Yahoo! News, October 26, 2009
Larry Whitten marched into this northern New Mexico town in late July on a mission: resurrect a failing hotel.
The tough-talking former Marine immediately laid down some new rules. Among them, he forbade the Hispanic workers at the run-down, Southwestern adobe-style hotel from speaking Spanish in his presence (he thought they’d be talking about him), and ordered some to Anglicize their names.
No more Martin (Mahr-TEEN). It was plain-old Martin. No more Marcos. Now it would be Mark.
Whitten’s management style had worked for him as he’s turned around other distressed hotels he bought in recent years across the country.
The 63-year-old Texan, however, wasn’t prepared for what followed.
His rules and his firing of several Hispanic employees angered his employees and many in this liberal enclave of 5,000 residents at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, where the most alternative of lifestyles can find a home and where Spanish language, culture and traditions have a long and revered history.
Former workers, their relatives and some town residents picketed 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.
After he arrived, Whitten met with the employees. He says he immediately noticed that they were hostile to his management style and worried they might start talking 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 says. “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.”
Some employees were fired, Whitten says, because they were hostile and insubordinate. He says they called him “a white (N-word).”
Fired hotel manager Kathy Archuleta says the workers initially tried to adjust to his style. “We had already gone through four or five owners before him, so we knew what to expect,” Archuleta says. “I told (the workers) we needed to give him a chance.”
Then Whitten told some employees he was changing their Spanish first names. 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 Gutierrez, another fired 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.
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 says he sent them a letter and posted messages on the hotel marquee, alleging that the group referred to him with a racial slur. LULAC denied the charge.
The messages and comments he made in interviews with local media, including referring to townsfolk as “mountain people” and “potheads who escaped society,” further enflamed tensions.
Whitten should have dealt with the situation differently, especially in a majority Hispanic town, said 71-year-old Taos artist Ken O’Neil, while sipping his afternoon coffee on the town’s historic plaza.