The Bilingual U.S. – Cuban Miami Part II

On January 1st 1959 Fidel Castro seized control of Cuba. Supporters of ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista were forced to flee the country, and Miami, home to numerous Cuban political movements in the previous decades, was the obvious destination of the exodus. The political immigrants were soon followed by many of their countrymen- mostly middle and upper-class Cubans who had lost big under the regime change.

Miami was overwhelmed by the new arrivals. In the early 1960s nearly 2,000 new refugees were arriving each week and the situation was difficult; testimonies relate “nineteen families living in a single family residence.” The eternal hospitality predicted by the Miami Herald (see last week’s blog) turned out to be short-lived. In the words of news commentator Wayne Fariss,  “Miamians view the Cubans as house guest who have worn out their welcome, who feel it is now time for them to move on. . . [The Cubans] are a threat to our business and tourist economy.  It would appear that the hand that holds Miami’s torch of friendship has been overextended.”

Luckily for all, the federal government was eager to take advantage of the refugee problem to highlight the failure of communism. After the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 the government was particularly eager to win the battle at least on their own home soil, and Miami became the “Berlin of the Caribbean.”  The Cuban Refugee Program was founded in 1961 in Miami to handle the refugees arriving in that city, provide medical and financial assistance, and relocate the refugees in host cities throughout the United States. In a weekly report issued for the week ending August 3rd, 1962, the program reports 1,946 refugees registered that week, and 134,758 since it had begun operating.

Despite the fact that it had not managed to successfully resettle all of the new arrivals (an estimated 180,000 in Miami and 90,000 elsewhere) the U.S. government continued to bring over as many Cubans as possible. In 1965 President Johnson organized the “Freedom Flights,” twice daily airlifts between Cuba and Miami. From the program’s inception to its closure in 1973, 265,000 Cubans came over at a cost of $12 million to the U.S. government. Although, the government tried to spread these refugees throughout the country, many eventually found their way to Miami anyway, according to Miami Dade College sociology professor Juan Clark.

Even more politically bold than the Freedom Flights was Operation Pedro Pan- a CIA run program which brought over 14,000 unaccompanied children between the ages 6 to 18. The program ran from 1960 to 1962 in collaboration with the newly-founded Roman Catholic Diocese of Miami (which thanks to the new immigrants would soon become an Archdiocese).

The Miami school system was overwhelmed; in Catholic schools the average class size jumped to over 60 students. It was at this point that the first bilingual education program in the modern U.S. history came into being; in 1963 a grant from the Ford Foundation implemented a bilingual program at Coral Way Elementary School in Miami’s Little Havana. Now teaching students from Kindergarten through the eighth grade, the school has become a model of success in bilingual education.

At Coral Way 60% of the instructional day is presented in English while the other 40% is in Spanish. Reading, language arts, science and social studies are taught separately in both languages, while mathematics is taught bilingually. 70% of the students arrive at the Kindergarten level speaking languages other than English but by the second grade most are no longer classified as LEP (limited English proficiency). 10% of the students attend Spanish as a Second Language classes.

While U.S.-Cuban interactions have shown no qualms in using children as pawns- as was demonstrated yet again with the Elian Gonzalez affair-schools like Coral Way give children a bright future. Next year the school will celebrate 50 years of age and will give us pause to think about how bilingual education can enrich the American experience of refugees and natives alike.

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