MIAMI – Tom Kirby, an affable St. Petersburg public relations consultant,
is saying how much he likes Miami.
He is marveling at its cosmopolitan flavor.
He is joking about his Spanish lessons.
He is promoting communication and brotherhood.
Tom Kirby, a nice man. He is helping to foment a nasty little war in
Tom Kirby directs the Florida English Campaign. He was in Miami recently
to promote the campaign’s major goal – passage of a constitutional amendment
next year making English the official state language of Florida.
The amendment, which Kirby hopes to put on the 1988 ballot, sounds innocuous enough in a state that already has an official bird (the
mockingbird), an official flower (the orange blossom), an official tree (the
sabal palm), even an official freshwater fish (the largemouth bass).
Kirby says all it will do is ensure that government business is
conducted in English, bridging the gap among Florida’s diverse ethnic groups.
“We see this as the ultimate civil rights bill,” Kirby says. “Anything
that tends to separate people – to me, that’s just as bad as a color
But in Dade County, where 43.4 percent of the population is Hispanic,
the mere mention of such an amendment is akin to yelling “Fire ” in a crowded
shooting gallery. Because Miami, rather than a melting pot, is a bubbling
cauldron of ethnic tensions.
This is the town where Burger King banned its employees from speaking
Spanish at work – then flipped its policy faster than its cooks flip their
This is the town where the county clerk, saying he was obeying a local
law, refused to perform marriages in Spanish – only to be told the law says
This is the town where native Miamians are forever calling into English-language radio talk shows, venting their spleen about all the
“foreigners” in their midst. Often, the talk-show hosts join in the tirade.
“The Cubans are organized and they have the power to take over.
That’s what they’re attempting to do,” Taffy McCallum, one of Miami’s more
reasonable radio talk-show hosts, said recently.
This is the town Tom Kirby came to win over – with his reasoned tones
and innocent-sounding shibboleths.
Accompanying him on his first trip last January was California
semanticist and former U.S. Sen. S.I. Hayakawa, national leader of the U.S.
The two men met with Miami’s first Cuban-born mayor, Xavier Suarez.
They told the mayor that eight states, including California, have made English their official language.
They told him Floridians were signing their petitions fast enough to put
the question on the 1988 ballot, with or without Miami’s consent.
They talked politely for an hour. Suarez, who rode to office on the
strength of the Cuban vote and faces re-election this year, refused to help.
“It is somewhat nonsensical to spend this kind of time and risk this
kind of divisiveness on an issue that has so little concrete benefits,” the
Welcome to Miami, city where you can live your entire life in Spanish. You
can watch Spanish soaps on TV, hear Spanish talk shows on the radio, find
Spanish-speaking grocery clerks and bank tellers, write to your Cuban-born
mayor or Cuban-born county manager. You can even buy the Miami Herald, the
city’s largest newspaper, in Spanish.
It’s the home of Osvaldo Soto, Cuban-born lawyer and chairman of the
Spanish-American League Against Discrimination (SALAD). He opposes Kirby’s
amendment, saying it will send the wrong message to Hispanics and open the
door to laws restricting the use of Spanish. Bilingual education, for one,
will be threatened, he says.
“They say friction between the English and the Spanish is going to bring
problems to this country,” he says. “To be honest with you, I don’t know of
any place where the use of language has brought problems.
“In Ireland, they only speak English, and they’ve been killing each
other for years. In Switzerland, where there is always peace, they speak
Miami is also home to Terry English Robbins, a Yiddish-speaking veteran
of Dade County’s language wars who took on the middle name so people would
know just where she stands. She hopes Kirby’s amendment will keep street
signs in English – named for Americans with American names. She also wants
city parks to display statues of American, rather than Hispanic, patriots.
“Jose Marti might be a big hero to Hispanics, but he doesn’t mean
anything to me. Yet we have Jose Marti statues, Jose Marti parks. We’re Jose
Marti-ed to death.”
And Robbins echoes the biggest complaint heard from the English
campaign’s followers: “I’m tired of going into Burdine’s at Dadeland (Mall)
and not being waited on because I don’t speak Spanish.”
Seven years ago, such laments were as pervasive as the new Cuban
immigrants. A majority of Dade’s people, angry at store clerks they couldn’t
understand and frustrated by the rapid ascendancy of Hispanics, made one
desperate attempt to regain control.
They voted, by a 3-to-2 margin, to ban county government from conducting
its business in any foreign language.
What that meant, nobody knew exactly. For the next three years, county
officials tried to interpret Dade’s anti-bilingual law. It was decided, for
instance, that bus schedules would be printed only in English. Emergency
operators could speak Spanish. Libraries could function bilingually.
The results satisfied no one – neither the Hispanics, who charged
discrimination, nor the English advocates, who complained the law was vague.
In 1984, county commissioners agreed to relax the anti-bilingual law,
allowing for such things as tourism promotions and hurricane pamphlets in
Spanish. Yet the firestorm about language continues to rage.
Jorge Valdes, the only Hispanic on the county commission and the one who
brokered the 1984 compromise, says it’s time to get rid of the anti-bilingual
law because “it’s hurt us. It’s hurt us enough.”
But Enos Schera, secretary of the group that sired the law, says it’s
time to get tough on Hispanics, force them to assimilate.
“They fly Cuban flags like this was a Cuban city,” he says. “It kind of
makes your blood boil.”
After his unsuccessful meeting with Mayor Suarez, Kirby, the Florida
English Campaign’s ambassador of goodwill, returned to Miami last month to
resume the hardsell with a soft touch. He went to a sympathetic audience this
time – an English-language radio talk show where people were invited to call
But, as always, the bitterness took over. One woman caller raged that
Hispanics “do not want to communicate to you in English, and I think it’s
outrageous. Absolutely outrageous.”
She proceeded to become nearly hysterical until the talk-show host, aghast at her vehemence, cut her off.
The next caller was a young man who said he delivers food for a living.
“As far as I see, you’re just an unaware bigot,” he told Kirby. “What you’re
trying to do is legislate nationalism.”