It Pays to Know a Second Language---Spanish, English

When I was in college, new friends would make assumptions about me because of where I was born. The most common was that I, like most Cuban-Americans, liked hot, spicy food.

Nope, I would say, you’re probably thinking of Mexican-Americans, whose cuisine is hot-pepper rich. Cubans as a group like fried food, and spice it up mostly with garlic, cumin and even wild oranges.

“Well, you do eat tortillas, don’t you?” they would ask.

Yes, but Cuban-Americans use the word tortilla to describe an egg omelette – not the flour tortilla you’re talking about, though I love Mexican tortillas.

The ritual of explaining the differences among the different Latino groups in this country became a sort of game. “It’s all Mexican to us,” my college roommates would tease whenever some new friend would bring up a wrong assumption about my heritage.

So it didn’t surprise me last week when a nationwide survey revealed that a majority of Hispanics don’t identify themselves as being part of one large Hispanic group in this country. About 90 percent of nation’s 20 million Hispanics come from families whose histories are tied to either Mexico, Puerto Rico or Cuba. While Spanish is our common link, each group is as different in its history and its culture and even its use of Spanish words as, say, the Irish are from the British.

Many newspaper stories focused on the fact that Latinos in this country “aren’t unified.” Yet I found the other issues in the survey revealed much more about just how similar the different Latino groups are on three fronts: Most of us speak English, we love the United States and we support bilingual education as a means to learn – surprise! – English.

These are three facts that are often dismissed by the “English only” movement, which has tried to dismantle good bilingual education programs by scaring Americans into thinking we are creating a Tower of Babel nation where Hispanics will ram Spanish down the throats of English speakers.

Miami is often the example used by people who are scared of bilingual education. “Whenever I go there, all the signs are in Spanish. I can’t understand what they’re saying,” some people will say.

Funny, but I go there several times a year, and because I tend to “look American” the clerks I meet at the stores in the heart of Little Havana always greet me in English. It may be heavily accented English, and perhaps that’s what people don’t understand, or don’t want to understand.

What seems to really steam some people is that many Latino families continue to speak Spanish at home and when they shop and anywhere else. “You’re in this country, and you should speak English,” I often heard when I was growing up.

But that’s such a shortsighted view of the world. There is not one person I grew up with – kids who came from Cuba anywhere between a few months old to their teens – who doesn’t speak English well today. They all speak English and Spanish, and I dare say many of them are making good money because of their knowledge of Spanish.

Miami didn’t become an international center of commerce, a gateway to Latin American economies, by accident. Cuban-Americans and many other bilingual Latinos there served as a bridge between the cultures of North and South America.

Sure, Latino parents may not speak English as well as their kids and some may not speak much English at all, but that was not an uncommon trait among the immigrants of a century ago. The Little Italys, Little Polands, Chinatowns, etc., had their elders who knew little or no English.

What’s different between today’s immigrants – be they from Latin America or from Asia – and the immigrants of a century ago is a global economy. Today, it pays to know another language. It makes for a strong economy – and a strong nation, too.

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