In many parts of Miami, Spanish is used as frequently – or more often – than English.
That’s certainly case in the neighboring suburb of Doral, where an influx of immigrants from Latin America have transformed an idle community near the city’s airport into flourishing neighborhood with cafeterias and businesses echoing the tastes and sounds of home.
Enter any restaurant here and customers are usually greeted first in Spanish. Some complain it can be hard to find anyone who speaks perfect English.
But when Doral’s mayor tried to make Spanish the official second language on Wednesday, he was rebuffed by every council member and numerous constituents. And it wasn’t from the small group of non-Hispanic residents who live here. It was largely from immigrants themselves.
“Our parents and some of us that are up here came from Latin America and other countries knowing that the United States has English as the language,” Councilwoman Ana Maria Rodriguez said. “We came here knowing we had to adapt to the language of this country.”
Nationwide, the Latino population has ballooned and the number of Spanish-language services has grown as a result. An estimated 34.5 million people in the United States speak Spanish at home – about 10 percent of the population – and everyone from small businesses and retail chains to politicians have taken note. When Florida Sen. Marco Rubio delivered the Republican response to the president’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, he gave speeches in both languages.
But few cities have responded by declaring themselves officially bilingual. Far more states, and politicians, have adopted English-only policies. That has been reaffirmed in the recent immigration reform debate, with both Democrats and Republicans supporting English as a requirement for citizenship.
“Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship, a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally,” President Barack Obama said Tuesday.
The United States has never declared English as its official language, though more than two dozen states have taken that step. Only one state – Hawaii – has adopted a second official language, naturally, Hawaiian. Along the U.S.-Mexico border, there is sporadic use of Spanish and English for public affairs, but no state is considered officially bilingual. One Texas city, El Cenizo, adopted Spanish as its official language in 2006.
“With growing ethnic and racial diversity, we see more cases of people making suggestions about what should be the language of their local government,” said Nestor Rodriguez, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “These issues are always emotional and very symbolic. It’s about who we are as people and who we are as a country.”
Florida itself is an interesting case study: Miami-Dade County declared itself bilingual 40 years ago after a wave of Cuban exiles fled island and settled in South Florida. That ordinance was later overturned, but the rejection was thrown out in 1993. The state voted to make English the official language in 1988.
In Doral, nearly 80 percent of the population is Hispanic and almost 90 percent speak a language other than English at home. The city is affectionately known as “Doralzuela” because of its large number of Venezuelan residents.
Doral Mayor Luigi Boria, elected earlier this year, is a Venezuelan immigrant whose first language was Italian. He is an elegant, graying man who owns a successful computer technology business and speaks a halting English. He says he is still learning the language.
“Bueno, I think we have more than 80 percent of the population that already speak English and Spanish,” he said in a telephone interview before Wednesday’s vote. “I think what I’m doing is formalizing or regulating something that is already taking place.”
He shared his own immigration story in introducing the resolution.
“It reminds me 23 years ago when I came to this country and I barely speak English and I made my way up,” he told the audience of about 50 residents.
The resolution was largely symbolic; English would have remained the main language. But Boria argued that adopting Spanish as an official second language would help attract more business from Latin America and in turn create jobs. He noted Spanish has been used in Florida since St. Augustine was founded in 1565 – 40 years before Jamestown, Va., the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.
“In Spanish, ‘San Agustin,'” he said, pronouncing the city’s name in Spanish.
The four city council members, all Hispanic women whose families are from Mexico or Cuba, said they appreciated the spirit of the resolution but did not see its use. They highlighted the sizable number of Asian and Portuguese-speaking Brazilian immigrants in Doral as well.
Members of the audience who showed up to speak during public comments were almost equally divided between support and opposition.
“I learned the language, English,” said Jaime Topp, a Cuban immigrant said. “That is the language of the United States.”
He added that his wife, who doesn’t speak Spanish, sometimes has trouble in Doral.
“There’s times where she can’t communicate,” he said. “It’s not right.”
Ana Paola Cano, 30, who recently emigrated from Colombia, said she liked the resolution. She speaks English but felt more comfortable talking in Spanish, so the city clerk provided a translation – as she did at several points in the meeting, highlighting the need for dual language services.
“It doesn’t mean I don’t believe we all need to learn English,” she said. “It’s a nice welcome to those of us who are recently arrived.”
The measure was tabled but may be modified and brought before the council again at its next meeting.
“OK, if there’s no support,” Boria said, provoking laughter from the audience.
On Thursday, he vowed to continue working on the measure.
“I still believe it’s good for the city,” he said. “It will bring more business and investment and that will create more jobs in the city. At the end of the day English will always be the first official language.”