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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Miami, Si -- Hispanics Ascending, Si, Si
January 25, 2003
Four years ago I wrote a column in which I described frustrating experiences I had while visiting Miami.
It seemed as though everyone I encountered in Miami spoke Spanish. My impression was that they were ignoring me because I can't speak Spanish. I felt frustrated, as though I was being treated as a foreigner in my own country. I referred to that experience as a "Miami moment."
Last week I was in Miami to attend a conference. This time the people I encountered -- most of whom appeared to be Hispanic -- treated me warmly and courteously and didn't seem to have any difficulty speaking to me in English.
What a difference a few years made. Did Miami change? Or did I?
My gut tells me that it was a combination of both. And that's good because a U.S. Census Bureau report released earlier this week shows that Hispanics now are the largest minority group in the United States. The numbers make it clear that Hispanics are a vital part of the American fabric.
During a forum Wednesday for Orlando mayoral candidates, Marytza Sanz, one of the event's organizers, told the politicians, "We want to have a seat at the (leadership) table." And she's right, of course. Because if you're not sitting at the table, no one will care about your issues, a hard fact that black people learned a long time ago.
Yet I would be lying if I didn't admit that the Census Bureau report causes a flutter of apprehension for me and probably for some other black folks, as well.
Will news that Hispanics now outnumber blacks make it easier for the business and political leaders who run America to ignore the black community? Or will friction that has sparked among some segments of the black and Hispanic communities increase?
I certainly hope the answer to both questions is "no." But only time and human nature can answer those questions.
Even during these difficult economic times the American prosperity pie is too big for black people or Hispanics to be forced into a battle over crumbs. There should be more than enough for all Americans, regardless of our skin color, or how we spell our last name.
The growth of the U.S. minority population should not be seen as a threat by the non-Hispanic whites who run this country. A healthy culture has got to have room to grow and embrace new ideas. For so long culture in America has been defined by Anglo or Western European standards. In college I was taught that William Shakespeare probably was one of the greatest playwrights the world has known. But why didn't we also spend time studying literature or other arts from Spain or Latin America?
That was my loss.
The increasing influence of minorities also can help to refocus the way America views the rest of the world. Hispanics, blacks and Asians can all bring a wider perspective to this country's international economic and political dealings.
What I have avoided up to this point is acknowledging that language is the main point of friction between Hispanics and those of us who are not Hispanic. There are a couple of facts worth considering. No 1. There are a lot of Americans of Hispanic descent who can't speak Spanish. No. 2. Many Hispanics who use Spanish in their personal conversations consider their language a key component of their culture. Expecting Hispanics to abandon part of their culture would be like asking me to change the color of my skin. I can't do it, and I don't plan to try.
Understanding the importance of the Spanish language to some Hispanic people does not mean that all Americans need to become bilingual. English always will be America's language of commerce. Successful Hispanic people, as well as those who want to be successful, already know this and use English every day.
Americans don't come in only one color, from one culture, or with one point of view. That mixture gives this country its creativity, energy and strength. And that's why the rest of the world envies us.