The choice of whether to address a stranger in English or Spanish is often a split-second decision -- one which has provoked much conversation in the Latino community. Is one more polite? Is one more political?
For many, deciding between "Hola" and "Hello" depends on clues such as age, neighborhood and physical traits. But in Miami, some residents say, greeting a stranger in Spanish is more commonplace than in any other high-density Latino city in the U.S.
Eileen Zelek, a Miami native whose father is from Connecticut and whose mother is from Cuba, says she has become used to being greeted in Spanish in her hometown.
"You could definitely get around Miami speaking only Spanish," Zelek said. "But it'd be a lot harder speaking only English."
Zelek's father, a lawyer in the city, learned Spanish when they decided to start a family in Miami. Zelek says her father wouldn't be "as comfortable" in the city had he not learned Spanish.
While some, like Zelek's father, have learned Spanish in order to live in Miami, critics say the rapid "Hispanization" of the city has marginalized non-Latinos and driven away non-Spanish speakers.
Linguist Andrew Lynch, who studies Spanish-usage in Miami as a professor at the University of Miami, says that although he is not Latino, he is greeted in Spanish on a regular basis.
Lynch also noted that this doesn't happen as much when he visits other cities with high Latino populations.
"One thing I noticed when I was in San Antonio was that no matter how much I tried to speak Spanish to cab drivers, they continued speaking to me English," he said. "But in my experience, and in my research, in Miami if you speak to people in Spanish, they'll most often respond in Spanish, and continue the conversation that way."
Miami and Language, By the Numbers
While the majority of Miami's population is Latino and Spanish-speaking, Miami is no more Latino than many border towns -- where residents say Spanish isn't necessary to get by.
By 2010 Census estimates, 16.3 percent of the total U.S. population -- 50,477,594 -- is Latino. In Miami-Dade County, Latinos represent 65 percent of the population. In contrast, El Paso County, which borders Mexico, is 82 percent Latino.
According to linguistics Professor Jon Amastae at the University of Texas at El Paso, most interactions in El Paso start off in English, and then switch to Spanish when it becomes apparent that both speakers can converse more easily in Spanish.
"What you tend to get in El Paso is the very first exchange in English and rapid change to Spanish if the speaker senses you speak their language," Amastae says.
El Paso, Amastae said, is a great place to go if you're already bilingual, but not a great place to go to become bilingual. Why?
"Simply because everyone is so adept at switching, that they'll switch to whatever you speak," Amastae said.
Military personnel stationed at bases nearby have even expressed frustration that they have not picked up Spanish as they had hoped because El Paso residents will only speak English with them, Amastae says.
While a larger percentage of El Paso's population is Latino and Spanish speaking, those who do speak Spanish are also more likely to report speaking English "very well" in El Paso than in Miami.
Census data from 2009 indicates that among people at least five years old living in Miami-Dade County, 61.7 percent speak Spanish at home. And 31.7 percent speak Spanish at home, but don't speak English "very well." In contrast, among the same segment of the population in El Paso County, 73 percent said they speak Spanish at home. But, 29 percent of those over the age of five speak Spanish at home and don't speak English "very well."
Vanessa Martucci, a Miami native of Cuban descent, lived in Los Angeles for five years as a college student and in Austin, Texas, for one year for graduate school. Even though both cities having large Hispanic populations, she says she's hardly ever been greeted in Spanish in either city. Last week in the Austin airport, she was taken aback when a stranger addressed her in Spanish.
"This woman started speaking to me in Spanish, and I was just kind of shocked. It was so out of the norm for me -- for someone in Texas to automatically assume that I speak Spanish," she said in a phone interview. "But that kind of thing happened all the time to me in Miami."
Miami's Unique Latino Migration
The prevalence of the Spanish language in Miami may have more to do with the city's unique immigrant history than with the percentage of Spanish speakers within its limits.
In contrast with El Paso, which has had Latino inhabitants since its founding in 1850 (and was part of Mexico until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848), in the younger city of Miami, Hispanics tend to be more recent arrivals. And the segment of Latino immigrants Miami has attracted also varies from those in cities close to the U.S.-Mexico border.
"The percentage of Latino immigrants belonging to the middle and upper socioeconomic classes in their countries of origin has been much higher in Miami than in other areas of the country," linguist Andrew Lynch said. "In the last sixty years, we've seen the arrival of many highly educated, entrepreneurial immigrants from around Latin America."
Lynch says the city's unique immigration history has made it such that Miami's populace sees "Spanish as a prestigious language and not at all linguistically subordinate to English." Lynch thinks this perspective may be why Spanish is used so often in restaurants, at stores and on the street.
Eileen Zelek, who lived in Miami for most of her life, says that she thinks the prevalence of Spanish in the city may have to do with the lack of "stigma" associated with speaking the language.
"The people who are in highest level of power economically and politically tend to be Latino or Hispanic-- so there’s no stigma in speaking Spanish, really," Zelek said. "In fact, it's almost expected that you speak Spanish."