The new owner of a hotel in New Mexico is feeling the backlash in his primarily Hispanic community, after ordering Hispanic workers to change their names to make them sound more American. But is it racism, or just good business?
Larry Whitten bought the Paragon Inn in the liberal enclave of Taos in July, his latest in a 40-year career of buying rundown hotels and turning them around. During his first meeting with employees, Whitten says he noticed his employees were hostile to the former Marine's tough management style. He feared they would talk about him in Spanish.
"Because of that, I asked the people in my presence to speak only English because I do not understand Spanish," Whitten told the Associated Press. "I've been working 24 years in Texas and we have a lot of Spanish people there. I've never had to ask anyone to speak only English in front of me because I've never had a reason to."
But what really ticked people off was his demand that people change their names. "Marcos" would have to become "Mark," for example. Whitten says it's a routine practice at his 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.
"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," Whitten says.
Martin (pronounced Mar-TEEN) Gutierrez, a former 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."
Gutierrez and several other employees were fired because Whitten says they were hostile or insubordinate.
After the firings, the New Mexico chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a national civil rights group, sent Whitten a letter, raising concerns about treatment of Hispanic workers. Whitten claims that the group referred to him with a racial slur. LULAC denied the charge.
Former workers, their relatives and some town residents have taken to picketing across the street from the hotel.
"I do feel he's a racist, but he's a racist out of ignorance. He doesn't know that what he's doing is wrong," says protester Juanito Burns Jr., who identified himself as prime minister of an activist group called Los Brown Berets de Nuevo Mexico.
Taos Mayor Darren Cordova says Whitten isn't doing anything illegal. But he says Whitten failed to better familiarize himself with the town and its culture before deciding to buy the hotel for $2 million. "Taos is so unique that you would not do anything in Taos that you would do elsewhere," he says.
Whitten denies charges of racism, and calls this just one big misunderstanding. "What kind of fool or idiot or poor businessman would I be to orchestrate this whole crazy thing that's costed me a lot of time, money and aggravation?"