Other Languages Are Scary, Used Primarily To Mock Me

Language, WTF?

I took French instead of Spanish in high school. Though my French teacher was great, and I had good friends in the class, I have to admit that Spanish would have been more useful in my career. I have to use translators with some clients, which is inconvenient. I am frequently gripped by suspicion that I am not getting an exact translation, and not getting useful nuance.

I am not, however, gripped with paranoia that people speaking Spanish are mocking me. While they may be on occasion, that fear strikes me as stuck someone on the bleak landscape between narcissistic and delusional.

Larry Whitten is wandering that landscape.

Whitten took over a hotel in Taos and immediately began a War on Spanish:

The tough-talking former Marine immediately laid down some new rules. Among them, he forbade the Hispanic workers at the run-down, Southwestern adobe-style hotel from speaking Spanish in his presence (he thought they'd be talking about him), and ordered some to Anglicize their names.

No more Martin (Mahr-TEEN). It was plain-old Martin. No more Marcos. Now it would be Mark.

Now, this may not be against the law (though I suspect a clever lawyer could forge an anti-discrimination lawsuit out of it). But it seems a little ham-fisted and premised on (1) rampant paranoia and (2) a low opinion of customers:

Whitten says it's a routine practice at his hotels to change first names of employees who work the front desk phones or deal directly with guests if their names are difficult to understand or pronounce.

"It has nothing to do with racism. I'm not doing it for any reason other than for the satisfaction of my guests, because people calling from all over America don't know the Spanish accents or the Spanish culture or Spanish anything," Whitten says.

It seems to me that people who are put off by the prospect of pronouncing "Marcos" are unlikely to be traveling to Taos, New Mexico, and highly unlikely to enjoy it if they do venture there. Also, speaking only for myself, I hate it when companies gratuitously Anglicize employee names. When I call customer support and speak with some poor bastard in Mumbai who has been forced to ditch the name his parents gave him in favor of "Wayne" or "Billy-Bob," I feel as if it's deeply humiliating for both of us: humiliating to the man in Mumbai because he has to pretend to be someone he is not, and humiliating for me because the transaction is premised on artifice and on the presumption that I'm a narrow-minded xenophobic dick. It really doesn't make me any happier to have someone named William, rather than someone named Anupam, ask me whether I have tried rebooting.

So I'm not a fan of Whitten's policies. Moreover, I think they represent a poisonous hostility towards other languages that I've seen too often lately. Whether it's Texas cops ticketing drivers who don't speak English (even though there's no such law) or political commentators arguing that it's unnatural and unreasonable to pronounce names like "Sotomayor" correctly, too many people seem freaked out just because other people talk differently. I think English can survive some people not speaking it.

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Last 5 posts by Ken White

17 Comments

16 Comments

  1. James  •  Oct 26, 2009 @12:50 pm

    The policy seems to run afoul of the EEOC's interpretation of the law at least. I can think of no legitimate business necessity for forbidding them to speak Spanish in his presence, regardless of circumstance.

  2. S.A.  •  Oct 26, 2009 @12:52 pm

    I enjoyed this part of the story:

    "I do feel he's a racist, but he's a racist out of ignorance. He doesn't know that what he's doing is wrong," says protester Juanito Burns Jr., who identified himself as prime minister of an activist group called Los Brown Berets de Nuevo Mexico.

    A google search turns up this website

  3. Diego Apodaca  •  Oct 26, 2009 @5:43 pm

    What too many of the commenters fail to recognize, is that unlike other former Mexican Territories conquered after 1846-48, the NM Hispano population was never reduced to minority status; both the Native American (30) and Hispano (45) populations are larger than the Anglo (20) population in NM. The basis of the NM Indo-Hispano culture was forged from 1598 (1540, if we consider the Coronado Entrada), nearly a continent separate from the traditional US core in New England and the Chesapeake-Tidewater regions, and a generation earlier than either of those regions. For the better part of 160 years, Nuevomexicanos, who were made automatic US citizens courtesy of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, have maintained their cultural continuity, only assimilating those elements of the greater US Anglo culture that have improved their ability to make local/regional socio-economic progress. The greater part of this history is also about a certain stubborn resistance to having a long standing cultural continuity overrun by outsiders of any kind; NM's also have long standing enmity with Texas stemming from 19th century territorial boundary disputes and cross-cultural bigotries. Only with this current generation and the next generation, has English supplanted Spanish as the majority language; prior to the last 30 years, even Anglos living in NM assimilated into the local populace, learning Spanish and the local mangled patois of Spanglish (please note this is even different from the standard Spanglish found elsewhere in the US).
    While Mr. Whitten is within his rights to foster a profitable business, the methodology he employed runs counter to the basic culture, which has been forged, in proud independence and defiance of those unwilling to accept their cultural terms. Additionally, Mr. Whitten has also committed the crime of being an outspoken and uncompromising Texan in NM; this is perhaps his worst sin in the eyes of the locals-more so, than his culturally deaf business methodologies.
    While no Marine should surrender, perhaps he has crossed a "bridge too far?, allowing for his hubris to subsume his normal business acumen. Taos was the centre of The 1847 Taos Rebellion, which failed, but instructed the US military under Kearney, that any attempt to reorganize NM as a purely American territory would fail under the weight of numerous rebellions, grudging resistance, and persistent banditry; thus NM's were allowed their independence under their terms, as opposed to the terms that usually applied in said era of Manifest Destiny. This assured a parallel path of American governance in NM while maintaining NM cultural continuity-a fate not shared in Arizona or California; only Puerto Rico shares this distinction or historical model of development, though one not endured until the early 20th country.
    Lastly, too many of the commenters have no historical literacy, which if they did the usual grousing over ?Mexicans? would play no role in this debate. Nuevomexicanos are Americans, despite being ethnically Mexican (though many will claim to be pure Spaniards), for over 160 years, while surrendering none of their cultural identity; an identity that is older than the core American identity found in New England or the Chesapeake-Tidewater. This is the same cultural deafness and historical illiteracy that have plagued Mr. Whitten since his entrance to Taos. As many a besieged businessman from beyond NM, Mr. Whitten, will learn that the usual rules do not, and have never applied in NM-a province that runs parallel to the expected normal. While this fosters a weird insularity from the rest of the US, this is also the exemplary of why people come to NM; the most successful outsiders have learned it?s best ?to go native? enjoying the ubiquitous green chile, beans, cranky humour, pausing for octo/nonagenarians at the most remote mountain byroads, and not being too insulted by local businesses that may post signs such as : Se Hablo Ingles, If We Must!

  4. Octavia  •  Oct 27, 2009 @5:01 am

    Mr. Whitten has violated these peoples rights whether the nation wants to acknolwedge it or not that would be the same as telling an African American person who's name is difficult to pronounce that she has to be called Jane because the guest won't understand your biblical name. It's not right plain & simple & that statement about customers calling making it easier for them they're making a reservation in NM they would expect an accent or an Hispanic name no one would get offendened if Marcos answered the phone or Margarita. First it was African Americans now Mexicans & Hispanics & Hindu or Indian. it is what it is Racism he is a racist he bought a hotel in Santee SC & terminated all of the African Americans until he found out the majority of people seeking the job were African Americans & were actually the backbone of the small town & relented & hired one or two out of desperation. When are people going to learn it's not the color of a person skin or their accent or lack there of it's the content of a person's chacracter. I went to school with mexicans, cuban, Hispanics & they are wonderful people & actually benifited from them by being in their presence & learning their language, the same with Hindu's. This nation is just getting worse i'm not even proud to be an american anymore

  5. Patrick  •  Oct 27, 2009 @5:25 am

    I thought that Barack Obama's election made everyone proud to be American Octavia. Why get so worked up over an obscure hotel in Taos?

  6. Octavia  •  Oct 27, 2009 @6:16 am

    Because President Obama's election should have made a difference & it hasn't we've all seen that Racism & hatred has gotten worse in some areas people turn their heads like they don't see it but Congress isn't even discreet with the hatred. I heard rumors of him being racist @ his SC hotel & terminating all the African American & I welcomed him & his wife to the community despite the rumors & had longtime friends question my stance on racism because of it. It's hard being the voice of reason in the south when it comes to race now some of my friends asked hey were those lunches a redneck gab fest? It's sad & i'm embarassed by it

  7. Patrick  •  Oct 27, 2009 @6:25 am

    Don't talk to me about the south Octavia. Don't even go there. If your longtime friends are calling you a racist because of some obscure incident in Charleston, your problem isn't racism.

    It's that your friends are idiots, and that you're a poseur who cares about what idiots think.

  8. Octavia  •  Oct 27, 2009 @7:33 am

    You may have a point

  9. Chris  •  Oct 27, 2009 @8:09 am

    "NM’s also have long standing enmity with Texas stemming from 19th century territorial boundary disputes and cross-cultural bigotries. "

    Really? I just have a longstanding enmity with Texas because it keeps pissing me off. I should try to find something historical to justify it.

  10. Ezra  •  Oct 27, 2009 @9:51 am

    Don't mess with Texas… The Governor will execute you whether you are innocent or not. And then refuse to allow investigations of the execution.

  11. Octavia  •  Oct 27, 2009 @10:10 am

    Chris, Ezra been to Texas a few times & I swear it's the only place I made extra sure I did nothing wrong while visiting the state they're almost like Vegas what goes on in Texas stays in Texas if they can help it but not in a good way

  12. Chris  •  Oct 27, 2009 @11:11 am

    I figure I should avoid Texas because I am a small man from New York with a big mouth.

  13. Du Toit Maritz  •  Oct 28, 2009 @11:40 am

    English-speaking people all over the world are notorious for refusing to learn or to tolerate other languages, as if the only way to be a true, modern person is to speak English, referrably with the correct accent.

    They have been able to get away with it thus far, bacause of the British and American domination of the world in the 19th and 20th centuries respectively.

    if this is going to be the Chinese century, our Anglophile friends may have a hard time adapting.

  14. Clarke in LA  •  Oct 29, 2009 @10:22 am

    I agree with the above comments regarding Mr. Whitten has no right to attempt to change anyones name but feel he does have the right to expect people who come into contact with the traveling public to speak English (even in New Mexico). I for one do not know much about the history of New Mexico but feel it is not a province but a state and one of the stars on our flag represents its statehood ("NM-a province that runs parallel to the expected normal"). One of the things which has made the United States the country it is today is a common language – written and spoken. Many Americans have learned to speak other languages because it behoves them to do so for social and commercial reasons. Immigrants from China, Viet Nam, Japan, France, Spain, Russia, etc. who have come here learn English. Most immigrants come here for the same or similar reasons the people from South of our borders come here – economic, religious, persecution, freedom of speech, etc. Unlike these immigrants many of the ones from South of our border seem to loath the United States while seeking the dream America offers which they cannot receive in their countries. Why have we as a society rolled over to accommodate these people instead of expecting them to conform to our culture? My hat is off to Mr. Whitten to expect (demand) his employees to speak English in the workplace (or at least the ones who interact with the public). In the United States military can you imagine if you were in a battle out of shells and the person in charge of dispensing them only spoke Spanish – possibly what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. What is the old saying, "When in Rome. . ." Possibly I am just old fashion but I feel if you are going to migrate to a country you should at least learn the language the majority of the people talk and write and not expect those to change and learn your language. I have a friend from China and I am extrememly interested in her language and culture and think if I visit I will learn enough of her language to be able to eat and sleep there without expecting those I encounter to know English (I have lived in Sudan, Viet Nam, France, and Germany and in each learned their languages and did not demand they learn English).

  15. Common Reader  •  Nov 1, 2009 @3:17 pm

    People speaking Spanish on the bus are never saying anything interesting. EVER.

  16. Maricella  •  Nov 3, 2009 @9:58 am

    I am terribly sorry that this man has came into New Mexico with an ignorant mindset. New Mexico does rely on tourism but those that venture to our state, expect to experience our many cultures. We have spoken our languages, whether Spanish or Tewa or Tiwa, before the U.S. Government recognized NM as a territory. We do speak English yet we speak Spanish comfortably. The Spanish-speakers have been here for 400 years and we are no more immigrants as are the gringos that want to change our culture. In my town everyone speaks Spanish and English, whether they are native to New Mexico or not. My best friend is a "white-boy" but he speaks better Spanish than I do and I speak better English than him. I am sorry that people are lethargic and do not care to learn about our culture.
    Also, in the military, yes it does make sense to speak a common language. But did the United States not implement the Dine and their language in the second world war? Languages are beautiful and I wish I knew other languages. Every day 100 languages are lost in our world. Unfortunately, with men like Whitten in this world, our youth will be forced to know only English. As if English could convey what an individual wants to say in one word!

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