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Culture, like food, needs a little spice

Published April 25, 2007

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When a Pinellas politician made some wince-inducing comments about Tampa's Spanish-speaking population, my response probably sounded pretty smug.

After all, isn't Tampa all about this nice balance of cultures, including Spanish, Cuban and Italian families who have been here for generations? Don't those of us who live here make up this perfect patchwork quilt?

And then some folks in Town 'N Country had to get in a snit when the county called a Hispanic town hall meeting using bilingual signs. (Hurt feelings aside, the event was an undeniable success when more than 500 people packed the house.) And some residents of Seminole Heights - the historic Tampa neighborhood of old bungalows we like to point to as a shining example of regeneration - don't much like all those Hispanic restaurants popping up. (The latest is a Honduran place called Rincon Catracho, its sign claiming El Mejor Pescado de la Bahia, the best fish from the bay.)

A sign in Spanish! Menus in Spanish! Waiters who speak Spanish! Where will it end? One fellow even lamented the lack of a local Chili's to Times reporter Alexandra Zayas.

Say it ain't so, Seminole Heights.

Even cookie-cutter McDonald's knows towns have personalities; alongside their Big Macs, they have sold lobster rolls in Boston and sweet tea down South.

Forget the immigration debate a minute, or even the fact that most of our families came from somewhere else. How boring it would be if cities were all strip malls, Starbucks and Bennigan's, if you could look around and be in anytown in Ohio, California, Nebraska. How mind-numbingly dull to have nothing different to see, to hear, to taste.

When I first came to Tampa, I noticed signs on restaurants saying they served Cuban-Chinese food. Cuban-Chinese? University of South Florida history professor and author Gary Mormino enlightened me: Chinese people were brought to Cuba as sugar plantation workers after slavery ended. Ultimately Cubans and Chinese both came here. And today you can still get fried rice (with Cuban bread and plantains on the side) in West Tampa.

When I bring up the latest in local cultural anxiousness, Mormino tells the tale of former Florida Gov. Sidney Johnston Catts, elected in 1916. When a Tampa legislator tried to get ballots in Spanish for Cuban immigrants, the governor is reputed to have said, "If English is good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for Tampa."

"There's nothing new under the sun," Mormino says.

The following comments from across the bay, by the way, came from a Pinellas Park City Council member in a routine discussion about sharing police services with Tampa. "Are our law enforcement officers taking up Spanish or Cuban or whatever?" Patricia Bailey-Snook wondered. And then, "So they can talk to the public over there." And just when you thought it was over, "Because a lot of them will say that they don't speak English, but they do. But they'll just keep rattling off in Spanish and you can't get them to say a word in English."

Sadly, Bailey-Snook did not take me up on my offer for lunch in Tampa. Maybe she's still getting her passport sorted out.

Too bad. She might really like the arroz frito with a little soy sauce.

[Last modified April 25, 2007, 00:59:36]

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