Monday, October 26, 2009

No Habla Espanol!

A hotel owner in New Mexico got himself into a heap of controversy after he required his Spanish-speaking employees to speak only English in his presence and to change their names to more Anglo sounding versions. Larry Whitten, a man with decades of experience in the hotel business, said he was worried that his Hispanic employees would talk negatively about him in Spanish while in his presence. Whitten explained that he asked the employees to change their names so it would be easier for guests to understand them.

The employees were understandably angry about these demands, particularly the request to change their names. After a number of the workers refused to Whitten's requests, he fired them. According to at least one of the fired employees felt the requests struck to the core of his identity:
"Martin Gutierrez, another fired employee, says he felt disrespected when he was told to use the unaccented Martin as his name. He says he told Whitten that Spanish was spoken in New Mexico before English. "He told me he didn't care what I thought because this was his business," Gutierrez says. "I don't have to change my name and language or heritage," he says. "I'm professional the way I am."
Is this simply a case of an owner making a simple requirement of his employees or is it something more? If Whitten had requested that his Spanish-speaking employees seek to speak English to English-speaking guests, then I don't think his request would have been unreasonable. But because he forbid them to speak their heart language, whether they were interacting with guests or not, demonstrates a certain xenophobia towards the employees.

Furthermore, the requirement to change their names demonstrates an insensitivity to the employees as individuals and humans. In a country that has no official language, it might have made sense for Whitten to take a different approach. What if after buying the hotel and learning of the rich Hispanic culture of the community of Taos, New Mexico, he met with his employees and asked them to help him learn Spanish so that he could interact with the Spanish speakers of that community? Wouldn't that make good business sense and likely would have endeared him to his employees?

With all trends indicating a growing number of Spanish speakers in the U.S., businesses in predominately Hispanic communities would do well to respect and value the culture of people coming from those communities. In a diverse country such as ours, pursuing unity within our diversity only makes sense.

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