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Why Should I Have To Learn Spanish?

by David Porter

May 27, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

Last Friday night, on my way home from work, I had a "Miami moment."

I stopped at a restaurant on Orange Avenue in Orlando to order some takeout food, and as I stood there, waiting to be served, it seemed as though everyone starting speaking Spanish.

I call it a "Miami moment" because that sort of thing seems to happen a lot in Miami -- a city where Spanish is pretty much king.

I consider myself to be Mr. Diversity. I always talk about the importance of celebrating and embracing the cultural differences in this community. But I must admit that at that moment, when everyone around me -- the restaurant workers and customers, which included men, women, kids and even two cops waiting for their food -- started speaking Spanish, I felt a flash of anger.

I couldn't wait to get my food and get out of there. I thought I was going to lose it. I had an overwhelming urge to shout: "Hey, wait a minute. Speak English. This is the United States of America."

I'm not an anti-Hispanic bigot. I voted against the English-only amendment. I took three years of Spanish in high school, though today my retention of the language is very limited. My daughter studies Spanish in elementary school. And, yes, I have friends who are Hispanic. (Gee, that seems a lot like the line some white folks use on me when discussing black-white issues.)

Yet I'm concerned about the future. Will Central Florida become like Miami -- where if you don't speak Spanish you are a second-class citizen?

I recall times when I've visited Miami that I have received poor service when employees in restaurants and other businesses realized that I could not speak Spanish.

That was not fair.

Why must those of us who can't speak Spanish be made to feel as though we're foreigners in the country in which we were born -- in a country where English is the main language?

This is not the first time I've explored this subject in this column. The response I usually get from bilingual people -- those who speak Spanish and English -- is that I should learn to speak Spanish.

That's easy for them to say, and I suppose it's politically correct for me to agree with them. But my "from-the-gut" response is: Why should I have to learn to speak Spanish?

This is the United States.

This diversity business is pretty tough stuff. Those of us who are monolingual -- speak only English -- do need to exercise tolerance.

But I also believe that diversity is a two-way street. Those who are bilingual but who choose to use Spanish in public situations should realize that when they do that, they build a wall around themselves. It seems a little rude. And, frankly, non-Spanish speakers worry: "Are they talking about me?" In business situations, you wonder: "Are they getting a better deal than I am?"

Does it make any sense for bilingual people to consider some type of language etiquette?

That is particularly important for business. I've been in situations in which I have had some problem in a store and mentioned it to a clerk, who then turned to discuss the concern with a co-worker in Spanish. Why are they talking about my problem in Spanish? What are they really saying?

Some people might think I'm making too much of this, or find my circumstances to be funny. That type of thinking, though, can lead to an anti-Hispanic backlash, and that must be avoided.

Non-Spanish speakers, regardless of skin color, cannot ignore the growing influence in this community of people who share a Hispanic culture. There should be no reason to fear that unless things evolve as they have in Miami, which is rife with political, economic and cultural warfare.

It would be a shame if that happened here. Surely there must be a way to learn from that Miami experience to use the cultural differences to strengthen this community.

Finding constructive ways to discuss and understand the language issue is key to forging a healthy relationship between those of us who are monolingual and those who are bilingual. Neither side can afford to shrug off the sensitivities of the other.

Miami is an interesting place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

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