I Speak Spanish: Sorry About That

I Speak Spanish: Sorry About That

The issue of language and cultural identity continues to cause a stir in some
corners of this country.

In Dallas, the police chief announced that they were investigating 39 traffic
violations issued to drivers for the sole reason that they did not speak English.
The fine was 204 dollars. At least six cops were involved in this type of ticketing
over the span of three years, so the problem cannot be attributed to the obsession
of one eager officer.

There is no law that says that it is illegal not to speak English (though,
of course, it is highly recommended to do so), so Dallas officials did the right
thing in bringing this problem to light as soon as they were aware of it and
launching an investigation to try to figure out why it happened.

In Taos, New Mexico, another curious incident of a similar nature took place.
An entrepreneurial hotelier purchased a rundown little inn with the intention
of renovating and reviving it, and in the process he made a series of changes
in the hotel’s personnel management policies. As a part of these changes, he
ordered some of his employees to Anglicize their Hispanic-sounding names. And
so Martín became Martin, Marcos turned into Mark etc.

According to the hotel’s manager, Larry Whitten, the employees that deal with
customers at the front desk and over the phones should have names that average
folks can understand and pronounce.

Whitten told a local paper that his order to change the names had “nothing
to do with racism, just a desire to satisfy my guests, because people calling
from all over America don’t know the Spanish accents or the Spanish culture
or the Spanish anything.”

I had a good laugh when I came across this ridiculous statement. In what world
does Mr. Whitten live? The people of the United States, according to him, don’t
know that there is such a thing as Latino culture and that many Latinos live
right here in this very country? Really? Who are these people that are so unaware?

I understand, of course, that it can be a bit inconvenient when someone has
a thick accent and you can’t understand their English. I’ve called customer
service many times and been put through to a kid in India that I can barely
understand. All the same, I try to pick up on what he’s saying, and I ask him
to repeat himself if there’s something I don’t catch, because someone named
Siddhartha has a right to work just the same as everybody else.

But these communication issues aside, a person’s name is, well, an extremely
personal thing. If my name is Pilar, how should I disguise it to better accommodate
these people to whom Mr. Whitten refers, to these people who live in a parallel
universe where all names come from the British Isles? Maybe I should change
it to something like Pailar? Would that help anybody out?

Nonsense. If I have to interact with clients or work as an effective journalist,
I must try hard to speak the best English I can and make myself clearly understood,
but I shouldn’t have to change my name; my name is part of my culture and my
very identity.

It’s obvious that in both the case of the Dallas police ticket frenzy and the
debacle with the Taos hotel manager that the controversies were fueled, if not
by overt racism, then at least by misguided attitudes and actions. What is strange
to me is that the two kerfuffles took place in the Southwest, in Texas and New
Mexico, and not in more homogenous states like Kansas or Idaho.

At any rate, as far as we Hispanics, Latinos, Latin Americans and Chicanos
go, all these and all other possible identities that can be derived from the
people of the world who speak Spanish or are bilingual have always been a part
of this country, and this is true now more so than ever.

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Translation: Ryan Croken. Ryan Croken is a freelance writer and editor
based in Chicago. His essays and book reviews have appeared in The Philadelphia
Inquirer, Z Magazine and ReligionDispatches.org. He can be reached at
ryan.croken@gmail.com.