Friday, December 10, 2010
Key West - The Language
Everyone knows that Key West is 90 miles north of Havana. I’m reminded every day when I leave my home, as the famous Southernmost Marker Buoy, on Whitehead and South St., is directly in my view. A lot of people express surprise when they hear it’s 160 miles from Key West to Miami. It’s a lot farther to Miami than Havana from here. The reality is, Key West is closer to Havana then it is to even Key Largo! Now, anyone going to Havana naturally expects Spanish to be spoken, as that’s the tongue of Cuba. I often hear surprise from visitors to Key West expressing dismay, when they tell me that on their way here, workers at Miami International Airport they encountered, didn’t even speak English.
Here in Key West, right in between Spanish speaking Miami and Spanish speaking Havana, we have an odd scenario. Like Miami, we have, and always had throughout history, a great influence from the island of sugarcane, tobacco, and rum, ninety miles south of us. Cubans have been coming here since the beginning. For many years prior to the American government procuring it from Spain, many Cubans just considered it a Cuban island. So, it goes without saying, you will hear Spanish spoken in Key West.
However, unlike our neighbor to the north, Miami, which has been populated over the last 50+ years by Latin Americans from every Spanish and Portuguese speaking country in the hemisphere, Key West’s immigrants are a whole different kettle of fish altogether.
We have a very large amount of people living and working in Key West, from Eastern Europe. Czechs, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Croatians, Slovinians… the list of Slavs (Hungarians excluded, as they’re not Slavs) is amazing. Mostly they are young adults who come here to work. I had to ask “Wait a minute. You’re from Eastern Europe. How did you decide on Key West?”. The most common answer I get is that either they, or someone they know, worked on a cruise line that had Key West as a port of call. They, like so many others, fell in love with it and, in their case, came here after their contract was over and set themselves up. On the whole, they’re a great group of people.
We also have a large amount of Haitian emigrants here. Hearing their patois is common, especially in the stores in New Town.
So, here we have Native Conchs, Americans like myself, who adopted Key West as their home, Cubans who have immigrated here, or generations from their great, great grandparents who did, Bahamians, Haitians, plus all of these aforementioned Eastern Europeans who speak a myriad of tongues, though related, not conversable. How do we all communicate with each other?
It’s very simple: Everyone in Key West, no matter where they are from, speaks English.
I recall once I was walking on Palm Avenue, by the Garrison Bight Bridge and an Audi slowed down with a man hanging out the window, with only his legs still in the car. They pulled over, but never stopped as he asked me some sort of directions in Spanish. I understand a little Spanish, however his words came out as fast as a 50 caliber machine gun and I didn’t understand him. He was in his early thirties, so I answered in English, “What are you looking for?” He got a discussed look on his face and said “No Espanol???!!!” ( You don’t speak Spanish?) . He slammed the side of the car in frustration with a contorted face and swore at me in Spanish. It was my guess that I wasn’t the first person that didn’t speak Spanish that they ran into in Key West. The driver sped off, as his window hanging partner gave me the finger, while hollering that my mother was a whore in Spanish, and took a left on N. Roosevelt and roared away. It was my guess that they were trying to find their way back to Miami. I empathized with them in a way. Here they were, right in between Miami and Havana. It’s a geographic common sense that Spanish would be spoken everywhere. Additionally, it’s very first name, Cayo Hueso (Bone Key), is Spanish. So it’s kind of an odd anomaly, from a geographic stand point, that English is the language in Key West.
But, no matter where you go in Key West, no matter where they are from on the planet, everyone speaks English.