English-only drive mirrors deeper Miami unrest

Arriving here to try to learn what is causing an Anglo rebellion against the growing Cuban influence in Miami, and how such divisions might be narrowed, this reporter:

* Rented a car from an English-speaking Hispanic.

* Bought a hamburger from a black American.

* Was checked into a hotel by an Anglo desk clerk.

On the drive in from the airport, a spin of the radio dial shows the variety of Spanish- or English-language stations available. The Miami Herald is available in both languages. Shop signs are often in Spanish and English. Sidewalk voices are a mingle of both tongues.

On the surface, the Miami area is one of America's most successful examples of cultural mix. Hispanics -- mostly Cubans -- make up about 42 percent of the residents of Dade County (which includes Miami and Miami Beach), blacks about 17 percent, and Anglos (white, English- speakers) the rest, according to the latest county figures.

With its swaying palms and sandy beaches, the area remains a favorite spot for vacationers. But to Dade County residents, the area is a war zone of accusations, harsh feelings, bitter resentments, and misunderstandings.

This war follows another here -- the riots by blacks in May -- which was sparked by complaints of police brutality left unresolved by the courts.

But the war right now is primarily an Anglo vs. Cuban, with Anglos on the offensive.

The battle at the moment is over language.

A referendum on the ballot in Dade County Nov. 4 will ask voters if they want to end the county's seven-year-old policy of bilingualism (English and Spanish) and use only English in conducting county government affairs.

"We'd like to keep Dade County as part of America," says Emma Shafer, leader of the English-only movement here. Mrs. Shafer, a German immigrant who says she speaks six languages (Spanish is not one of them), tells of the "agony" of the Anglos here being spoken to in a language they do not understand.

But several days of interviews here among Anglos and Hispanics in various parts of the county revealed that the language issue is only the visible smoke from a long- simmering volcano of anti-Cuban sentiment and other frustrations spawned by the stresses of a rapidly growing urban area.

The interviews here bring to light two points:

1. Many Anglos, especially the elderly, feel hard pressed by rising crime, the soaring cost of housing, and (to them) the irritation of frequently encountering Spanish in the course of their daily activities.

2. Nonetheless, these elements alone would not have led to the current battle. But the latest wave of Cuban refugees coming to the US -- some 125,000 since spring -- apparently tipped the balance of tolerance.

The newly arrived Cubans, the majority of whom have settled in this area, are becoming the scapegoat for the high crime rate here. And Cuban refugee aid is seem by many Miami-area Anglos as inopportune in the face of the great needs of US-born poor people.

Asked why there is so much antagonism here toward Cubans, banker Bernardo Benes, who introduced the now-contested bilingual measure adopted by the county in 1973, told the Monitor: "We [Cubans] came too fast, too many, were too successful; some of us are too arrogant, too loud -- and play dominoes till 2 in the morning."

A local businessman originally from the Dominican Republic says Cuban clannishness is another factor. Cubans tend to hire and buy from other Cubans, he says. (A positive side effect of this has been the great amount of Cuban-American help toward the latest cuban refugees.) Most key citizen committees here involve representatives from the Cuban, Anglo, and black communities, although some leaders, such as Dr. Benes, contend the blacks and Cubans are invited mostly as "tokens."

Benes hopes the English-only proposal passes so that the anti-Cuban sentiment , which has long been around, will be in the open and can be dealt with more realistically.

Some local Anglos, like Diane Deutsch, are taking a cooperative approach to the problem of language differences. She is studying Spanish in night school twice a week. "You're always in contact with them [Hispanics]. You might as well know their language and culture," she says, eating a fish dinner at the counter of a small restaurant.

Last year some 14,000 adults studied Spanish and nearly 33,000 English in the public schools here.

Nonetheless, a local poll shows the English-only proposal may pass, drawing wide support, especially from Jews and even from some Hispanics. A black woman said: "Make them [the Cubans] learn English instead of making us learn Spanish."

What many here fail to realize is that the new law would not likely result in less Spanish being spoken here. Most experts agree that Spanish will continue to be the second major language, as it is now.

In addition, opponents call the English-only proposal unconstitutional, an "abuse" of a minority by the majority.

If the proposal passes, the US Justice Department intends to go to court to try to get it thrown out. "The concern is that if something like this passes it might give impetus to similar efforts elsewhere," says Paul Rich, a civil rights official here with the Justice Department.

Mr. Rich points out that no other area in the US with a large Hispanic population gained it as quickly as did Dade County.

The county population has grown from about 1 million in 1960 to about 1.7 million today. Virtually all that growth has been Hispanic, mostly Cuban, says Reginald Walters, county planning director.

In 1960 the county was about 10 percent Hispanic; today it is about 42 percent and will likely be majority Hispanic "before we level off" prior to the year 2000, he adds.

The Cuban presence "by far has been a plus to the economy," says Mr. Walters. Cubans have renovated and restored a number of previously declining parts of the county, he notes.

Some Cubans warn that the current antagonism against Cubans could spill over to other ethnic minorities, "It's going to be first Cubans, then the blacks, then the Jews," predicts Rafael Villaverde, executive director of Miami's Little Havana Activities Center. "This is the first inning in a war -- a war that should never have been declared," he adds.

Some local residents say there will be little change if the proposal passes, except to increase bitter feelings between Cubans and Anglos. And any proposal that discourages Anglos from learning Spanish keeps them away from a valuable job skill, others point out.

The English-only proposal is "just an accumulation of frustrations," says Marion Plunske, an accountant who helped organize the petition drive to get the proposal on the ballot.

"The flotilla [of Cuban refugees this year] fanned the flames" of Anglo resentments that were already smoldering, Mrs. Plunske says.

"I don't hate the Cubans," she explained in a lengthy interview in her office , which she runs out of her home in North Miami. But what she does resent, she says, is seeing some street names changed to Spanish, having difficulties shoping in stores where english is not used, and being made to feel she ought to learn Spanish in a country whose predominant language is English.

Her message to the Cubans: "You learn the language so you can speak to me."

Supporters of the English-only proposal have gathered some 137,000 signatures in Dade County since July, far more than required to get it on the ballot.

The proposal will read: "The expenditure of county funds for the purpose of utilizing any language other than English, or promoting any culture other than that of the United States, is prohibited. All county governmental meetingS, hearings, and publications shall be in the English language only."

Thorny legal questions lie ahead. If passed, who determines what the "culture of the United States" is? Would the English-only provision, for example, stop local tourist association brochures from being printed in Spanish and other languages? Foreign tourism is important to the economy here.

Louis Sabines, who speaks no English and is president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce, says adoption of the English-only proposal would hurt trade with Central and South America.

Banker Benes disagrees. He points out that the proposal has no effect on private business. A local Buick dealer says it will be "business as usual" for him either way.

Probably the hardest hit by such an English-only policy would be elderly residents who speak only Spanish. All bus schedules, government assistance notices, health information, and other county communications would be printed only in English. An elderly Spanish-speaking woman pushing a grocery cart down a sidewalk in the Little Havana section of Miami pauses to say she would have a hard time if bus schedules were in English only.

"It's discrimination" to change to English only, insists Andy Gonzalez, a retired painter who speaks only Spanish.

The proposal, if adopted, would not affect the hiring of bilingual county employees and would have no bearing on Spanish being spoken in the private sector or in county offices. County-paid translators and translation services, however, would likely be eliminated.

There is an ugly undertone involved in the language debate. The two women leading the English-only drive say they have received numerous death threats by phone. And says Mrs. Plunske, "I know a lot of people who signed [the petitions ] are bigots.

At a meeting of supporters of the English-only proposal (held in a german-American club whose walls were decorated with posters in German), a college professor and other speakers made anti-Cuban jokes and remarks that drew applause and laughs.

English-only organizers plan further sieges if the proposal passes: ridding the local schools of teachers who cannot teach in English, halting private companies from requiring applicants to be bilingual, and getting the federal government to curtail refugee aid to Cubans who refuse to leave the Miami area.

But Manny Diaz, executive director of the local Spanish American League Against Discrimination, says the "battle" is overdrawn: "Ten years from now we'll be looking back on these fights and chuckle over them.

"You can't pass a law to speed up the assimilation process," he adds. Cubans and other Hispanics will increasingly assimilate into the American mainstream, predicts Mr. Diaz, an Hispanic who is fluent in English and has an Anglo wife.

Meanwhhile, meeting the needs of both Anglo and Hispanic residents should be the top priority, he says."We have so many serious problems in this community that we need to unite," he says.

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