I was lucky enough to have escaped the frigid winter weather this past vacation, at least for a time. A friend of mine has a house outside Miami, in Coral Gables, and I spent a week or so bumming around that handsome area, baking in the sun and swallowing iced drinks on South Beach.
Miami is a place rich with imported flavor, that's for sure. Particularly for someone accustomed to the vanilla provincialism of New England, the city is an engaging creature, almost exhausting in its novelty. Mostly, the melange of foreign sights and sounds is a positive element of life among the palms.
The locals' apparent disinterest in adopting the English language is, however, troubling. The prevalence of Spanish speaking among immigrants and natives alike confounds me. Now, the desire to maintain the old country's tongue is understandable, even commendable, but it shouldn't be the preferred means of communication. This is America, where the king's (corrupted) English is the lingua franca. New-comers should accept this reality, and deal with it.
I was shocked, then, when my host reacted violently to these precise sentiments. I told her the way I felt following a frustrating ordeal wherein the entire staff of a convenience store was unable to give me directions to a location nearby. You see, not one of them seemed even remotely familiar with English. In response to my questioning, they just shrugged and winced. (And I'm supposed to consider them my countrymen?)
When I expressed my anger at the communication barrier, she call me a bigot. "If they want to speak Spanish, let them," she said.
I responded, "That's fine, they can speak Spanish so long as they deal with English in public, so long as they have a working relationship with the language."
But even that compromise upset my, eh, broad-minded companion. "Language is an artificiality," she explained in a strained tone of voice, "an illusion." Ever the cosmopolitan, she concluded, "One isn't better than the other. People should be free to use whichever they want without a negative reaction to their personal choice."
I lit a cigarette and shut-up. The spat blew over soon enough, but returned unexpectedly not too long after. We scooped a mutual friend, who that night was feeling particularly sore about her boss.
"And the worst part is," she said, "he really hates it when people speak Spanish. He says everyone should speak English, or be shipped back to who-the-hell-knows-where. It's so . . . simian."
I sighed aloud.
"What?" she asked, turning to me.
"We were having a similar debate before getting you. Let's just say I'm not altogether unfriendly to your boss' suggestion. Assimilate or emigrate -- catchy, if a bit extreme. Okay, a lot extreme, but I'm of the same general frame of mind on the issue."
The two girls rolled their eyes, visibly disgusted at what one of them described colorfully as "stupid fucking white nationalism." (Note: Race has nothing to do with it. If Miami was super-saturated by unapologetic French speakers, I'd be equally disturbed.)
"Your idea of America is pathetic. It's so, like, depressing. Let's just listen to music."
The radio came alive, filling the car with Latino music. One of the girls changed the station: more foreign clamor. The next flip brought the same -- spitfire Spanish, spoken and song -- as did the one after that and the one after that. It actually seemed that the airwaves were captive to some south-of-the-border disc jockey spinning out of a salsa bar. There we were, cruising American soil, struggling to catch a familiar word.
"What the hell . . . " muttered one of the girls, sporting a restrained frown.
"Where're the real stations, the good ones?" wondered the other, chagrined.
I said, "Frustrating, right? It's so, like, depressing."