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.


The Bilingual U.S. – Cuban Miami Part I

The Cuban element in 19th century Tampa was so strong that, as we discussed in last week’s blog, Sicilian immigrants to the city learned Spanish rather than Italian as a second language. Economically, Cubans made the city; Tampa’s population jumped from 720 in 1880 to 5,532 in 1890 thanks to the founding of the Ybor City factory and company town by Spanish-Cuban businessman Vicente Martinez Ybor. The political turmoil surrounding the long Cuban struggle for independence from Spain had caused the migration of Ybor and his compatriots north, and Cuban politics would continue to play an important role in South Florida. When revolutionary leader Jose Martí visited the United States in 1891 he was particularly struck by the zeal for the independence movement among the Cuban community in Tampa and during his sojourn there was inspired to write the “Tampa Resolutions”- a document in which he outlined the bases of the Cuban Revolutionary Party.

The place of prominence in Cuban history acquired by Tampa would not last long; it would soon be overshadowed by a small settlement of a few hundred souls founded among the marshes of the southeastern tip of the Floridian peninsula, at the terminus of the Florida East Coast Railway. The first two years of Miami’s life, incorporated in 1896 with just 343 inhabitants, bound its destiny to that of Havana. The Cuban War of Independence which had been initiated by Martí in 1895 gave Miami a chance to make easy money off of the illegal arms trade, and when the conflict escalated into the Spanish-American War in 1898, Miami became a strategic military site. The defeat of the Spanish and the American hegemony in the Caribbean which followed made Miami’s fortune.

The 1930s began with a flurry of events which strengthened the relationship between Miami and Havana. In 1930 President Gerardo Machado launched a massive promotional campaign in Miami encouraging businessmen to start importing to the island, and in 1931 Pan Am launched regular air service between the two cities. In the same year President Machado announced that he would be extending his period in office by six years- an unsuccessful coup quickly followed, and a number of political exiles took up residence in the American city which up to this point had been a purely economic partner.

The newly-arrived refugees fell into two very different categories- poor, radical students forming a group known as the “Miami Cell”, and the ex-president Mario Garcia Menocal and his “elite” followers. In their exile these two groups reconciled their differences and worked together on the common goal of overthrowing Machado. The city of Miami, on the other hand, was divided on how to deal with the newcomers; while the Pan American League put on benefits and hosted the students at the Biltmore Hotel, Miami businessmen, afraid of backlash should the revolution against Machado not succeed, stayed mum. During this period the Miami Herald published 5 pages of advertising paid for by the Cuban government every Sunday and never once wrote about the presence of the refugees in the city.

When Machado fled Cuba and a new government was installed the refugees were finally able to return home. For a change the opportunistic editors at the Herald saw it fit to write to comment the occasion: “With the sudden retirement of Machado, Miami had begun to lose her Cuban residents who are fleeing back to their homeland.  Miami was glad to extend her hospitality to the exiles and sad to lose them. … Miami’s gates will always be open to Cubans, should the time ever come again when they need a refuge.  In the meantime our mutual interests will continue to grow.”

Although the mutual interests of the cities of Miami and Havana continued to grow over the next two decades, their relationship was soon to take a turn for the worse. The arrival of refugees- who were not as warmly greeted as the Herald predicted- from Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba would usher in a new era of silence between the cities which would nonetheless have so much in common.

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.