Cubans and Bilingual Education

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Elizabeth DiLiberto

HON 122

Professor Soto


Cubans and Bilingual Education

Bilingual education, as a broad, umbrella term, encompasses multiple styles of teaching two languages at once. These methods include phasing out the home language entirely to learn English, slowly acclimating to English, or teaching the home language and English simultaneously to promote literacy in both. The degree of effectiveness increases with each respectively named method. Programs to promote learning one or more languages are now available in schools all throughout the country, but had to originate from the first group of people who requested this sort of education. The origins of American bilingual education date back to the community of newly-arrived Cubans in Miami during the 1960s.

One assigned reading for our class, Life in the Hyphen by Ilan Stavans, made reference to this on page 10, stating as follows: “[b]ilingual education, which began in the 1960s in Florida in response to a request from Cubans who wished to allow their children to use Spanish in public schools...” I had not heard this before, nor was it referenced in any of the texts that I had used to do my primary research of bilingual education, so I researched it further. Stavans was correct in saying that Cubans requested bilingual education back in Miami in the 1960s, but there was more to it than that. In fact, I found out that not only did Cubans request bilingual education, but they were the pioneers of it.

Cubans sought refuge in the 1960s due to the revolution, and many of them took residence in Miami, considering how close Florida is to Cuba by way of boat. These refugees did not just cower in the face of their new environment, but rather sought to make a living for themselves where they now stood. The Cubans wanted to establish themselves and participate in society, taking jobs all throughout their neighborhoods, especially in schools (San Miguel Jr.). They took jobs such as “public school teachers, counselors, and other professional staff in the schools” (San Miguel Jr.). Though they were in a new country, they did not want to throw away their roots. So these newly-employed Cuban teachers “helped design bilingual programs, and developed or purchased appropriate Spanish language instructional materials for these programs” (San Miguel Jr.). Knowing that casting away language, such a large part of their identity, could wound their culture, Cubans wanted to keep Spanish as part of the curriculum.

Coral Way K-8 Center, located in Miami and opened in 1936, is the United States’ longest standing and first bilingual school, continuing to operate even today (Martin). Coral Way Elementary School started simply as “a combination of Spanish Heritage and Art Deco designs,” progressed to a pioneer of bilingual education, and is now considered a historic site (Pellerano et al). Though it stood long before, it accommodated those Cuban refugees that came in the 1960s. They employed Cuban employees, took Cuban students, and responded to the desires of aforementioned people to provide Spanish education (Pellerano et al). The school, still continuing with its beliefs of providing such services to the students, even practices the more effective method of dual-language learning, teaching with an almost fifty-fifty split of English and Spanish throughout all academic subjects (Pellerano et al). The strong-willed Cuban immigrants made themselves known at this school, and the school was more than willing to accommodate the desires of these newcomers.

There were a triad of influential women who helped to intially establish bilingual initially within Coral Way Elementary School. One influential woman in the bilingual education movement was Rosa G. Inclan, born in Havana, Cuba back in 1921, who moved to Miami along with many other refugees (San Miguel Jr.). Inclan “helped draft the proposal” which led to the very first bilingual education program in the country (San Miguel Jr.). One of her coworkers, Herminia Cantero, was born in Las Villas, and helped to shape the proposal for bilingual education. Another woman, Illuminada Valle, became the assistant principal of Coral Way Elementary School (San Miguel Jr.). By 1973, 3% of the staff at Coral Way Elementary School were Cubans. These women’s work and influence helped shape the school and the program.

Professor Sullivan and a student of hers, Jonathan, gave a presentation on Cuban culture, Jose Martí, and the Cuba-USA exchanges that have occurred here at CSI. They also spoke anecdotally about Cuban attributes, some of which relate to this. Jonathan mentioned Martí’s influence on Cuban education, as he believed strongly in the importance of education and literacy throughout all classes of people. Jonathan also spoke about how, thanks to this influence and the subsequent changes in the Cuban curriculum, Cuban students learn to be versatile and prepared for life. These students learned not only practical skills, but also learned how to think for themselves. It is clear that Martí’s influence and these mindsets carried over to the Cuban immigrants in Florida. Pioneering such an ambitious program, they managed to retain their culture, one that still persists today in their enclaves, and even spread the idea of bilingual education throughout the rest of the United States.

One theme that we frequently discuss in this class is the retainment of identity. Rather than becoming Americanized and joining into a “melting pot,” most Latino people opt to maintain their culture. Many other immigrants who came here no longer speak their home language after a certain number of generations, and even with those who do, there are far less speakers of said languages than there are of Spanish-speakers in the US (Burton). In fact, Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the US, with almost thirty eight million speakers--over nine times more speakers than the next most common language, Chinese (Burton). As Stavans said, “[b]ilingual education...has reinforced the importance of our first language among Latinos.” This is no different with the Cubans. It is more than clear how Cubans not only wanted to maintain their ways, but also to assert themselves.

Though the Cuban desire to retain their culture may have been a regional plan, the novel idea of bilingual education did not stay confined to just this region. In fact, “[t]he number of Cuban and Latino educators increased in the next several years as the bilingual program expanded into the higher grades and into other schools” (San Miguel Jr.). Not only did the number of Cuban teachers grow, but the prospect of bilingual education spread to other schools. Other cultures, Latino and otherwise, wished to maintain their culture and support immigrants throughout continued education of their home languages and English. Now, in New York City alone, 27% of students are or have been enrolled in a bilingual education program. Starting with just a cluster of schools in Miami and growing into a nationwide phenomenon, it is clear just how extensively bilingual education spread.

Though the origins of bilingual education are from the Cubans in Miami, this affects NYC. “About half of all New Yorkers speak a language other than English at home,” Kate Menken says. Considering that New York City has such a large foreign-born population, one-third, such programs are necessary to those who wish to retain their language (Menken). Even those who do not speak a second language at home can opt to take such classes in NYC. Bilingual education, when done correctly, not only helps immerse people in two languages, but lets those learners share in the culture of both languages they are learning. Without Cubans pioneering these programs, the immigrants and other interested populations of NYC would not be receiving bilingual education like they do today.

Bilingual education, when it is done correctly, is the teaching of two languages simultaneously. This method of education has not always been around in the US, though it is so widespread today. Wishing to retain their language while adopting the language of their new home country, Cuban refugees pioneered the first bilingual education programs in Miami in the 1960s. Coral Way Elementary School is the longest standing bilingual school today, and is largely considered the origin and pioneer of bilingual education programs. Without Cubans wishing to retain their culture and pushing to keep their language intact, the US, and NYC especially, would not have the sort of bilingual education programs that exist today.


Burton, James. “The Most Spoken Languages In America.” World Atlas, 25 Apr. 2017,

“Life in the Hyphen.” The Hispanic Condition: Reflections on Culture and Identity in America, by Ilan Stavans, 1995, p. 10.

Martin, Barbara M. “CORAL WAY K-8 CENTER.”,

Menken, Kate. “From Policy to Practice in the Multilingual Apple: Bilingual Education in New York City.” International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, vol. 14, no. 2, 2011, pp. 121–131.

Pellerano, Cristina, et al. “Newsletter for the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.” Feb. 1998.

San Miguel, Guadalupe. “Shapers of Their Destiny: A History of the Education of Cuban Children in the United States Since 1959.” US-China Education Review B, Apr. 2013,

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