SAGGSA Colloquium Series: Unpacking the Paradox of Spanish in Miami

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Venue:FIU Modesto A. Maidique Campus SIPA 502/503

Image In 1981, Time magazine ran a cover story on South Florida entitled “Paradise Lost.” The story, and the image that ran with it on the cover, explained very clearly how paradise was being lost (answer: immigration) but without ever explicitly answering the question “paradise for whom?”

Twelve years later, Time returned to South Florida, publishing an article entitled “Miami: Capital of Latin America.” This time the tune of the story had changed from ‘hellish dystopia’ to ‘economic boomtown.’ But in both cases, questions of language – namely the presence of a large number of Spanish speakers – figured heavily in the account, and in both cases, language questions were overtly or implicitly racialized. And in the nearly quarter-century that has passed since the second story ran, the idea of Miami as a place paradoxically within and outside of the United States has gained discursive ground. One of the storylines that animates the discourse of Miami’s otherness is ‘Miami as Spanish-speaking’ (the thing that in 1981 destroyed paradise and in 1993 brought about the new language economy). Today the idea that Miami is a place where people freely speak Spanish is so taken for granted as to be a truism in political, popular, and even scholarly accounts. Miami is a place where Spanish is heard in the front of the restaurant, not only in the back, it is often remarked.

The purpose of this talk is to call always-already assumptions about Spanish-speakingness in Miami into question, and to shed light on some of the sociocultural and sociocognitive microdynamics that these assumptions obscure. I present three types of data – interview data from semi-structured sociolinguistic interviews, language attitude data from a perceptual dialectology experiment, and reaction time data from a cognitive-sociolinguistic experiment – to show that the sociocultural meanings that attach to “Spanish-speaking” are far more nuanced than popular and scholarly accounts tend to suggest. Interview data show that ethnicity, national-origin group, and generation of arrival condition the meanings and possibilities of speaking Spanish in South Florida, while perceptual data show that Miami-born Latin@s exhibit strong automatic preferences for English, and perceive of English more favorably than Spanish when making decisions with material outcomes, including in the assignment of hypothetical yearly income. Data from the studies presented here will be considered in light of data from the Center for Applied Linguistics about the role of Spanish in Miami Dade Public Schools, and data from the U.S. Census about Spanish in Miami homes.