By Pamela Druckerman
Miami is often called the “capital of Latin America” — a city that has, for some 40 years, been run by Latin Americans and their descendants. Most Miamians, from waiters and dental hygienists, to politicians and bank presidents, have Latin origins. In Miami-Dade county — the metropolitan area that includes the City of Miami — 73 per cent of residents identify as “Hispanic or Latino” and some 66 per cent speak Spanish at home.
Having marinated here for decades, Latin American culture now infuses almost everything in Miami. Galleries showcase Latin American artists; restaurants feature experimental Latin American cuisine. Politicians campaign in Spanish, promising to influence US foreign policy toward their constituents’ native or ancestral countries. A billboard in Miami’s Calle Ocho with a message in Spanish by the Census Bureau – the language is spoken at home by 66 per cent of the city’s population.
Spanish is omnipresent from the moment you arrive at Miami International Airport. AM radio announcers report the local news in Cuban-accented Spanish; billboards tout Spanish-speaking personal-injury lawyers; and telenovelas and Spanish church services play on TV. In many shops, restaurants and Ubers, you’re addressed in Spanish first. (When I took my kids to get Covid-19 tests in Miami Beach recently, city workers issued us instructions in Spanish.)
English is spoken too, but in distinct Miami dialects. Anglo-Miamians like me tend to sound like New Yorkers. (I’ve been told that I speak Spanish “like a gringa from Miami”.)
Bilingual locals toggle seamlessly between Spanish and English, often within the same sentence, and young Miami natives from Latin American backgrounds tend to speak a Spanish-influenced dialect of English or sprinkle Spanish slang into English, even if they don’t speak much Spanish. So how did this tropical, coastal US metropolis become possibly the country’s most Latin American city?
In the decade and a half after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Miami’s Cuban population swelled from around 10,000 to half a million. Some of the first arrivals were from Cuba’s business and professional classes. Since they were fleeing communism during the Cold War, they got extensive US government aid. These first immigrants eventually opened banks, restaurants, schools and grocery stores, some of which were transplanted directly from Havana, including a Jesuit boys’ school that had educated Cuba’s elites.
Then there was the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when 125,000 mostly working-class Cubans came to Miami by sea over a six-month period. I remember a stunned-looking boy, who spoke no English, suddenly appearing in my sixth-grade class. (The 1983 movie Scarface famously depicted the Marielitos as criminals. In fact, the vast majority were ordinary Cubans, including families, desperate to escape the island.)
In the 1980s and 1990s, violent conflicts in Colombia, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador (funded by the US government) sent waves of citizens from those countries too.
By 1990, nearly 400,000 Central Americans lived in Florida, including about 150,000 Nicaraguans in Miami. They were followed by Peruvians fleeing hyperinflation and terrorism, and Argentines escaping a series of economic crises. People from all backgrounds came, including several deposed US-backed dictators.
Reception and perception
Miami’s population more than doubled between 1960 and 1990. The transition was sometimes difficult. Cuban doctors worked as hospital orderlies, and Cuban lawyers petitioned for years to be able to take Florida’s Bar exam in Spanish, Robert M Levine and Moisés Asís write in their book Cuban Miami.
The city’s old guard of white southerners wasn’t always welcoming. Many Anglos moved north (an infamous bumper sticker read, “Will the last American to leave Miami please bring the flag?”). Soon after the Marielitos arrived, county commissioners passed an ordinance requiring most government business to be conducted in English. (A new commission that included the son of Cuban immigrants overturned it 1993.)
Some new arrivals imported their political conflicts. In 1975 alone, Cuban groups in Miami carried out more than 30 bombings of suspected Castro sympathisers, journalist and author Nicholas Griffin writes in The Year of Dangerous Days. (At one point there were so many car bombings, nervous Cubans used remote switches to turn on their cars.)
In the 1980s, Colombian drug cartels staged their US operations out of Miami, laundering billions of dollars through local banks and real estate, and brazenly gunning down rivals at shopping malls and the arrivals gate of Miami International Airport, Griffin writes. A generation of local criminal-defence attorneys made a living, in part, by defending alleged traffickers.
“One of the first things that made Miami important was the illicit industries — cocaine, marijuana,” says Professor Eduardo Gamarra, a specialist in Latin American politics at Florida International University (where he has taught a course on drug trafficking).
Most immigrants wanted nothing to do with drugs or violence, of course. They just longed to go home. Some immigrants did return, especially Colombians, as the political situation improved. But most Miami Latin Americans eventually experienced what Gamarra calls the “closing of the suitcase syndrome”, in which they gradually realised they were here to stay.
A new Establishment
As they put down roots, Miami became an important hub for banking and trade with Latin America. “It’s no longer just drugs, it’s now everything else, including art,” says Gamarra. Recently, it is the place where well-off Latin Americans come to get jabbed with Covid-19 vaccines.
Politically, the city’s Latino voters — especially Cuban-Americans — turn out in large numbers. This makes them key to winning Florida, a swing state, in presidential elections. In the rest of the US, Latino voters skew Democrat. But many Miami-Cuban voters oppose anything they’re convinced is “socialism” and want America to take a hard line toward Cuba. Some briefly softened during Barack Obama’s presidency, but they have historically aligned with Republicans, most recently with Donald Trump.
Today Miami’s Cuban residents form the backbone of the city’s business, political and cultural establishment, with Colombians a close second. (The Cubans’ poster boy is US senator Marco Rubio, the Miami-raised son of Cuban immigrants who rose up through the city’s Republican networks.)
Miami’s newest arrivals, Venezuelans, hope to acquire the same political clout. Well-off Venezuelans had begun spending more time in their Miami condos after Hugo Chávez became president in 1999, and later moved to Miami permanently. More of all social classes followed, as the economy and infrastructure collapsed under President Nicolás Maduro. (“Even Maduro doesn’t want to be in Venezuela right now,” one immigrant joked to me). Many exiled Venezuelans hope — so far in vain — that the US will intervene to get rid of him.
A new identity
Miami’s various Latin American diasporas are now spread across the city. White, wealthy Colombians, Venezuelans and Brazilians tend to congregate in Key Biscayne, Coral Gables and the mansions along Old Cutler Road. A Venezuelan who works in finance told me that half her high-school class has resettled in Miami, many in a sleek oceanside strip called Golden Beach, north of Bal Harbour.
Many Argentines live near the Little Buenos Aires section of Surfside, just above Miami Beach. (At least nine died in the Surfside condominium collapse in June.)
Less-wealthy Latin Americans live further inland and tend to work in Miami’s service sector. The population of Hialeah, which is 20 minutes north-west of Miami, is 95 per cent Hispanic, and three-quarters have Cuban origins.
Many middle-class Latin Americans live in the flat, suburban sprawl of south-west Miami, which has expanded so far west it now borders the Everglades.
There’s inevitably lots of mixing. FIU’s Gamarra is from Bolivia and his partner is a Venezuelan woman. (“How to get to know Latino Miami? My simple answer is, you marry one,” one man told me.) Members of Miami’s dwindling Anglo population now push their children to become fluent in Spanish. Gamarra says a pan-Latin Miami identity is gradually emerging. “When I came to Miami, I was a Bolivian — now I’m a Latin American,” he quips.
Miami and Latin America remain deeply linked. And as every Latin American crisis reverberates here, there will always be stunned children who find themselves suddenly in Miami classrooms. Fortunately, these days, most of their classmates and teachers speak Spanish too.
Credit: Financial Times