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Cubans Gain Power in South Florida, But the Mainstream Pull Is Strong

While some residents `don't need English,' there's a ceiling without it

JUST last month, Dade County broke decades of dominance by Anglos and seated six Latinos on the 13-member county commission, plus four blacks, and only three non-Hispanic whites.

Then on Tuesday, the commissioners repealed a 1980 ordinance that established English as the official language of government business.

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South Florida is consolidating its Latin, and particularly Cuban, character. Greater Miami has become a Cuban success story. Cuban-Americans are richer, better educated, and more confident than other Latino groups in the United States.

Even here, success in social and economic terms comes with a nearly irresistible pull into mainstream American culture and institutions. The difference in Miami, however, may lie in how far up the social ladder one can climb before entering the English-speaking world.

"In Dade County, we have a big problem [teaching English]," says Miriam Castillo, a teacher of English-as-a-second-language at Coral Gables High School. "They don't need two languages. The kid who wants to become a carpenter or electrician - he doesn't need English."

Not all students want to be carpenters or electricians, though. When Ms. Castillo taught Spanish-for-Spanish-speakers at an affluent middle school, the students were embarrassed to speak Spanish.

At Coral Gables High, the recent immigrants from Cuba or Central America band together socially and often resist learning English. But the hundreds of students attending the school in academic magnet programs show none of that tendency for group self-segregation, notes Assistant Principal Alicia Green.

The valedictorian four years ago at this academically competitive school, Esteban Torres, arrived from Cuba three years earlier speaking no English. He went from here to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

Mr. Torres assimilated to the larger American world at hyperspeed. But many Cubans feel a strong pull not to lose their traditional ties.

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When Albert Rodriguez's family arrived in Miami from Cuba in 1955, both his parents spoke English but would not permit the language in their home. They worried that their children would forget Spanish if they used English at home.

"And I've seen that happen many, many times," Mr. Rodriguez says; "people with Spanish surnames and they speak very poorly in Spanish."

A good command of Spanish requires special effort, even in as robust a redoubt of high-quality Spanish as Miami.

The 1990 census counted half the residents of Dade County as ethnically Hispanic. According to surveys taken last year for the Miami Herald, 90 percent of those Hispanics have good or excellent ability to speak and read Spanish. Just a little more than half have such abilities in English.

But the Spanish heard here is spoken more often by immigrants, young and old, than by their children. In school, teachers encounter young arrivals who don't want to learn English and don't think they need to. But they also encounter students awkward in Spanish and slightly embarrassed by Spanish-only parents.

Rodriguez, who teaches history and language here, is entirely fluent and comfortable in both Spanish and English, as many Miamians are. He speaks to his young daughters only in Spanish, knowing they will learn English outside the home.

But his brother lives in much less intensively Latin Broward County to the north, and his children attend what Rodriguez refers to as "American" schools. Rodriguez speaks to his nieces in Spanish, because it feels too remote to speak to relatives in English. They understand him, but they answer in English. "They're losing it," he says.

One common variation among families is that when grandparents live in the same house with grandchildren, the grandchildren hold onto Spanish better.

Luis Cabrera arrived in Key West 42 years ago with his fisherman father. When his father headed back, the 16-year-old Mr. Cabrera stayed. He now has 11 grandchildren in the United States, and they all speak English. Two of them live with Mr. Cabrera and his wife in rural Pennsylvania and speak little Spanish. The other nine live in Hialeah, Fla., an intensively Cuban community in north Dade County. They all speak Spanish, says Cabrera, "because of my mother," who lives there.

Cabrera and his wife are happy just to visit Hialeah once or twice a year. In Pennsylvania, many of his friends are Italian, and he has a deep appreciation of the local Amish. He misses Cuban cuisine, but not the arguments over Cuban politics that come at the lunch counter.

Back in Miami, though, new arrivals from Cuba and points south help Latinos "not to forget who we are," says Green, who arrived from Chile when she was 15.

Still, most Cubans have moved beyond the long-held dream of returning to Cuba after Castro is ousted, Rodriguez says. "Now [the question] is how we're going to make an indelible mark on Miami."

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