Marion Plunske is annoyed whenever she telephones Dade County government offices and an employe answers in Spanish. "I continue to speak English and ask for an American. No way on God's earth am I going to habla espanol."
Mary Schaller ignored a "no smoking" sign posted only in Spanish in a public bus, although she understood "Prohibido Fumar." The bus driver said, 'Hey lady, can't you read?' I said, 'Not any - - - - - - Spanish.'"
Still recovering from the Liberty City riots and swollen with the latest wave of 60,000 Cuban refugees, Miami and Dade County are embroiled in another, potentially disruptive, social war. It is a war of words, Spanish vs. English.
More than 44,000 residents have signed petitions demanding a November referendum to eliminate Spanish as the second official language in Dade County. If passed, the measure would prohibit spending county money for "the purpose of utilizing any language other than English or promoting any culture other than that of the United States."
The movement is an angry backlash against the gradual Latinization of Miami, as well as to the summer's Freedom Flotilla tidal wave, still pouring 150 refugees a day into Key West.A total of 121,400 Cubans has arrived since April.
"It's a desire to get even," charges John Diaz, a Cuban-American born in New York.
"The petition is an opportunity to express a lot of latent hostility," said Msgr. Bryan O. Walsh, a member of the Dade County Community Relations Board. "Unfortunately, it is going to do more to polarize the community than any single thing that has happened."
Dade County, which includes the city of Miami, has been officially bilingual since 1973, the only city of its size in America to take such a step. County commissioners voted unanimously to provide all county services in both languages "to aide the Spanish-speaking population to enter more evenly the mainstream of the American way of life."
Increasing numbers of Latin taxpayers were complaining that the language barrier prevented them from equal access to government services.
"Latin newspaper reporters would call the police department and say 'I'm dying' in Spanish, and there would be no response. They were not understood," said Aida Levitan, information director for Miami. "It was evident there was a problem."
"People thought that the Cubans would quickly assimilate and stop speaking Spanish, but that doesn't happen with the first generation," said Levitan, who left Cuba in 1961.
Since the first Cuban influx two decades ago, the county's population has grown form 6 percent to 38 percent Latin among the current 1.6 million residents. Meanwhile, the hardworking first generation of Cuban refugees, who originally moved into decaying slums, is producing bank presidents and political leaders. What was a sleepy tourist downtown a decade ago is a Manhattanized international finance center.
Some residents delight in the cosmopolitan atmosphere, while others consider it an invasion. Almost daily a disc jockey on a black radio station rails. "Go away, Jose."
"It's a classic case of resistance to change," Msgr. Walsh said of the anti-bilingual petition.
Although the measure would not stop Spanish from being spoken, it probably would eliminate the Division of Latin Affairs, whose budget of $202,000 is partly devoted to translating 4,500 documents, notices and signs into Spanish. The county would be prohibited from supporting Hispanic Heritage Week and the German Oktoberfest or devoting $750,000 of hotel and motel revenues to promoting Spanish, French, German, Portuguese and Japanese tourism, a mainstay of the local economy, county officials say.
Miami International Airport, which is operated by the county, would have to end Spanish announcements for the 45,000 passengers and friends who use the facility daily, according to county officials.
"We have been Cubanized to death." said Plunske, who moved here 31 years ago from New York. "There is no more room. Besides, you can't get a job unless you're bilingual."
Schaller said, "This is America, and I think we should let anyone in who is oppressed. But I think they should live by our rules. I don't see why we should have to change our way of living."
But Diaz, a state legislative candidate, has joined other citizens in asking a federal court to declare the substance of the referendum unconstitutional and contrary to federal civil rights laws. They also have raised enough money to conduct a signature-by-signature verification, of the 44,166 names on the petition as allowed by state law. The supporters of the referendum gathered more than twice the required number of signatures.
Nonetheless, opponents concede that voter registration statistics alone indicate that the referendum is likely to pass unless they can convince a substantial number of non-Latin whites and blacks that bilingualism and biculturalism are social virtues. Latin voters account for only 17.2 percent of the registration rolls, because fewer than half of them are U.S. citizens. o