South Floridians aren't speaking Spanish so well anymore, and that threatens to become a drain on bilingual business
March 2, 2008
By ENRIQUE FERNANDEZ
John Echevarría, president of Miami-based Universal Music Latino, had high expectations of the young Cuban American executive assistant he hired a few years ago.
''Professionally, she was very good,'' Echevarría says. ``But she was almost incapable of writing Spanish.''
So until he replaced her with a fully bilingual Puerto Rican secretary, the Spanish-language record executive typed much of his own business correspondence.
Experiences like that convince Echevarría, a Spaniard, that the city ''is losing an asset.'' You have to wonder about its future as ''the capital of Latin America,'' he says.
The quandary: Children and grandchildren of the immigrants who made Miami a vibrant international center lack the Spanish skills on which much of the city's success and identity are built.
''Miami grew as a city along with the Spanish language and bilingualism,'' says University of Miami linguist Andrew Lynch. ``Bilingualism was the foundation of Miami as a global city.''
That foundation is showing cracks. The question is whether it can be shored up -- whether Miami, where fully 69 percent of the population (61 percent in Miami-Dade County) is Hispanic, can remain the robustly bilingual city it has become.
THE FIRST WAVE
Miami's transformation began, of course, with Fidel Castro, whose 1959 revolution sent nearly a quarter of a million Cuban exiles to our shores in its first six years and more than 640,000 by 1974. (To date, more than 900,000 Cubans have come to the United States.)
''This was a sleepy Jim Crow town with a Jewish appendage until the bourgeoisie of this important small country moved here lock, stock and barrel.'' says cultural critic David Rieff, author of two books on Miami.
It was members of that bourgeoisie, many with bilingual skills acquired from U.S. schooling and business associations, who laid the foundation in the 1960s and '70s for the international city Miami is today.
A latter-day influx of expatriate professionals and entrepreneurs from throughout Latin America has brought capital as well as talent and drive to town, cementing Miami's place as the hub of business between north and south of the border.
There is no single barometer of bilingual business activity here, but there is every indication that it is vast and vital.
South Florida is home to nearly 1,200 multinational corporations with a combined revenue of more than $200 billion, according to a survey by WorldCity Business Magazine released in January.
Our 20 largest multinationals account for 180,000 local jobs, and employ another 600,000 people abroad, largely in Latin America, said WorldCity president Ken Roberts.
''We have no hard data, but we can extrapolate from anecdotal evidence that when the people here are talking to the people there, they are doing so mostly in Spanish,'' Roberts said.
The magazine's findings echoed a 2004 doctoral thesis at Florida International University by Douglas McGuirk. ''Spanish . . . has established itself as the preferred language of trade in Miami-Dade County,'' McGuirk wrote. ``Miami-Dade is the U.S. leader in Latin American-owned businesses and has more company headquarters that trade with Latin America than other U.S. cities.''
Spanish-language entertainment is a highly visible part of that commerce. Media giants like Univision and Telemundo have major operations here, attracting a celebrity set -- Juanes, Alejandro Sanz, Paulina Rubio and Carlos Vives, to drop a few names -- that has made Miami the L.A. of Latin America.
Banking is another major component. ''The bulk of financial institutions in Miami are from Latin America and from Europe, and many of the European banks are here to do business with Latin America,'' notes economist Manuel Lasaga, president of the Coral Gables consulting firm StratInfo.
And yet FIU researcher McGuirk Miami-Dade found that of nearly 250 Miami-Dade businesses that responded to survey questions about language issues, 'almost a quarter . . . indicated that they needed more bilingual employees, and more than a quarter indicated that their employees' Spanish language skills needed improvement.''
Benigno Aguirre, senior vice president of human resources at Ocean Bank, says the challenge is greatest in areas like international banking that require sophisticated language skills.
''We can find tellers who are bilingual, but all they need to do is communicate with someone who comes in to cash a check,'' he says. ``They don't need to interpret a contract.''
Whereas Ocean Bank started a language-training program in 1980 to upgrade the English skills of a mainly Cuban-born workforce, it has for the past five years offered Spanish classes that ``fill up right away.''
Aguirre, who was 4 when his family came here from Cuba, has taken the classes himself. ''My vocabulary has grown,'' he says, ``and that helped me minimize my Spanglish.''
Tony Rodríguez, a senior vice president at Smith Barney in Miami, says he realized early in his career that the Spanish he had spoken at home since coming to the United States from Cuba as a teenager was not sufficient for his professional aims. He has never taken classes, but he takes advantage of every opportunity to speak Spanish.
On frequent business trips to Latin America, for example, he does not allow himself to switch into English. ''When I don't know a word, I simply explain what I want to say,'' he says, in fluent Spanish. ``It's not easy for me to give presentations in Spanish, but I get the job done.''
Researchers such as UM's Lynch, who specializes in language use and education, have a term for what's happening to Spanish in Miami.
'In linguistics we don't call it `language loss' but 'incomplete acquisition,' '' he says, ``because the new generations can't lose what they never had.''
''Kitchen Spanish'' is one term for what many second- and third-generation Hispanics speak -- good enough to ask abuela for a galleta but not to conduct business.
Bridging that gap is a mission of Coral Way Bilingual K-8 Center, home of Miami-Dade County Public Schools' oldest and most extensive Spanish-English education program.
Located in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood, Coral Way appeals especially to ''the middle generation'' of immigrant families who never mastered Spanish themselves and now want to make sure their children do, says Eduardo Carballo, the school's international governmental liaison.
They are children like eighth-grader Alexander Alvarez, whose keen ear -- he taught himself to play the congas by listening to CDs -- has helped to make him a fluent Spanish speaker at Coral Way, where 40 percent of the instruction, across the curriculum, is in that language.
''In my home we didn't speak it because my mom and my brother were all born here,'' says Alexander, 13, whose dad is from Cuba. ``In school I started reading Spanish, and then it was all easier for me.''
His mother, Barbara Alvarez, says she grew up speaking Spanish only with her Cuban grandmother, who knew no English. Her own mother, U.S.-born, spoke English at home.
''My brother and sister speak very bad Spanish,'' she says, ``and they can't read or write it.''
Having Alexander at Coral Way -- and his 16-year-old brother before him in a bilingual program at Kensington Park Elementary -- has given her an edge.
''My kids would come home with homework in Spanish. and I have gotten better because I had to help them,'' Alvarez says. ``They have become more proud of their heritage, and even I have learned things.''
The school system's Division of Bilingual Education and World Languages estimates that 19,200 students are enrolled in some sort of bilingual program, mostly English-Spanish, at 109 Miami-Dade schools. (By comparison, Broward County has about 240 students at two elementary schools enrolled in what it calls dual education, according to world-languages curriculum specialist Blanca Gerra.)
''We're prepping students for a global society,'' says Liliana Piedra, lead teacher at Sunset Elementary, home of South Florida's oldest international studies magnet program.
Be that as it may, 'bilingual education programs in the U.S. most definitely fall short of actually producing `bilingual' students, and Miami is no exception.'' says UM's Lynch, who has studied the issue extensively.
The reason, he says, is that U.S. schools focus their efforts primarily on the elementary grades and on bringing foreign-born students into the mainstream, ``making English the dominant language, not bilingualism.''
Even when the opportunity exists for high-level Spanish instruction, it's not always enough. Rigorous International Baccalaureate programs at four Miami-Dade public high schools offer Spanish, and a fully bilingual public high school is scheduled to open in Coral Gables in 2009-10, but students themselves often choose other paths.
Both Sunset's Piedra and Coral Way's Carballo say that after the eighth grade, many of their best students head off to prestigious magnet programs like those at MAST Academy and Design and Architecture Senior High.
''And that's when they lose it [Spanish],'' Carballo says.
Not everyone is keen on bilingualism. Dade County may have rescinded an English-only ordinance in 1993, but English remains the ''official language'' of the state of Florida.
''In the rest of the country, concern about immigration has revived the English-Only movement, which was moribund from 1996 to 2006,'' says James Crawford, president of the Institute for Language and Education Policy and author of War With Diversity: U.S. Language Policy in an Age of Anxiety (Multilingual Matters, 2000).
Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma won passage in 2006 of a ''national language'' amendment to an ultimately unsuccessful immigration reform bill. In December, his fellow Republican, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, introduced a ''Protecting English in the Workplace Act'' that would allow employers to ban foreign-language use.
''Miami is one of the few places in the U.S. where Spanish has a high status,'' Crawford says.
And if one values the global city Miami has become -- with its attendant pleasures of fine dining, film festivals and a glamour factor that is the envy of folk from Bangkok to Beverly Hills -- a bilingual workforce is essential.
One source of replenishment -- what recording executive Echevarría calls ''the constant flow of immigration that brings people who know correct Spanish'' -- is unpredictable and uncontrollable, subject to the vagaries of U.S. immigration policy and Latin American politics.
Domestic economic forces are another huge unknowable, says Prof. Lynch. ``If there's a recession and the government gets tough on immigration and cuts funding for bilingual education, it does not bode well for Spanish.''
And then, the linguist says, there is the big question of Miami's past half-century: ``What happens in Cuba.''
Cultural critic Rieff is more to the point, if given to hyperbole: ``Fidel dies and a million people are going to show up here.''
Rieff believes Latin America, with its history of political and economic woes, is righting itself, and that its growing strength and stability will influence not just Miami but the nation.
''In Los Angeles and Houston it won't be kitchen Spanish any more,'' he says. ``Spanish will be the language of success.''
Source: The Miami Herald