The Key West Mystique

Key West Island News


Key West Island News connects Key West residents and friends of the island, fosters our One Human Family culture and advances understanding of shared goals for our island community

Speak Spanish

Do you speak Spanish? No? That could be a problem

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


I paid just enough attention in high school Spanish class to learn two things: How to ask where the bathrooms are and that Castilian Spanish, which my teacher preferred, bore little resemblance to the Spanish I’d need should I ever escape my West Virginia bubble. I certainly didn’t learn to speak Spanish.

(Later I also learned that West Virginia English also bore little resemblance to what I’d need should I not remain in the hollers. That’s a story for another day.)

I couldn’t be bothered to learn Spanish. I can sort of read Spanish, thanks to two years of Latin in middle school. I can, again, sort of, follow along with a grade school conversation. But speak Spanish? No. It’s embarrassing to admit that I’m barely one step above the guidance counselor who decided our Colombian exchange student wasn’t going to get his high school diploma “because his transcript is in Spanish.”

Julian came home from school one day in tears. He wasn’t, he said, going to graduate. Since he had nothing but top grades and had already graduated from his Colombian high school, I figured I’d call and see why.

Simple, said the counselor. “We can’t read his transcripts because they’re in Spanish.” I gently allowed as how she could get off her cushy backside and walk down the hall a few feet and ask the Spanish teacher to translate. Or perhaps I could get the translation done for her? She hemmed and hawed until I suggested this might make a decent newspaper story. Julian got his diploma.

Key West is a Spanish-speaking town. No surprise there, considering centuries of sister-island connections to Cuba. In 14.4 percent of homes, Spanish is the primary language. Eighty percent of us speak primarily English at home — though neither factors in dual-language speakers in the home. (Inglés is not the official language of the United States, by the way. We don’t have one. It is the official language of about 20 other countries, including Canada.)

Speak Spanish

Multi-lingual cultures: the foundation of One Human Family

So, why should we in Key West care if all we can speak is English? Because in 2025, for the first time, Florida’s non-Hispanic white people are predicted to make up less than half of the state’s population. Read that again. People who look like me and probably you, too, will be in the minority.

The demographic sea change is stunning. In 1980 only one in 12 Florida residents was Hispanic. Today that number is one in four. Two decades from now, Florida’s Hispanic population will be at least 33 percent. In Key West the Hispanic population is already 24 percent and could be closer to 30 percent when people of two-or-more races are included.

“Hispanic” is an umbrella word used to describe someone whose country of ancestry speaks primarily Spanish. One can be Hispanic and not speak a word of Spanish, especially if one’s family didn’t insist on preserving language and culture. Sort of like I can claim Italian ancestry, but can’t speak a word of Italian except for ordering off a menu.

In Key West the Hispanic ancestry is largely Cuban. In New Jersey, it’s significantly Puerto Rican. In Miami, it’s mostly Cuban for now, but with a steady river of immigration from Spanish-speaking South America. In Texas, Hispanic ancestry is primarily Mexican. And though they speak Spanish, it’s not the same Spanish and the cultures can be vastly different. In short, it’s not a good idea to conflate Hispanic ancestries.

Key West probably instinctively understands the ways culture, ancestry and language shape a community, given our two-century-long intermingling. From the recipes in our cookbooks to the festivals and parades, we’ve unconsciously created an amalgamation of cultures that underpin the island’s sense of place. We’re pretty adept at smoothing out the edges among whites of western European descent, Cubans from at least three major migrations, both Black and white Bahamians and most recently an assortment of eastern Europeans, South Americans and Haitians.

We’re not wholly off-base when we call ourselves One Human Family. Our spoken languages, however, remain a barrier to deeper cross-cultural awareness. For the rest of my life, because I couldn’t be bothered to learn Spanish, I will never fully “get it.” It’s way past time for English-only Americans to follow the rest of the world, where switching, even in mid-sentence, from one’s primary language to English is just the way it’s done.

And, in Florida, that means Spanish AND English.


1 Comment

  1. Diane McKinney



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