Volume 47, Number 12 - February 16, 2010


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Ali Sattar
Ali Sattar
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Opinion Opinion

Picture of cartoon by akeem
Cartoon by Akeem Mayers.

No English spoken here

By Ali Sattar

So I’m in line at Starbucks and there is a lady in front of me. The clerk (I guess they’re called baristas?) tries to confirm her order, but she frowns back at him.

“Dígalo en Español, por favor. Estamos en Hialeah,” she says. She’s asking the young man behind the counter to speak Spanish, reminding him that we’re in Hialeah.

She looks back at me and smiles, seeking my approval. I just nod and smile back.

When she’s gone, the guy behind the counter turns to his co-worker and complains bitterly about how he can’t believe someone could be “so proud that she can only speak Spanish.”

He looks up at me while he’s ranting. I just nod and smile back.

Frankly, I was much more sympathetic to the woman. Sure, she didn’t need to be quite so brash when she asked the young man to repeat himself in Spanish. She was right, though – we were in Hialeah.

Having spent almost all of my life within a mile or two of 49th street, I know firsthand of Hialeah’s role as a first home for many newly-minted Hispanic United States citizens. It’s one of the few places in America where a fresh immigrant can feel perfectly at home, even if they’re thousands of miles from it; Hialeah is the Chinatown of South Florida.

Because it serves this role for so many Latino newcomers to America, Spanish is the default language of Hialeah. I realize I’m preaching to the choir in explaining all this to any South Floridian, but it bears repeating.

It strikes me that a sizeable number of those whom I’ve personally heard complain about non-English speakers in South Florida are young people. At the risk of being overly presumptuous, it seems to me that many of these critics take for granted the chance they had to go to school here in the U.S., and so to grow up with English as their first language (it’s a known fact that learning a new language becomes more difficult with age).

The one thing that makes Hialeah so livable for Spanish-speakers is, ironically, what makes it so difficult for them to adapt to life in America outside its city limits. When you can go practically your entire life without needing to speak a word of English, so long as you stay in Hialeah, what motivation is there to ever learn it?

I should make clear that I think all newcomers to the U.S. should make a conscious effort to learn English as soon as possible. While it’s nice being able to just get by in Hialeah, getting any further requires at least a basic grasp of the English language.         Anyone aiming to live in America without learning to speak English is dooming themselves to a life of stagnation and little to no chance for economic advancement.

That said, it’s more incumbent upon those of us who did have the luxury of going to an all-English elementary, middle and high school to acknowledge the difficulties faced by those who weren’t simply born into these privileges. It just kills me any time I hear another young person complain about how not enough South Floridians speak English well.

Really, if anyone should be up on a soapbox demanding Latinos speak English, it should be me -- I speak Spanish, English and my parents’ language. The argument might go something like this: If I can learn your language, why can’t you learn English?

It sounds pretty mean-spirited and arrogant, doesn’t it?

That’s because it is.


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