Miami's Cuban-Americans are leaping English language barrier

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At the Miami airport, a woman matching baggage claim stubs with the stubs on luggage is Cuban-American. The woman driving the courtesy bus to the rental car lot speaks with a Spanish accent. And in a rental car, all the buttons on the radio are preset to Spanish language stations. Welcome to Miami.

No, you don't need to know Spanish to get along well here, as visitors know. But those who know Spanish and English ''have more fun,'' says Cuban-born Maria Christina Barros, who is fluent in both languages.

But if there has been one issue that has caused tensions between the Spanish-speaking population of this area and other residents, it is language.

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The issue recently surfaced again when the commissioners of Dade County voted unanimously to make English the official language of the county, rather than endorsing the concept of a bilingual county.

This happened, despite the fact that Dade County was approximately 39 percent Hispanic in 1980, including an estimated 100,000 Cubans who settled here in 1980 via the boatlift from the Cuban port of Mariel. Miami itself was estimated to be 59 percent Hispanic, including the Mariel refugees, according to county figures.

But the language vote was actually a compromise.

In 1980, after a bitter campaign, county voters passed by a 60-40 margin a ban against translating any county documents into Spanish. This time health, safety, and tourism documents and promotions were excepted from the ban.

But the compromise vote came only after several hours of strong criticism by some whites against use of Spanish in public. One longtime white resident said she resents being made to ''feel in a foreign element'' here. The theme of the white critics: let ''them'' learn English.

They are.

Hispanics in the area, of which Cuban-born are the largest group - are not only learning English, they are doing a lot of other things that are bringing them into mainstream-American life, according to a variety of studies. But, as seen in the hearing on the county vote on language, many of the changes are little known among non-Hispanics.

''Cuban-Americans are assimilating as rapidly, and pehaps more rapidly, than any other non-English-speaking group that has come to the US,'' says Thomas D. Boswell, an associate professor of geography at the University of Miami.

Professor Boswell and James R. Curtis, another assistant professor of geography at the same university, have just had published their book, ''The Cuban-American Experience.''

''We think this is a major finding, correcting a popular misconception,'' says Boswell. In an interview here, he made these other points:

Language: Only about 1 out of 4 Cuban-Americans speaks no English, and half speak it well or very well, according to 1980 Census Bureau surveys of Miami and nearby Hialeah, the two main clusters of Hispanics in the area.

And adult English-education classes are booked, often with waiting lists, says Mrs. Barros, former director of the county's Office of Latin Affairs.

''Virtually all of the second-generation Cubans (those born in the US of Cuban-born parents) speak English fluently,'' says Boswell. His Cuban-born aide, Manuel Rivero, says, ''I can't think of anyone'' who is second generation and not fluent in English. They may have an accent, Boswell says.

At home, about 9 of every 10 Cuban-Americans speak Spanish, says Guarione Diaz, executive director of the Cuban National Planning Council here, a private service organization. Mrs. Barros, like many Cuban-Americans here, wants her son to be bilingual and bicultural. But at 21/2 he's already picking up some English from TV, although his parents speak Spanish at home.

Marriage: About 40 percent of the Cuban-American men and women are marrying non-Hispanic whites.

Residence: It used to be that most Cuban-Americans in Florida lived in the Little Havana section of Miami. Now they are spreading from Miami and Hialeah.

Voting: Cuban-Americans have something in common with a majority of American voters. They back Ronald Reagan. The President carried a majority of the Cuban-American vote in this area.

If anything, Cuban-Americans are becoming Americanized so fast, Boswell predicts they will loose many of their traditions.

But, he adds, ''I don't see the misconceptions fading'' about Cuban-Americans. And he and others here see a lot of work ahead to close the gaps of understanding between Spanish and non-Spanish-speaking people in this area.

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