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AUTHOR "Gabriela Alfaraz"

TITLE "Miami Cuban Perceptions of Varieties of Spanish"




WIDTH "150"


C 1

Miami Cuban Perceptions of Varieties of Spanish

Gabriela Alfaraz

1. Introduction/Background

Since the late 1950’s metropolitan Miami, located in Dade county at the southeast tip of
the Florida peninsula, has received four waves of mass migration from Cuba provoked by
political unrest in that country. In the early years of the exodus, Cubans considered their
migration a temporary situation and remained in Miami to await a change in political
events, particularly because of its similarity and proximity to the home island. Later
migrants found Miami appealing because they could readily find employment, not only in
the non-skilled occupations typically filled by immigrants, but also in professional and
technical fields since Miami had become a bilingual, bicultural city, the gateway to Latin
America. As a result, Miami is the principal ethnic enclave for Cubans and Cuban-
Miami was reported as having the highest concentration of foreign-born persons
(59.9%) of all metropolitan areas with populations over 200,000, based on the results of
the 1990 U. S. Census (County and City Data Book, 1994). Persons of Hispanic origin
accounted for 51% of the total population in 1990, and, of the total number of Hispanics,
Cubans made up 59%, Puerto Ricans 8%, Mexicans 2%, and the remaining 31% were
persons of South or Central American origin. Since the 1990 census, the Cuban population
in Miami has increased substantially as a result of a new wave of immigration from Cuba
during the mid 1990’s. The number of Cubans legally admitted to the U. S. jumped from
the previous year by 22% in 1995, 48% in 1996 and 27% in 1997. The U. S. Immigration
and Naturalization Service reports that 77,990 Cubans were legally admitted into the U. S.
between 1995 and 1997. While some new arrivals agree to be relocated to other states,
many decide to remain in Miami; 84% of Cubans who entered the U. S. in 1995 stayed in
the Miami area.
The high concentration of foreign-born individuals and the large numbers of new
immigrants from Cuba and other Latin American countries has made Miami a bilingual
city with large concentrations of monolingual Spanish speakers who live and work in a
mainly Spanish speaking environment. Miami was ranked as the number one metropolitan

area in the U. S. in which persons speak a language other than English at home, with
73.3% of individuals reporting the use of another language (U. S. Census Bureau, County
and City Data Book, 1994). For individuals of Hispanic origin the number is even higher:
95% reported speaking Spanish at home. The relationship between Spanish and English
in Miami cannot be characterized as diglossic (Ferguson, 1959), in which English is used
in public domains and Spanish in private ones, but rather as bilingual since both languages
are used in either public or private domains (Fishman, 1970). In spite of Miami’s bilingual
character, Spanish is the only language used by thousands of monolingual Spanish
speakers in their public affairs.
As a result of the wide-spread public use of Spanish, the large number of monolin-
gual speakers, and the constant stream of new Spanish-speaking immigrants, Miami
Cubans are involved in two different dialect contact situations. The first is transparent:
Cuban Spanish is in contact with other Spanish varieties, whose speakers accounted for
over 30% of the population of metropolitan Miami in the 1990 Census and whose
numbers are currently estimated to be much higher. The second contact situation is more
complex because it involves the contact of the Cuban variety with itself at two different
points in time. My research in the Miami Cuban community prior to this study revealed
that many Cubans believed one variety was spoken before the Revolution in 1959 and that
another had arisen after that time. In other words, the Spanish of the immigrants who
arrived in the 1960s, 1970s, and even 1980s, and the Spanish of young immigrants who
had arrived in the 1990s were considered two different varieties.
This study has two objectives:
1. to examine Miami Cubans’ perceptions of the many varieties of Spanish involved in
the contact situation in order to determine the factors involved in those perceptions,
2. to examine Miami Cubans’ perceptions of their own variety at two different points
in time, before and after 1959, in order to explore the effects of differences in
political ideology on the perception of dialect boundaries.
The following sections will describe the methodology used and will present and discuss
the results obtained from the statistical analysis of the data in light of the two research
objectives noted above.

2. Method

The methodology used in this study is the one developed by Preston (1986, 1988, 1989)
to elicit evaluative data about dialects. A questionnaire was administered in which
respondents rated on a seven-point scale the correctness and pleasantness of Latin
American varieties, a generic variety referred to as Peninsular Spanish, and two varieties
of Cuban Spanish, representing the variety before and after the Cuban Revolution in 1959,
henceforth referred to as Cuba-Pre and Cuba-Post. The varieties were represented by the
countries in which they are spoken, and respondents were given the opportunity to add

any regions they considered distinct, but only one respondent made an addition to the list,
suggesting that for Spanish speakers the geopolitical entity is representative of the variety
of Spanish.
Data collection was carried out in Miami, Florida in 1997. One hundred and forty-
eight questionnaires were collected from a demographically diverse population of Cubans.
The respondents included 93 (63%) females and 55 (37%) males. The age composition
was as follows: 24% were between the ages of 20 and 29, 19% 30–39, 15% 40–49, 14%
50–59, and 28% 60 years old and above. The socioeconomic status of the respondents was
calculated using an index combining education and occupation, and respondents were
placed in four subgroups: 35% were upper middle class, 27% lower middle class, 32%
upper working class, and 9% lower working class.
An attempt was made to collect data from respondents who had arrived in both early
and later waves of immigration. Respondents reported the year in which they had arrived
in the U. S., which was later classified as one of four periods of immigration (Llanes,
1982; García & Otheguy, 1988) with an additional category included to account for
respondents born in the U. S. of Cuban parents. Respondents who arrived during the first
and second waves of immigration and their interludes, a twenty-year period extending
from 1959 through 1979, make up 40% of those questioned; 11% arrived during the third
wave and its interlude between 1980 and 1990; 33% are arrivals from the most recent
immigration between 1991 and 1997; 5% arrived in the U. S. prior to 1959; 11% were
born in the U. S.
Respondents were asked not only about their social network affiliations but also to
estimate the number of Cubans among their friends and colleagues. The majority (67%)
reported that most of their affiliations were Cuban. 17% claimed all their friends and
colleagues were Cuban. 12% reported that half their social network affiliations were
Cubans. Only 3% interacted with few Cubans, and just one respondent (0.7%) claimed
there were no Cubans in his social network.
The following section describes the results of the questionnaire and discusses the

3. Results

The varieties of Latin American, Cuban (before and after 1959), and Peninsular Spanish
were evaluated according to how correct and pleasant they were perceived to be on a
seven-point scale, with a ranking of one as the least favorable and seven the most. Figures
1.1 and 1.2 show the results for correct and pleasant. In general, the ratings for pleasant-
ness tend to reflect the correctness ratings. Although Cuba-Pre was rated slightly higher
for pleasant than for correct (6.22 vs. 5.98), there were no remarkable differences in the
ratings of the other varieties, suggesting that these respondents are oriented toward the
status dimension represented by correctness rather than to the solidarity dimension
represented by pleasantness.
Mean Scores

Mean Scores

Spain Cuba-Pre
Cuba-Pre Argentina
Argentina Colombia
Chile Costa Rica
Costa Rica

Figure 1.1. Mean scores for correct.

Figure 1.2. Mean scores for pleasant.



V ar ie tie s

El Salvador
El Salvador
Cuba-Post Cuba-Post

Nicaragua Nicaragua

Mexico Mexico

Honduras Honduras

Puerto Rico Puerto Rico

Dom. Rep. Dom. Rep.

3.1 Perceptions of Varieties of Spanish

As Figure 1.1 indicates a generic Peninsular variety was selected as most correct with a
mean score of 6.35. The second most correct variety, with a rating of 5.98, was Cuba-Pre.
These results show that the respondents hold Peninsular Spanish in high regard as a sort
of supra-regional standard. They also suggest that they consider their own regional variety
as prestigious as the original European norm and most prestigious among Latin American
varieties. Similarly high evaluations of Cuban Spanish on a status dimension were given
by the Cuban judges in a matched-guise study carried out by Castellanos (1980). She
reports that “Cubans consistently assigned higher ratings to all the questions about their
own variety. Even when they made a mistake and identified another variety as Cuban,
they gave it a higher score” (1980, p. 77, my translation).
Other varieties rated highly for correctness were the Argentinean (5.17) and Colombian
(5.14) ones. However, a significant drop in the mean ratings distinguishes Cuba-Pre from
these two varieties. The ratings for most of the other Latin American varieties are within the
4.0 to 5.0 range. The lowest ratings are given to the two neighboring Caribbean varieties of
Spanish, Puerto Rican (3.83) and Dominican (3.73). The latter are interesting because they
show that, although Cubans are aware of and accept the stigmatization of other varieties
of Caribbean Spanish, they do not recognize that their own variety belongs to that group,
in spite of the fact that the linguistic features of Cuban Spanish are more like those of
Puerto Rican and Dominican Spanish than those of Peninsular or Argentinean varieties.
These perceptions are similar to those described by Preston (1993, 1996) for Southern
Indiana respondents, who are speakers of a stigmatized variety but manage to exempt
themselves from this status by downgrading their Southern neighbors and aligning them-
selves with their northern, eastern and western ones. While Preston’s Southern Indiana
respondents detected a linguistic boundary separating them from their neighbors directly
across the river in Kentucky, Cubans perceive a dialect boundary that sharply distinguishes
their dialect from the dialects of the neighboring Spanish speaking Caribbean islands.
Preston (e.g., 1996) has noted that nonlinguists’ perceptions of dialect divisions may
not actually correspond to the dialect boundaries proposed by dialectologists since social,
political or historical facts may lead to the belief that there is a linguistic boundary where
in reality there is none. In their study of Turkish perceptions, Demirci & Kleiner (2000)
found that the evaluation of regional dialects in Turkey is strongly influenced by the par-
ticular social, political, economic and linguistic circumstances of the group being studied.
Dailey-O’Cain’s (2000) study of post-unification Germany revealed the effects of political
differences and separation on Germans’ perceptions of eastern and western dialects.

3.1.1 The role of race and economic development

The correct and pleasant ratings of varieties of Spanish appear to follow a regional pattern
since the varieties of South America are perceived as more correct and pleasant than those
of Central America, which, in turn, are perceived as more correct and pleasant than
Caribbean ones. However, there are exceptions (e.g., Costa Rica, Cuba-Pre) which cannot
be explained on the basis of the salience of region.

Degree of economic development and racial composition are two factors which
appear to be more salient than region in accounting for these perceptions. Economic devel-
opment was identified by Demirci & Kleiner (2000) as playing a key role in the evalua-
tion of regional speech in Turkey. They found that more impoverished regions tended to
receive lower ratings than more prosperous areas. Ethnic composition was also identified
by Demirci & Kleiner (2000) as a salient feature underlying perceptions, noting that
regions with predominantly European populations received more favorable evaluations.
The relevance of economic development and racial composition as salient factors
underlying the Miami Cuban perceptions was explored using correlation tests. The
findings for economic development showed a substantial relationship (r = 0.667, p = 0.001,
two-tailed) between the evaluation of the variety on the correctness dimension and the
gross domestic product of the country it represents. In general, the varieties evaluated
most positively were those of the more prosperous regions. One exception was Puerto
Rico, which was down-graded even though it had the third highest gross domestic product
after Cuba-Pre and Spain. One reason for this could be that Puerto Ricans in the US have
the highest poverty level of all Hispanic groups, according to the United States Census
Bureau, and that information is more salient for Miami Cubans than the prosperity of the
island of Puerto Rico. The role of race in these evaluations must also be considered.
The results for the correlation test on the correctness ratings of varieties and the racial
composition of the region they represent also revealed a statistically significant (r = 0.584;
p = .007, two-tailed) relationship. The countries which are predominately white receive the
highest ratings, followed by regions that are mostly mestizo (white and South or Central
American Indian), then the areas that are predominately indio (South or Central American
Indian). The region that is predominately black, the Dominican Republic, is perceived as
the least correct variety of Spanish. Castellanos (1980) proposed race as an underlying
element in the general stigmatization of Caribbean Spanish.

3.2 Cuban Spanish

The results for correct and pleasant shown above in Figures 1.1 and 1.2 indicate that
Cuba-Pre and Cuba-Post are perceived as distinct varieties. On both dimensions, the
evaluation of Cuba-Pre was the second highest, ranking only after the prestigious
Peninsular Spanish, whereas the evaluation of Cuba-Post is among the lowest.
The two factors underlying perceptions of other varieties may also be used to explain the
different evaluations of Cuba-Pre and Cuba-Post. For instance, race was highlighted in
respondents’ comments as an important element in the down-grading of Cuba-Post. Many
respondents expressed the belief that the racial composition of the island had changed, having
become predominately black. An older upper middle class female respondent (Manuela) who
had immigrated from Cuba the year before stated: “Es que la cantidad de negros que hay en La
Habana es extraordinaria. En Cuba entera.” (It’s that the number of blacks in Havana is
extraordinary. In all of Cuba.) When I asked her why she believed Cubans on the island
spoke differently now compared to thirty-some years ago, she replied, “Bueno, hablan
muy anegrado” (Well, they talk very black-like). The exchange with her continued as follows:

Gabriela: Tu dices que en Cuba hablan muy anegrado, ¿cómo es eso?

You say that in Cuba (they) speak very black-like, how is that?
Manuela: Si ane- anegrado en el sentido de las expresiones.
Yes, bla- black-like in terms of the expressions.
Gabriela: De las expresiones.
Of the expressions.
Manuela: Si de las expresiones, de lo chabacano.
Yes of the expressions, of the sloppiness.
Gabriela: Pero no la pronunciación.
But not the pronunciation.
Manuela: Si si::: todo todo. La pronunciación, la tonalidad de la voz.
Yes yes everything everything. Pronunciation, tone of voice.
Gabriela: ¿De qué vendrá eso? ¿Qué raíces tiene?
Where does that come from? What roots does (it) have?
Manuela: Las raíces que tiene son africanas. Africanas. Porque en Cuba
The roots it has are African. African. Because in Cuba
actualmente, o cuando yo salí, había una tendencia a lo africano.
now, or when I left, there was a tendency toward what’s African.
The black-like features of Cuban Spanish on the island, according to this respondent,
result from a revival of pride in Afro-Cuban heritage and are evident in lexical as well as
phonological aspects. It seems that Miami Cubans believe that if the predominant race on
the island is black, and if Cubans on the island are positively oriented to Afro-Cuban
cultural and social influences, then Cuban Spanish on the island is a reflection of the
highly stigmatized Afro-Cuban variety.
Perhaps the low ratings of Cuba-Post can be accounted for by the fact that for Miami
Cubans, who are predominately white and have the highest income levels of Hispanics in
the U. S. and in other countries, including Spain, the positive evaluation of a variety
reflects the white race and the economic prosperity of the variety’s speakers. However,
there is a more significant factor underlying these perceptions which cannot be ignored:
political ideology.
An important characteristic of the Cuban group in Miami is its political activism and
interests in Miami, the U. S., and Cuba, which are vital elements in the group’s sense of
unity and distinctiveness. The political nature of the Miami Cuban community motivates
the rejection of all aspects of Cuba-Post, whether political, cultural, artistic or linguistic.
Language, as a symbol of group membership, is used to build up group boundaries
between different political ideologies. The linguistic boundary the group perceives
between its variety and the one spoken on the island serves an important separatist
function, as it is necessary to distinguish Miami Cubans from Cubans on the island.
The results of a K-means cluster analysis using the correctness scores provided strong
evidence that politics was more salient than either race or economic development in
accounting for Cubans’ perceptions of their own variety at two different points in time,
before and after the 1959 Revolution.

The K-means cluster analysis was carried out in order to place the varieties into
groups based on the relative numerical distance between them. When asked to cluster the
varieties into three groups, the following emerged from the analysis: one cluster contained
Spain and Cuba-Pre, another contained Cuba-Post, and a third cluster included all other
varieties. When the number of clusters was expanded to five, the varieties from Argentina
and Colombia were grouped separately in clusters four and five respectively, revealing a
small tendency for respondents to distinguish these two from the other varieties. These
results reflect the common folk belief that Colombian Spanish is the Latin American
standard. When the number of clusters was reduced to four, however, Colombian Spanish
fell into the large group of other varieties, but Argentinean Spanish persisted as a separate
cluster. This variety’s positive evaluation on the status and solidarity dimensions reflected
the racial and economic characteristics of its speakers: Argentina is predominately white,
and it is has the highest gross domestic product in Latin America (with the exception of
Puerto Rico, which was noted earlier). Reducing the clusters to three, however, caused
Argentina to fall into the large group of South and Central American varieties and left
Cuba-Post and Cuba-Pre with Spain in the two remaining clusters.
These statistical results show most clearly the effects of political events on the
shaping of a speech community’s perceptions of dialect boundaries. Cuba-Pre is grouped
with Peninsular Spanish, a reflection of Cubans’ beliefs about their strong cultural
resemblance to the white European Spaniard, whereas Cuba-Post occupies a separate
cluster, symbolizing its distinctiveness and exclusion. The politically charged context
surrounding the two varieties of Cuban Spanish is responsible for the perception of a
linguistic boundary between Miami and the island.
Respondents readily provided comments about what they believe is the source of the
differences between Cuba-Pre and Cuba-Post. One young female respondent who had
arrived from Cuba one year before reported: “Actualmente se habla un español horrible.
Esta muy chabacan. Antes se hablaba mejor.” (The Spanish spoken [in Cuba] now is
horrible. It’s very sloppy. People used to speak better.) When she was asked why she
thought this was so, she responded: “No sé, pero se han perdido muchos valores.” (I don’t
know, but many values have been lost.) Other respondents provided similar comments
about what they believed was a loss of values and moral principles in Cuba as the source
of linguistic impoverishment, attributing the situation to the island’s political stance.
Another common argument respondents give for down-grading Cuba-Post is that they
feel that individuals in Cuba must adapt to the system, and, as one older woman pointed
out, “part of that involves the way of speaking”. Another respondent stated that the
government in Cuba had carried out a campaign to corrupt Cuban Spanish to celebrate the
triumph of the proletariat. The system is bad and has made the language of the people
who live within that system bad, too. Dailey-O’Cain’s (2000) study in post-unification
Germany specifically addressed the effects of the cold war on dialect perceptions. It
reported that West Germans’ perceptions of East German varieties were negatively
affected by their former political differences, as evidenced by the fact that West Germans
gave lower ratings to eastern varieties than to western ones, while East Germans rated
eastern and western varieties similarly for correctness.

The results of an ANOVA, shown in Figure 1.3, indicate that recent Cuban immi-
grants behave differently from East Germans when evaluating their own variety. Year of
arrival in the U. S. was statistically significant for the evaluations of Cuba-Post correct, but
it was not significant for ratings of Cuba-Pre. As Figure 1.3 shows, recent Cuban
immigrants (those who arrived between 1991 and 1997) gave lower ratings to Cuba-Post,
their own variety, than to Cuba-Pre. The mean correctness rating for Cuba-Post for new
arrivals was 5.1, which is significantly higher than the ratings given by the other groups,
whose ratings range between 2.7 and 3.7. The down-grading of Cuba-Post by recent
arrivals appears to reflect their desire to disassociate from the island in order to avoid the
negative sentiments of the Miami Cuban community toward all aspects of Cuba-Post, as
discussed earlier. At the same time, new arrivals signal their loyalty to the Miami group
by accepting its attitudes toward Cuban Spanish on the island.

Mean Score


US Born Pre-1959 1959–79 1980–90 1991–97


Figure 1.3. Ratings for correct of Cuba-Pre and Cuba-Post by time of arrival (Cuba-Post N=113,
df=4, f=4.79, p=0.001; Cuba-Pre, N=236, df=4, f=0.087, p=0.986).

Finally, the positive evaluation of Cuba-Pre for both correct and pleasant (shown in
Figures 1.1 and 1.2) reveals the Miami Cuban speech community’s preference for its own
variety to express status, represented by correct, and solidarity, represented by pleasant.
Ryan, Giles & Sebastian (1982) stated that a strong preference for the in-group variety on
both the status and solidarity dimensions was common among groups of political activists,

such as the “Black Power Movement, Chicano Movement, Basque Liberation Movement”
(10), because the group variety is a symbol of its political interests. For Cubans, such
language perceptions appear not only to serve a unifying function but also to serve to
maintain the group’s distinctiveness, both from Cubans on the island and other Hispanics
in the contact situation.

4. Conclusions

One of the objectives of this study was to examine the perceptions of Cubans in Miami
toward other varieties of Spanish with which they are in contact in order to make
generalizations about the salient factors underlying dialect perceptions. A second objective
was to examine the perceptions of Miami Cubans toward their own variety at two
different points in time, before and after the Revolution of 1959. The results showed that
Miami Cubans evaluated Cuba-Pre as more correct and more pleasant than all other
varieties, with the exception of Peninsular Spanish, which received the highest ratings.
Race and economic development both correlated with perceptions. The findings indicated
that the variety of Spanish now spoken on the island (Cuba-Post) is perceived as less
correct and less pleasant by all Cubans regardless of their length of residence in the U. S.,
although recent arrivals tended to rate it less harshly. Although race and economic
development play a role in these perceptions, it appears that that political ideology is the
most important factor. Lastly, Miami Cuban perceptions serve to both unify the group and
to distinguish it from other Hispanics in the contact situation and, more importantly, from
Cubans on the island.


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