Miami: America’s Montreal

It’s Canada Day, and Americans are yawning from sea to shining sea. But I’d be remiss not to take the opportunity to draw a fantastical parallel between our friends to the north and south.

Last week in Miami, I met up with my friend Mark who edits Latin Business Chronicle and is a recent New York transplant to the Magic City. We got to talking about linguistic issues, and how predominant Spanish is everywhere in Miami these days and Mark made an astute observation. “It’s America’s Montreal”, he said, where it might look and feel like anywhere else but culturally another reality reigns supreme.

Much like it feels after touching down at Trudeau International Airport, It takes less than five seconds in the American Airlines terminal in Miami to realize you’ve arrived in a different place. Beyond the signs in Spanish, and the Cuban coffee on offer at La Carreta for 85¢, you’re confronted with a world that looks a lot different than the one you came from, be it from Los Angeles or Lima. The same way that Montreal looks like America but feels like Europe, Miami looks like the U.S. and feels like Latin America.

Equal Opportunity Spanish

It’s a world where someone like me with bright red hair and vaguely Northern European features gets addressed in Spanish at toll booths and pharmacies. It’s a world where restaurants put 18% tips automatically on your bill because, well, foreigners don’t tip. It’s a world where even Brazilians awkwardly ask you “¿hablas español?” in their clearly foreign accent. And it’s also a world where it seems like you’re imposing on people in day to day situations by making them respond in English.

Bucking the trends across the rest of the U.S., where Latin American immigrants (particularly those from Mexico) are “integrating” into American life and English expression much in the same way that Europeans did in the early 20th Century, Miami has become America’s most Spanish-speaking major city.

It stands to reason, with nearly 65% of Miami’s population identifying as Latino in the last census and 72.3% stating they speak a language other than English at home. That’s a higher percentage that speaks Spanish in Miami than those speaking French in Montreal.

Not Latin America, but not the U.S. either, the small strip of land between Broward County and the Florida Keys inhabit a strange place in the U.S. and Latin American imagination.

Pitbull vs. Prada

Much like Montreal, it’s this exotic character that makes the city a perennial draw for tourists. Both Americans and Latin Americans go for different reasons, of course. While Americans come for sun, Latin Americans come for shopping. When Americans come to go wild, Latin Americans come to decompress. Where Americans see disarray and chaos, Latin Americans see law and order.

And these Latin American visitors are even different than the majority Latin population already established in Miami. They tend to be either wealthy or appearing so. According to a report in America Economia, “around 690,000 Brazilians visited Miami in 2012, an increase of 8.8% over the previous year, and they are estimated to have spend $1.5 billion”, an average of more than $2,100 per visitor. This rings as true for the Venezuelans and Argentines, Colombians and Peruvians. Foreigners now represent more than 70% of all tourism to Miami, so why should anyone be speaking English anyway but for the record number of Canadian visitors?

They’re also planting down roots more often, but in a different way than immigrants past. Cubans who came didn’t have much choice but to stay, plus the wet-foot, dry-foot policy meant they had no reason to leave. Now they buy a piece of the Miami dream, pushing up prices for prime properties and putting a spring in the step of an otherwise bankrupt housing market in the Sunshine State. The chart below, courtesy of the Miami Association of Realtors, breaks down the trend.

Miami Realtors Guide

Neither here nor there, neither better nor worse, it’s just different. Lonely Planet put it best a few years back, claiming the “best thing about Miami was its proximity to the United States”.

Florida’s official language might be English, but for Miami residents new and old, Latin Americans who love the feeling of being at home in the U.S., and Americans looking for an exotic escape from the ordinary without roaming charges, linguistic limbo is a small price to pay.

Vive la différence!

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