At first, I thought I was listening to a Saturday Night Live skit or some radio station prank.
Larry Whitten, the owner of a hotel in Taos, N.M., forbade the Hispanic workers at his hotel from speaking Spanish in front of him and told them to change their Hispanic-sounding names. Eduardo would be Edward, Martinez would be Martin, Rivera would be Rivers and so on. He defends his decision by saying that Anglicized names are less offensive and threatening to guests. He also said he didn’t like it when workers were speaking Spanish in his presence because he couldn’t tell if they were talking about him.
While I might not have a problem with his demand that his employees not speak Spanish in front of him — it’s bad manners — I think his demand that they change their names is ridiculous. I don’t care if a person’s name is Soth, Sato or Sullivan.
I am of the firm belief that English should be the primary language in the United States. In order to gain citizenship in this country, one must know how to read, write and speak English. But I’m willing to make concessions, unlike Whitten or Greater Lowell Technical School Committee member Mike Hayden, who, on his home answering machine, greets callers with the message: “If you speak English, please a message. If you don’t speak English, hang up and call back when you learn to speak English.” This is followed by a woman’s voice giving what sounds like instructions, in rapid-fire Spanish.
Hayden made waves several years ago when he railed against emergency-exit signs in the school that were posted in English and Spanish.
“People who come here from another country have always learned the native language,” Hayden said at the time. “But now I think we’re losing touch with that common thread. It’s just starting with the signs, but I can see they are getting a foot in the door and the next thing you know, we’ll have a separate curriculum in Spanish.”
There is also a supermarket owner in the Midwest who chastises customers looking for ethnic food.
“We don’t have tacos,” he is reported as saying. “We have meat stuffed inside baked corn shells.” Don’t dare ask for sushi or bratwurst.
While I am not a zealot, and I recognize that the United States is a melting pot of hundreds, if not thousands of nationalities, languages, customs and cultures, I am very protective of the mother tongue. It is the way we conduct business, exchange commerce and consummate our transactions.
But I’m not bothered at all if the signs in a bank or a supermarket are in four or five languages. Why should that bother me? As long as one of those languages is English and I can read it, I’m OK.
The argument is made by some whose parents and grandparents came to this country from Greece, Portugal, Poland, Italy, France and elsewhere. Lowell has a strong Asian population. They have all had to assimilate by learning to speak English. Many of these people are fortunate enough to know how to speak two languages.
I grew up in a French-Canadian home and I can speak two languages. I know what you’re asking. What is a kid with a name like Shaughnessey doing speaking French? I was raised in a foster home by second-generation French-Canadians. I know many French-Canadians today who bemoan the fact that they can’t carry on a conversation in the language of their parents.
How sad will it be when, in about 25 years, our Cambodian population no longer speaks Khmer?
Larry Whitten says he’s not a racist. He says he only wants Enrique to be called Henry because he has guests from all over the country and he wants them to feel comfortable. In other words, he is saying his guests are stupid. And that’s probably true if they decide to book a room there.
Dennis Shaughnessey’s e-mail is email@example.com.