Martha Phillips, 61, believes those who speak Spanish will continue to have more opportunities and she doesn't think that's necessarily fair. Phillips said she is sorry to see non-Spanish-speakers abandoning Miami, and said she's concerned that the area "will be like a branch of Latin America."

"I do resent the fact that people seem to expect that the people who live here adjust to their ways, rather than learning English and making adjustments," she said. "Obviously I don't expect an older person to learn to speak English, but younger people come in and they don't seem to make much of an effort to learn to adapt to this country and they expect us to adapt to them."

Some Spanish speakers say they have their own trouble with those who only speak English.

Mary Bravo, a 37-year-old Venezuelan business owner, moved to Miami nine years ago. She understands English but only speaks a little.

"This land is theirs. We should try to speak English," she said, "but they don't even try to understand us."

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