For the past three years, Dallas police have been issuing tickets for "non-English speaking driver," an offense which carried a $204 fine. Only it turns out that "driving while Spanish" is not against the law. During that time, at least six different police officers issued at least 39 tickets for the nonexistent offense, and now the city has to track down the offenders to clean up their driving records and return their money.
The practice of fining Spanish-speaking drivers came to light earlier this month when Ernestina Mondragon went to court to protest one of three tickets she received while driving her granddaughter to school one day. Mondragon was written up by a rookie cop for not having her license with her; for making an illegal u-turn; and for not speaking English. As police rules require, those citations were okayed on the scene by the rookie's supervisor, and again later by a sergeant at headquarters.
Because of the mistake, the police dropped charges on all three of Mondragon's tickets, but authorities were unable to explain why there's a statutory fine for a law that isn't on the books.
To serve and protect: Driving while Spanish may still cause the police to stop and search your car, but driving while speaking Spanish is not against the law
Dallas taxi drivers must be able to speak English, but that doesn't apply to ordinary motorists like Mondragon. And Federal law requires drivers of commercial vehicles to speak English, but even English-speaking truck drivers with Spanish accents are routinely stopped and ticketed (see "Driving while Spanish nets trucker $500 fine"). Many of them don't bother to contest the tickets.
While Dallas cops were busy fining drivers, a motel owner was firing the Hispanic staff in the Taos, New Mexico, hotel he'd just bought, rehiring them only if they agreed to speak only English and change their Spanish-sounding names to English ones. To win his job back, Marco had to turn in his "Hi, I'm Marco" name tag for one that reads, "Hi, I'm Mark."
According to the Associated Press, the new owner, Larry Whitten, who specializes in turning around failing hotels, justified converting the Paragon Inn, which was about to be closed by the bank, to the English-only Whitten Inn, in the process firing anyone refusing to get with the program: "It's a routine practice at [my] 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."
Maybe I'm overly sensitive to this because like many Indians, my father anglicized his name from Rajendra to Roger, and my own name, Dennis, masks my Hindi name, Denesh. In any case, Whitten ordered a desk clerk named Martin, pronounced in the Spanish way, 'Mar TEEN,' to anglicize his name to 'MAR tin' and fired him when he refused. Whitten told CNN's Jane Velez Mitchell, "that [Spanish] name was proven not to be recognizable." Mitchell reminded him that his hotel is in New Mexico, where most of the city and street names are in Spanish, but Whitten insisted that people calling the hotel from his home state of Virginia or from the Carolinas would simply not be able to understand an employee's Spanish name. He didn't explain how he planned to handle the fact that the adobe-style hotel is located at 615 Paseo del Pueblo Sur.
Even though Spanish was spoken in New Mexico long before English, Whitten ordered his staff to speak in English because "he was worried they might start talking about him in Spanish," a language he doesn't understand.
Taos, an artist colony of 5,000 also popular with tourists, is a place where locals insist that Hispanics, Anglos, and Native Americans have been living in relative harmony for a long time. Now Whitten has disturbed that equilibrium with English-only rules that to many smack of bias. The ACLU and LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, are accusing Whitten of racism and staging daily protests outside the hotel. One day Whitten retaliated by calling LULAC racists on the hotel billboard. The line in the sand is clear, and there's no shortage of sand in Taos.
Protestors outside the Whitten Inn in Taos, New Mexico, which has gone so English-only that employees must change their Spanish-sounding names to Anglo ones if they want to keep their jobs
Language discrimination, a form of discrimination based on national origin, is a violation of federal law. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled that employers can only require employees to speak English if they can demonstrate that the language is necessary for the job or to ensure health and safety in the workplace, and each year the EEOC files hundreds of complaints against employers who adopt English-only policies that don't meet the Commission's clear guidelines. So far, none of the former employees have filed a complaint about the hotel's English-only rule with the EEOC.
Dallas has stopped fining Spanish-speaking drivers, but in Taos, Larry Whitten is still firing Spanish-speaking clerks. Instead of announcing weddings or bar mitzvahs, the sign outside the Paragon/Whitten Inn reads "Now Hiring" (o.k., maybe it never announced bar mitzvahs), and recent customer reviews on tripadvisor.com suggest that the hotel, which is also being remodeled, has a way to go before it rates as one of the top places to stay in Taos.