Se habla Espanol con gusto, amigos

Published May 23, 2007

The Tampa Bay I know is better than some of the grumblings I hear on the periphery.

This area, with its history firmly planted in Hispanic culture, thrives because of the unique contributions made by our Spanish and Cuban ancestors. It continues to flourish as Florida's third largest Hispanic market because we welcome the value of diversity.

I fear, however, that a few loudmouths want to tamper with one of the trademarks that make Tampa, well, Tampa. They complain about bilingual signs and government functions designed specifically for Hispanics, even as Hispanics compose nearly 20 percent of Tampa Bay's population.

If you step back and look at the big picture, you realize we have too much in common to let minor differences divide us. We may not speak the same language, but we chase the same rainbows: a better life for ourselves and for the generations to follow.

When supporters gathered for the Mayor's Hispanic Advisory Council's annual Latinos Unidos luncheon last week, I saw a group striving to make our entire community better, not people hoping to craft an area where Spanish dominates English.

Yes, there may be some who will spend their entire life in this country never learning English, but they cheat themselves more than they hurt others.

Now and then, you hear whines; most recently, the ill-conceived Press One for English song performed at an event in Plant City. Performers tried to use sweet-smelling reasoning as a defense. But my nose still gets a whiff of bigotry.

Besides, smart business people rely on bilingual signs not because they want Hispanics to live here without learning English, but because they want to send an inviting message to that community. Given that Tampa Bay's 480,000 Hispanics have an estimated buying power of $7.2-billion, that's just good business.

Even one of our most popular elected officials delivered his message in more than one language. If Jeb Bush can speak fluent Spanish and reside in Miami without making English-only cracks, can't the rest of us follow his lead?

English-only proponents love to say, "When my grandparents came here, they learned English and didn't have any signs to help them." That may be true, but many of yesteryear's immigrants relied on the support of ethnic enclaves in cities like New York and Chicago.

Today, we make it easier for our newest arrivals because we've evolved as a society. We're more sophisticated in our approaches and hopefully more appreciative of what newcomers have to offer.

In the end, it comes down to a decision. We can hear two people talking and laughing in Spanish and become annoyed, or we can be thankful they found a common soul in this foreign land.

We can define the American Dream as "English only," or we can meet our Hispanic and other international friends halfway and recognize sharing the dream is as good as achieving it.

After all, Latinos Unidos is great, but Personas Unidos would be even better.

Eso es todo que estoy diciendo.

Ernest Hooper can be reached at hooper@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3406.