You say tomato and I say tomate

Four old men sitting on a park picnic table talking. I'm one of them. I only know one of the others, and he's well-traveled and has lived among all kinds of people and languages. The other two are complaining precisely about language.

One hails from Massachusetts but now lives in this small city in the Florida Panhandle. He had applied for a job once but was told he had to be bilingual. He said, "I am. I speak Yankee and Rebel." This sets the other old guy I don't know to complaining about Miami, where, he says, no one speaks English. Neither of these two new acquaintances knows I'm Cuban and have lived in Miami. Only recently a local, learning my identity, told me, "You don't look Cuban." I'm used to this, so I let it go by.

I tell the Miami-hater ("I'm never going back there", he has said) that the city's majority is Hispanic and when he asks where I'm from I say I was born in Cuba and lived in Miami for several years. He doesn't say much after that. I don't want animosity, so I explain that the reason for so much Spanish in Miami is market driven. I want to say, you believe in free enterprise, right?, well in a free market economy things like Miami's Spanish-language near dominance happen. But I don't, probably because I'm an intellectual snob who doesn't think these old guys can follow my reasoning. My bad.

Still, if your ATM gives you language choices it's not because banks believe in affirmative action. It's because they believe in banking. In any language. If your TV offers Spanish-language channels it's not because those channels are devoted to community service. It's because Spanish-language TV is profitable.

The market. All that capitalist freedom the US offers leads to a place like Miami. Not that it happened without government interference. But the Cold Warriors who opened the door to exiles from Cuban Communism were not planning a Spanish-speaking city on US soil. However, that's how it turned out. A Spanish-speaking city, much of it, until recently, happily Republican and, still now, happily capitalist. Miami's bilingualism was not created by liberal do-gooders.

But it rubs some people the wrong way. I get it. Heck, I'm on record, in a Wall Street Journal op-Ed piece years ago, sympathizing with Miami Anglo-Americans who wake up one day and are baffled by how their city seems to be in another country. Everybody is selling stuff. In Spanish. The market doesn't care if that language irritates some people as long as those people's buying power is not as strong as that of those who speak the irritating language.

Those of us who are bilingual that way move easily in that environment. However, take me away from my two languages and I'm as disoriented as my Spanish-hating new acquaintances in the park. Driving through Los Angeles with a fellow Cuban-American, we are suddenly confronted with no English-language signage. Everything is in an alphabet, never mind a language, new to us. Turned out it was Korean, which I now can identify but that's all. Two Cubans lost in Koreatown.

At the Brooklyn Academy of Music I seek assistance from an usher. He is a native speaker of English but I can't understand him because my ear is not tuned to West Indian pronunciation and cadence. That's when I become aware that English is not my first language. 

Languages divide us. There's no getting around this. And they come loaded with historical baggage. Spanish and English speakers have not been playing nice with each other for centuries. Of course, animosity exists within one language, as with white and black Americans, which is also huge historical baggage. And not everyone can be bilingual. Some folk just can't let go of their linguistic attachment enough to embrace a new language. Those of us who can may have a certain flexibility, but I think it's all about feeling.

I always loved English. It was the language of the movies and then, oh happy days!, rock and roll. Then it was the language of literature, particularly Shakespeare, whose rich English was not just read but heard on stage. But I've noticed something. No matter how embedded I am in English, when I want to revel in language I turn to Spanish. A long Spanish word pops into my head and I say it out loud just to feel it on my tongue and hear it. I do so with English, but not as much. 

What would my park bench neighbor think if he witnessed not just Spanish being spoken in his home country, where as far as he's concerned only English should be spoken, but another geezer, whom he did not suspect was Hispanic, mouthing words in Spanish to no one in particular?

Build that wall, quickly! They're letting the crazies in.