The Bilingual U.S. – Sicilian Tampa, Florida

Next year Florida will celebrate the half a millennium of Spanish language and culture which have flourished in the state since its discovery by explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. Traded to the British in 1763, Florida has nonetheless maintained a strong Hispanic character, in no small part due to its vicinity to the island of Cuba; Key West is a mere 106 miles from Havana. Today we are familiar with the story of Cuban immigrants coming to Southern Florida looking for work; 150 years ago the Cubans who came to the state brought their prosperous tobacco industry with them and provided work for Floridians and immigrants alike.

The economic fortune of one small Southern Florida settlement was made when one such entrepreneur, Vicente Martinez Ybor, arrived in Tampa in 1885 and built a plant and a company town there. Ybor City (soon after incorporated into Tampa) became a linguistic anomaly- one of the few places in the United States where immigrants learned to speak Spanish rather than English.

Prominent among these immigrants were a group of Italians hailing from two small towns in the southwestern part of the island of Sicily. Responding to a Spanish higher authority would have come naturally to them; after all they came from a territory which had spent over 200 years under Spanish dominion.

In fact, the history of Sicily can be reduced into a series of dominations by foreign populations speaking foreign languages; the Greeks, the Romans, the Vandals, the Ostrogoths, the Byzantines, the Tunisians, and the Normans have all been lords of this territory as well. Even in its present-day status as an autonomous region of the Italian Republic, Sicily finds itself dominated by a foreign language.

As Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich says, “a sprakh is a dialekt mit en army un flot (a language is a dialect with an army and a navy),” and so common knowledge refers to a Sicilian “dialect.” Had the island ever achieved independence, the world would surely have another Romance language today, one with a particularly rich mix of foreign influences; Italian, Greek, Arabic, Norman French, Catalan, and Spanish have all played a role in its development.

So the Sicilians who arrived in Ybor City at the end of the 19th century would have found themselves in a multilingual situation which would have been familiar at least to their past. They quickly learned to use Spanish at work, and their Florida-born children acquired English upon attending school. These children grew up in a trilingual environment; as one Tampa Sicilian recalls, “We kids used to play together. We would speak to each other in Spanish, Italian (sic) or English. We thought everyone did. For us it was normal.”

Despite using Spanish and/or English every day, many second generation Tampa Sicilians completely preserved the native language of their parents, often in a crystalline “time-freeze”. As one siculu-floridianu says, “In 1977 and again in 1985, I had occasion to visit Italy, and Sicily in particular. In that span of 8 years I found the Sicilian dialect to have eroded to a mere nothing. The conversations we engaged in were pri­marily in the pure Italian language. . .  To my sur­prise, I spoke far more in the Sicilian dialect than my relatives; in fact some words and phrases I used had to be translated into the pure Italian for me to be under­stood.”

Despite the proficiency of some, it seems that Sicilian is spoken by an increasingly smaller and smaller group of people. The most recent estimates are that among the 750 members of the Ybor City Italian Club, about 15% speak Sicilian. With no official structure to support it- even in Sicily- maintenance of the Sicilian language is entirely up to families and communities which pass it on from generation to generation. The millennia of history which are embedded in its characteristic sounds are in the hands of those who have the capacity to pass it on to someone else.

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