Food fight over English-only

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Esther Cepeda
Thursday, March 24, 2011
— Today’s quintessential American melting-pot story comes to you courtesy of Greg Simons, proprietor of the Reedy Creek Family Diner in Lexington, N.C., who put a sign on the front door that read “No Speak English. No Service” along with translations in French, Gaelic, Russian, German and Spanish.

The last sentence of the sign reads—benignly, if incomprehensibly—“Our Staff are sadly not Bi-Lingual. We only speak and understand American.”

An angry patron notified the local media, which proceeded to generate news stories with headlines such as “Diner Under Fire for ‘English Only’ Policy” and “No English? Diner refuses service.”

I was angered when I saw those headlines—until I actually spoke to Simons, who was eager to chat with me about what led him to post the sign and what has happened since.

He says he never meant to imply that people who don’t speak English fluently are not welcome in his restaurant or that such diners would be denied service if some other language was being spoken at the table. He just wanted patrons to know that his staff is monolingual.

Clearly, Simons has a tin ear for wording that could easily be construed as offensive by anyone who’s ever been overtly or subtly discriminated against because of their native language or their accent, however faint.

Simons’ story is that a few weeks ago, on separate occasions, two different groups of Spanish-only speakers came into his Southern comfort food restaurant. Despite his best efforts at pointing and miming, he could not take their order. In both cases, the frustrated diners left in a torrent of Spanish-language cussing, which Simons recognized as a snub because, as the great grandson of French-Canadian and Swedish immigrants, he knows “enough French and Spanish to know when I’m being insulted.”

That’s when Simons put up the sign. First, ironically, just in English and then in the five other languages, so as to not single out any particular ethnic group in a state that has seen its Latino population explode by 111 percent in the last decade to total 8.4 percent.

Once the media firestorm began, Simons, who describes himself as a multiculturally aware guy who dates women of other races and maintains friendships with Latinos and other minorities, says he got a handful of nasty calls, including a bomb threat. He was then humbled by an outpouring of support from people who were angered that anyone would be labeled a racist or criticized for demanding communication in English.

“Though I was not in any way, shape or form making any kind of political statement, all of a sudden I was inundated with calls from people saying things like ‘I came from Korea, and I had to learn the language, so why can’t (Latinos)?’” Simons told me.

The sign has migrated to a spot by the cash register and, despite the encouragement, Simons isn’t going to become an “English only” activist. He did admit enjoying the media circus and temporary boost in business that came with being interviewed by Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, though he says he’s politically independent and not a fan of either broadcaster.

“Immigration is an important issue, but the economy is more of a concern to me,” Simons told me. “With the rising cost of fuel and food, I can’t say for certain I’m going to be here a year from now, and I have 12 employees counting on me.”

I tracked down one of Simons’ supportive callers, Katharine Moreno, a San Antonio, Texas, accountant whose family immigrated there from Colombia when she was 11. She said she favored Simons’ accidental stance because she is unapologetically fed up with immigrants who don’t adopt the English language upon entry into the country.

“When we arrived, my mother told me, ‘You’ll always love Colombia, but you will have loyalty and respect for the land that feeds you and gives you opportunity,’” Moreno said. “Today one of my greatest accomplishments is speaking English like an American.”

She added, “There is no excuse for not learning the language right away.”

In some corners of the Latino community, Moreno’s viewpoint on near-immediate language acquisition is about as welcome as “English only” efforts are—a phrase in itself that is a powder keg of nationalistic and cultural emotions. But that’s the beauty of America—people are always willing to stir the melting pot.

Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Last updated: 4:41 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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