The Dade County English-Only Ordinance
It is hard to believe, as you go and pay a parking ticket at your local courthouse or take your Driver’s License exam, that there was a time when only one language was heard in Dade County government offices. And that language was English. I am not talking about a time long long ago when Miami was inhabited by swamp rats and sugar farmers. This was as recently as 1993, just after Hurricane Andrew and slightly before we were called a “third-world country” by a certain, unnamed US representative.
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The controversy over Miami-Dade’s English-Only ordinance actually began way back in 1973, when the Mariel boatlift was just a glimmer in Fidel Castro’s eye and Americans had things to worry about like a draft and a war. At the time, Dade County’s population was roughly 25% Hispanic, roughly on par with today’s Hispanic population density of Los Angeles. At that time, emergency service workers, utility workers and many government officials were having a difficult time communicating with the nearly 100,000 Dade County residents who did not speak English. So in 1973 the Metro Commission, along with Mayor Jack Orr, declared Dade County to be officially bilingual and bicultural, making Spanish the county’s second official language. The idea was years ahead of its time.
A few years later, the lovably affluent and cultured Cubans of Dade County, who had brought with them money if not an understanding of the English language, soon became outnumbered by another, slightly-less desirable group of Cuban immigrants. In a move meant to rid his country of undesirables, Fidel Castro emptied his jails and sent many convicted criminals, homosexuals and other unwanted persons from Cuba on boats to Miami. This event is known as the Mariel boatlift, after the harbor from which the refugees were sent. The newcomers were, surprisingly, not met on the shores of South Florida with welcome baskets and Green Cards. While US immigration policy dictated that those who arrived on shore must be allowed to stay, local Miamians, both Cuban and non-Cuban, were not too thrilled with their city being overrun by the dregs of Fidel’s jails.
A group known as Citizens of Dade United began to see the drain on tax money that the flood of refugees was causing and sought a way to make sure the city remained unchanged. Their solution was a ballot initiative proposed in 1980, making English the official language of Dade County. It forbid any government money to be spent on programs not conducted in English, and prohibiting Metro from conducting business in any other language. Given the turmoil and political climate of the time, it passed with nearly sixty percent of the popular vote. Since most of the recent, non-English speaking residents were unable to vote, its passage was barely even controversial.
A CITY DIVIDED OVER PRONOUN USAGE
But as Dade’s Hispanic population grew, so did opposition to the English-only ordinance. While a major icon to those wishing to preserve Miami, it began to cause some major difficulties. Medical and emergency personnel were still unable to attend to victims who could not communicate in English, and public safety became a major concern. County councilman Jorge Valdes proposed that the law be repealed, a motion that was met by angry protestors with signs threatening to hang council members if the law was abolished. The pro-English majority of Dade County reached a compromise with the county commission, allowing for the use of other languages to promote tourism and in cases of medical emergency or public safety.
The law came under further scrutiny in 1985 when the Federal Government ruled that Miami’s lack of multi-lingual signage on its public transportation systems was a violation of its citizenry’s civil rights. The county grudgingly obliged the Feds’ recommendation, rather than lose federal funding, but a year later the County Clerk ordered that courts stop performing wedding ceremonies en Espanol.
“VALDES” NOT A NAME RESONATING WITH SUCCESS IN THE 1980’S
As the 80’s progressed, the political climate in Dade County changed. Hispanics began to wield more influence and opposition began to grow to the county’s English-only ordinance. In 1987, Jorge Valdes again attempted to put a repeal on the county commission’s agenda. Citizens of Dade United mobilized their forces, and the issue became a divisive argument among Hispanic and non-Hispanic residents of greater Miami. There were even some more-assimilated Latino residents who felt the measure was a good thing. Since they had bothered to learn English, they reasoned, so should everyone else. Valdes was the only commissioner brave enough to take either side of the issue publicly, as some commissioners would actually walk out of the room when it was brought up.
Months of fiery debate followed, including bomb-threats to commissioners’ offices, death threats to various people and county-wide racial tension. On July 7, when Valdes’ motion was finally brought up by the commission, it was never seconded and the issue was dropped in an anti-climactic 27 seconds. A public hearing was scheduled for September 1, but in mid-August Valdes and 18 Hispanic groups announced they would no longer seek a repeal. The issue was too touchy and they feared the anti-Hispanic backlash it would likely set off.
Valdes again raised the issue the next year, but again the political climate was not right. That year, the state of Florida was considering a constitutional amendment making English the State’s official language. Valdes and his commission of Hispanic groups, known as Unidos, felt it better to revisit the issue if the amendment was passed by statewide vote. Not only was the law passed, but it received a majority in all 67 of Florida’s counties, a 3 to 2 margin in Dade. After the vote, however, both sides still agreed it best to leave Metro’s pro-English law alone.
REDRAWN DISTRICTS, REDRAWN COUNTY
And so five years passed and more Hispanics, and Haitians, poured into Dade County. And English Speakers left. Hurricane Andrew brought a new wave of migration out of Miami, and the influence of Spanish speakers became larger than ever. The Metro Dade Commission was still comprised of mostly white non-Hispanics, and therefore it seemed that the English-only ordinance would stay on the books. That was until 1992. That year a federal judge ruled that Dade County’s practice of electing all 9 commissioners by the entire county was a violation of black and Hispanic voting rights. He ordered the county split up in to 13 districts, each voting on one representative. So instead of a strong voting bloc, in, say, condos in northeast Dade, different section of the county would elect their own representatives. The result was a 13-member commission made up of 6 Hispanics, 4 Blacks and 3 non-Hispanic Whites. Among their first orders of business: Abolishing the English-only ordinance.
The political climate in Dade was such in 1993 that few commissioners were even willing to do anything other than speak out against a repeal. While the largely deflated Citizens for Dade Untied protested and sang “God Bless America” outside the Commission’s chambers, the newly-formed commission unanimously repealed English-only. The county was now free to produce documents and conduct business in any language they saw fit.
Many long-time Miami residents felt this would lead to a Spanish-only Miami. They feared that many who were here would be forced to leave, and that the Spanish language would take over the city. Those who favored the repeal felt this signaled a new era in Miami, an era of acceptance and understanding, of respect and change. As the immigration debate of today rages on and people are making proposals to make English-only a national standard, it is interesting to see the effect the law had in the national microcosm that is Dade County. Its merits and drawbacks are, at the very least, debatable, but the repeal of the English-only ordinance is perhaps one of the most significant, if still unknown, events in Miami history. Though highly symbolic, even by admission of its most ardent supporters, the ordinance and is subsequent repeal showed how the face of Miami has changed. And its examination, perhaps, may be a foreshadowing of the future of America.
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"The Dade County English-Only Ordinance"