Friday, May 05, 2006

I will walk on South Beach...

Greetings from South Beach, where the sea and sand are beautiful and natural, and everything else, you'll have to judge for yourself. I try to get over here once a month or so on port days- it's about a 20 minute bus ride from downtown. It has a lot of things you can't find downtown, including the only health food store in Miami, the predominantly Art Deco architechture is a trip. (I walked by a pastel yellow and pink synagogue on a side street today.) And the shore is beautiful, even if it's overrun by huge hotels, tourists and topless bathers. (The only public beach I know of on the east coast that allows it. I remember the first time I came over here, only barely aware of this fact. I walked down the beach to the water, I ran across- literally- two women sunbathing. Their faces said they were in their forties, their bosoms said that they were 23. I felt duly welcomed. And I've found that they are the norm, not the exception.) Never before have I been to a place that so goes out of its way to live up to the stereotype.

On another note, taking public transit anywhere in Miami brings you face to face with one of the bitter undercurrents of the current debate about citizenship in this country, the issue of language. Miami is the first place I've ever lived where it's easier to function without English than it is to function without Spanish. On the buses, in the supermarket, at McDonalds Spanish is the first language, and people give you that initial double take when you don't speak Spanish that I'm sure Mexican immigrants get in Boston. And this is not the normal, first-generation stuff that accompanies every immigrant story in America- it's not uncommon to run across second and third generation Americans who can't, or won't (I'm really not sure) speak English. I was listening to a friend talk about her fiancee, who works in tech support for a big multinational company in Miami, who's official language is English. Just about every interaction with two of his colleagues is a battle, because they ask all the questions in Spanish, and he won't answer in Spanish. It's a little turf war, one I fear is common here.

I don't pretend to have a solution. I remember the last time the national language debate came up, as a dutiful liberal I opposed having an official language for the US, and I still do. But living in Miami makes me aware of the balkanization that can happen without language as a unifying factor, and it makes me uneasy about its impact- without common language, dialogue of any kind becomes impossible. One of my goals for this contract is to learn to function, at least basically, in Spanish. But I think the relative merits of a bilingual culture, especially in the context of the current immigration debate, is a subject that deserves far more conversation.

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