English-only laws: how broad? Critics say incidents demonstrate prejudice behind the statutes

Now that English has been voted the official language of three more states - Florida, Colorado, and Arizona - some citizens are taking the law into their own hands. In Miami, news director Tomas Garcia-Fuste of Spanish-language radio station WQBA claims to have received dozens of complaints a day such as these:

A man placed a collect call last week, which was accepted by a woman speaking Spanish. The operator refused to let it go through, however, insisting that such calls could only be accepted now in English.

A woman called a department store to place a catalog order. When she began in Spanish, as she had in the past, a clerk cited the official English law and hung up. (The store manager later apologized and took her order himself in Spanish.)

The official English law in Florida, passed by popular vote Nov. 8, actually makes no clear legal change at all.

It pronounces English the official language and grants the Florida Legislature authority to make specific laws to implement that status - authority a legislature already possesses.

But in Florida and Colorado, which passed a similar law this month, some citizens apparently interpret the new status of English broadly: The effect of the new laws, they infer, is to outlaw the speaking of foreign tongues in public.

``Many, many such comments have been made,'' says Bill Schroter, vice-president for public relations at Publix supermarkets in Florida.

``That's the way they voted on it, too,'' says Kenneth Padilla, a Denver lawyer working to overturn his state's new official English law, about voter perception that the law bans foreign languages. ``That's what they wanted.''

A wave of outrage went up among Hispanics in Miami when a Publix supermarket cashier was suspended for ``speaking Spanish.'' The store chain has since held that the suspension was punishment for talking with other employees while serving customers.

The incident landed on a Latin community newly sensitive over the massive voter approval - some 83 percent - for official English.

``I didn't think so many people were against Spanish,'' says Mr. Garcia-Fuste of WQBA.

Miami's Cubans, in particular, have been insulated in a complete, Spanish-speaking world, blissfully unaware of prejudice, says Lisandro Perez, a sociologist at Florida International University.

The official English vote, he says, caught many Cubans by surprise at how ``there are people out there who don't like us.''

Official English campaigners, of course, are at pains to disavow any such prejudice or ethnic rivalry behind the new amendment. Latins are largely skeptical.

Says Garcia-Fuste: ``If I thought people put it on [the ballot] because they love English, I would have voted for it. But they put it on there because they hate Spanish.''

Few complaints over language problems in the workplace have yet been reported in Dade County, which includes Greater Miami. ``It's too early,'' says Marcus Regalado, director of the county Fair Housing and Employment Appeals Board. ``When employers, out of ignorance, start making policies based on English only, then it may start.''

Most companies have a clear policy of speaking to the customer, whenever possible, in the customer's preferred language. Some specify that a customer be addressed in English unless the customer uses Spanish.

Publix, for example, has a dozen stores in the Miami area that are thoroughly bilingual in signs and staff, Mr. Schroter says. ``If an Anglo gets bent out of shape because an employee is speaking Spanish to a Spanish-speaking person, then shame on that Anglo,'' he says.

Telephone companies insist they will put through collect calls accepted in any language that an operator can understand.

A Sears manager sums up the business approach in Miami: ``Any way the customer wants to talk to us ... , we`ll find somebody to talk to a customer, somehow.''

Seventeen states have adopted laws declaring English the official language. It is a public issue of note only in four of them: Florida, Colorado, Arizona, and California, which passed its amendment in 1986.

In Arizona, the official English law is most narrow, requiring English to be the language of ``action and function'' of the state. Although no state agencies have issued guidelines on how to comply with it, one state employee has already sued the state - arguing that the law will deny her constitutional right to free speech by prohibiting her from speaking Spanish to clients.

Other stories are trickling in, many of them unverified. From Grand Junction, Colo., comes a report that the day after the state amendment was voted in, a school-bus driver told a girl that speaking Spanish was no longer allowed on board.

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