When asked to explain his policy, Ron Schneider, the owner of Leon’s, said it’s “strictly business.” He said only a few of his employees speak Spanish, and there is no guarantee they will be working where customers’ orders are taken. The policy was meant to speed up sales.
Since the story went national, Schneider has been under a torrent of scrutiny, including accusations of bigotry, racism, and xenophobia. The incident underscores just how quickly things can escalate when it comes to the politics of language. For some, English-only policies are just common sense. If you’re in America and want to be successful, being proficient at English is your best bet. But instituting English-only policies almost always create more problems than they solve.
The regulation of language in America has a long and contentious history. During WWI, for example, anti-German hysteria reached its apex with some states passing laws that prohibited the teaching of all foreign language, even Latin, in high-schools and some Universities. Other states went as far as to ban the use of foreign language in public, including church services and conversations over the telephone.
So, the central question at play here is whether Schneider’s policy was just to streamline his business operations, or was it an ugly vestige of the past, a type of linguistic nationalism?
Though Schneider said his policy was about speeding up sales, it’s doubtful his business had benefited from the policy. Leon’s is located in a heavily Latino area where Spanish fluency is not uncommon. Prohibiting bilingual employees from using their skillset to complete transactions just doesn’t make sense.
In a previous interview, perhaps in the heat of the moment, Schneider told a local news outlet that a country “not on the same page” with respect to language would “erode and descend into a third world status.”
It’s easy to see a remark like this and doubt whether Schneider’s policy is just about running an efficient business. We don’t know his politics, his views on immigration, or whether he believes immigrants are assimilating. What we do know is that Schneider’s outlook on multilingualism in America is one of pessimism.
While I’m not particularly ecstatic about Schneider’s policy, it didn’t warrant the political pile on he had received by the press and liberal interest groups.
Consider Voces de la Frontera and their puppet-on-a-string State Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa. After the story went public, each played a role fanning the flames of controversy.
“Tears came to my eyes,” Zamarripa told a Fox 6 reporter about Leon’s English-only policy. “We need to celebrate our diversity, we are the most diverse part of the state.”
In the spirit of celebrating that diversity, Zamarripa put out a press statement suggesting that Leon’s Latino patrons would, or perhaps should, take their business to other vendors “until Mr. Schneider honors this kind of loyal support from his customers instead of rejecting it with divisive rhetoric and policy.”
Here’s a question. When was the last time Rep. Zamarripa actually helped to bridge an ethnic divide rather than deepen it?
While LULAC took an aggressive tact by calling for a federal investigation into Leon’s policy, they at least made efforts to meet with Mr. Schneider to work out their differences. And when Schneider made changes to Leon’s policy, LULAC put out a public statement commending him for it.
But such grace was beneath Zamarripa. Upon learning that Leon’s changed their policy, she told WTMJ 12 News that Mr. Schneider appeared to be “backpeddling” and that “the damage had already been done.” What damage would that be? Are we to believe that people are losing sleep over custard cones and shakes? The damage Zamarripa envisions is about as real as the tears that came to her eyes.
And then there is Voces de la Frontera, a labor advocacy group that advocates for illegal immigrants – unless they decide that union organizing is more important than helping immigrants like they did in the Palermo’s Pizza fiasco. Voces said they planned to protest Leon’s because they wanted Schneider to change his policy and “be more welcoming.”
As luck would have it, that’s exactly what Schneider did, but Voces held their protest anyway. What they were protesting is not entirely certain, but it made even less sense than blocking traffic in Washington D.C. on the off-chance that it moves Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
For sure, English-only policies have a complicated history, a truth for which Mr. Schneider has a newfound understanding. And as long as ethnic tensions and divisions continue to exist in America, there will be troublemakers who profit from them.
Darryl Morin, President of LULAC, summed it up best:
"In a time when it seems there are so many interested in creating division and trying to signal strength and stature at the cost of good governance in the community, we're very pleased that we were able to resolve this issue in an amicable manner.”
Take note Rep. Zamarripa. Good governance is not about piggybacking onto controversies in a swash of self-promotion. It’s about resolving problems amicably. There is no better way to celebrate diversity than that.