Commentary: When your actions do speak louder
SAN DIEGO -- Hotelier Larry Whitten should have known this much: When in New Mexico, do as the New Mexicans do.
That sounds familiar. It's ironic that the cultural right -- i.e. those who feel insulted about having to "press one for English" and say that immigrants should adapt to the mainstream -- would now change their tune and defend a tone-deaf hotel owner who arrogantly bucked the tide in a majority-Latino land founded by Spanish explorers nearly 500 years ago.
Whitten recently became nationally infamous for firing some of his employees for speaking Spanish. Whitten, a transplant from Texas, told The Associated Press that he was worried that his employees might be talking about him.
"I asked the people in my presence to speak only English because I do not understand Spanish," Whitten said. "I've been working 24 years in Texas and we have a lot of Spanish people there. I've never had to ask anyone to speak only English in front of me because I've never had a reason to."
Did you get that? For more than two decades, Whitten lived in Texas, a state where Hispanics account for more than a third of the population. And, during that time, he worked in the hospitality industry with what he admits were plenty of "Spanish people." Yet he never felt the need to learn even a few words of Spanish in order to communicate.
This would be just another skirmish in the language wars if not for the fact that Whitten went further and also fired employees who refused to Anglicize their names -- "Maria" becomes "Mary," "Jose" becomes "Joe," etc. He said he was worried that tourists might be uncomfortable if employees' names were hard to understand or difficult to pronounce.
Yeah, Maria and Jose are real tongue twisters. My goodness, how do these people survive the trauma of being in a restaurant and trying to order huevos rancheros?
"It has nothing to do with racism," Whitten said of his policies.
For a businessman, Whitten doesn't seem to know much about drumming up business. Generally speaking, I would think that those who succeed in the hospitality industry are those who are the most welcoming to the largest number of people. Forcing folks to abandon their language and culture, even their names, sends the opposite message. So does closing the door on a whole segment of the market.
In fact, when I first heard about the story, I typed some keywords -- "New Mexico," "innkeeper," "Spanish" -- into a search engine, but all that came up were references to some of Whitten's competitors. Other hotels in New Mexico are advertising the fact that their employees speak Spanish. New Mexico draws a lot of visitors from Old Mexico, especially among the wealthy.
Whitten obviously wasn't thinking about those people. Perhaps he was too busy thinking about people like him, the kind who are frightened by cultural differences.
Such narrow-mindedness can get you in trouble in New Mexico, according to Laura Gomez, a law professor at the University of New Mexico who is also a sociologist.
"As much as there is still economic domination (in New Mexico)," Gomez told me, "there isn't social and political domination by Anglos. That's what this really rubbed against."
It's also significant to Gomez that many of the fired hotel employees weren't immigrants but native New Mexicans, whose families have lived in the state for several generations.
But many U.S.-born Hispanics have had, over the years, the luxury of "passing" for Anglo by, say, changing their names. That was common practice a few generations ago, and it's not something many want to see come back into style.
This is another reason that Hispanics all over the country are not likely to let go of this story -- or to let Larry Whitten off the hook.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.