Melissa Green’s mother spoke Spanish, but she never learned — her father forbade it. Today, that is 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 Spanish 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 TV stations cater to the Hispanic public.
But this situation makes some English speakers feel marginalized. In the 1950s, it is 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.”
The census figures show 58.5 percent of the county’s 2.4 million residents speak Spanish — and half of those say they do not 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 1970s with the arrival of Cuban immigrants and intensified in the 1980s with immigrants from not just Cuba, but Argentina, Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America. The exodus of English speakers soon followed.
Librarian Martha Phillips, 61, believes those who speak Spanish will continue to have more opportunities and she does not think that is necessarily fair. Phillips said she is sorry to see non-Spanish-speakers abandoning Miami, and said she is 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.”