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Mea Culpa, Hablo Español

La Opinión, Commentary, Pilar Marrero, Translated by Elena Shore Posted: Oct 27, 2009

The issue of language and cultural identity continues to raise tensions in some corners of this country.

In Dallas, the police chief announced an investigation into 39 traffic violations issued by officers to drivers for the sole reason that they did not speak English. The fine was $204. At least six police officers from that city were involved during a three-year period, so it wasn’t merely the obsession of one enterprising policeman.

There is no law that says it is illegal not to speak English, although of course English is highly recommended, so Dallas officials were right to publicize the problem once they discovered it and to investigate why it happened.

In Taos, New Mexico there was another curious case. A hotel owner bought a run-down inn and, in an attempt to turn it around, made a series of changes in personnel management. Among these changes, he ordered employees with Hispanic names to change their names to something more "Anglo". So Martín (with the emphasis on the I) became Martin (with the emphasis on the A) and Marcos became Mark, etc.

According to Larry Whitman, employees who work in reception or answer phones should have names that people generally can understand or can pronounce.

The man told a local newspaper, “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.”

It was really funny to read such an absurd statement in the press. What world is Mr. Whitten living in? People in the United States, according to him, don’t know that there is a Latino culture and that many Latinos live in this country? Who are these people who don’t know this?

I can understand how it's annoying when someone has a very heavy accent and you can’t understand their English because this has happened to me sometimes when I call customer service for my Internet connection or a big company, and I get a young man in India with an accent that’s hard to understand. I still try and I ask him to repeat himself if I don’t understand, because Siddhartha has the right to work just like anyone else.

But your name is something very personal. If my name is Pilar, what name would I have to use for the people Whitten is talking about, those who live in a parallel universe where people only have Anglo or English names? Maybe the pronunciation would change to PAILAR, to help them understand?

Nonsense. If I have to deal with customers or be an effective journalist, I have to be able to speak the best English possible and make myself understood, but I don’t have to change my name, which is part of my culture and my identity.

It is obvious that in both cases, there are mistaken attitudes, if not blatant racism. The funny thing is that both incidents happened in southwestern states, Texas and New Mexico, not in less diverse states like, say, Kansas or Idaho.

Hispanics, Latinos, Latin Americans, Chicanos, etc., all the possible identities related to the Spanish-speaking or bilingual world, have always been part of this country, and now more than ever.

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