CNN’s Rick Sanchez shocked his colleague Kyra Phillips on Monday’s Newsroom, after agreeing with a New Mexico hotel owner who had asked his Latino employee to use an unaccented version of his name: “My real name is Ricardo Leon Sanchez de Reinaldo. I don’t use it because I want to be respectful of this wonderful country that allowed us as Hispanics to come here, and I think it’s easier if someone’s able to understand me by Anglicizing my name.” Earlier, Phillips and HLN anchor Jane Velez-Mitchell berated the owner for his supposedly bigoted treatment of the employee [audio clips available here].
Phillips and Velez-Mitchell interviewed Larry Whitten, the owner of Whitten Inn of Taos, New Mexico just after the bottom of the 2 pm Eastern hour. Whitten recently fired some Hispanic employees who wouldn’t conform to his guidelines, which included not speaking Spanish in his presence and asking those who operated the hotel switchboard to use Anglicized versions of their names. He is now being accused of racism by these former employees and by Hispanic organizations who have taken up their cause.
Velez-Mitchell took a hostile stance towards the hotel owner from the start. She gave the following introduction to Whitten: “My name’s Jane Velez-Mitchell. I hope you don’t mind if I keep using the word Velez in my name.” The HLN anchor pressed the owner on his conduct, and rolled her eyes as he tried to explain (see video above):
JANE VELEZ-MITCHELL: Did you ask him to change his name and Anglicize his name? Did you ask anyone to Anglicize their name?
LARRY WHITTEN, HOTEL OWNER: Yes. I asked Martin [with accent] to change it to Martin-
WHITTEN: To better understand it over the telephone, over the switchboard-
VELEZ-MITCHELL: You can’t understand Martin [with accent]? Do you know that the vast majority of people who live in this community where you have your hotel are Latinos? So, your customers are going to be, to a large extent, Latino. Now, how do you treat the customers when they come in? Do you ask them also to change their names? Like, if I came in, would Jane Velez-Mitchell, so that you better understand my name, would you ask me to change it?
WHITTEN: No, ma’am.
VELEZ-MITCHELL: It’s ludicrous, sir-
WHITTEN: No, ma’am-
VELEZ-MITCHELL: It’s ludicrous what you did, and you should just apologize and said you made a mistake. (rolls her eyes as Whitten continues to answer)
WHITTEN: And we didn’t ask people in maintenance; we don’t ask them in housekeeping to change their names. I only ask people on my switchboard, as I have done for 40 years-
VELEZ-MITCHELL: I find-
WHITTEN: And again, I never intentionally changed anyone’s names to insult them, insult their heritage, insult their culture. It’s a matter of- I wanted Martin to get the recognition, who was a fine young man, I might add. We looked forward to him being one of our managers- if you want to know the real truth, he was an excellent fellow- and we wanted him to get the recognition over the switchboard, not [for someone to] say that some boy was good for me on the phone or did me a great service. We wanted his name to be recognizable. That name was proven not to be recognizable, and I wanted him to get the credit for his great service.
VELEZ-MITCHELL: Let me say this, sir. All of these states that we’re talking about with all these stories- Texas, New Mexico- New Mexico [with emphasis]- California- they were all Mexico at one point, and that’s why when you look at the cities and the street names, most of them are in Spanish to begin with. Los Angeles was Pueblo de los Angeles, and that’s why if you look up and down California- for example, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, San Diego- if you look at the street names- La Cienaga, La Brea- everybody understands them. If I tell somebody I’m going to La Cienaga, they’re going to tell me- they’re not going to say I can’t understand what you're saying. So, the idea that you’re presupposing the people cannot understand Martin [with accent], but they can understand Martin, really says a lot more about you, sir, than it says about your customers or anybody else.
Phillips also preached political correctness to Whitten later in the interview. Velez-Mitchell concluded the segment by giving her version of a condescending psychoanalysis of the hotel owner:
KYRA PHILLIPS: Jane Velez-Mitchell has a show called ‘Issues’ on HLN, and she joins me on a segment on subject matter that get to both of us on many levels, and this one, I guess, disturbed us because we feel like, in many ways, you haven’t familiarized yourself with the town, with the culture, and I think Jane, you made that point very well. I think- you know, Larry, you’re a Marine, you’ve got a strong personality, you lay down the law on how you want to do things to run a business, but I think in this case, have you thought about maybe opening up your mind that these employees- that this is their part of the country where they feel comfortable, where everybody knows the language, understands the culture. Why not embrace them, get to know them and incorporate your ways of running a business, but respect who they are and their culture and that they were doing - they know how to do the job? Maybe embracing their names and their language and the people that they work with could make a much better situation for you, for them and for everybody in that area.
WHITTEN: Well, certainly, I agree with you. Taos [New Mexico] is very unique, more unique than anywhere I've ever been, I assure you of that- more beautiful than anywhere I’ve ever been as well. I wish I would have known more about the cultures. You know, I made some mistakes-
VELEZ-MITCHELL: Can I ask you a question, Larry?
WHITTEN: What I want you to, if you would, just understand- my switchboard is answered from people calling from North Carolina, South Carolina, and I can assure you, they don’t understand the culture here. They don’t understand- you know, they come from a different world, where I was raised- Virginia. We’re not accustomed to hearing- you know, if they were speaking Austrian- or German, I would have the same issue, that I want all my people on the switchboard to understand, not just- if it was all Spanish people coming here- if I went to Spain, do you think I would change anybody’s name? No, because everybody’s coming here from Spain. This was not intentional, Ms. Phillips.
PHILLIPS: But your assumption is that-
WHITTEN: It’s to help the hotel. I’m learning. You know, I’m going to make mistakes. I’m ready to- you know, correct what I can because I’ve got a lot of money invested here, and I want the city to understand that's what we’re here for- make a good hotel.
VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, my final thought is- and I don’t think this man is doing something that he thinks is wrong, obviously. He’s defending himself, and I have compassion for him, because ultimately, I think we need to take a 21st century look at this whole issue of discrimination, and to me, it’s a question of low self-esteem, not on the part of people who are being discriminated against, but on the part of the discriminators. If that’s the only way they can feel better about themselves, by saying that in some way they are superior because of an accident of birth, then I really have compassion for them, and I think they need to go in therapy and find out why they need to feel better than other people in that manner. You know, arrogance based on achievement, I can respect.
Seven minutes before the top of the 3 pm Eastern hour, Phillips brought on Sanchez, who immediately brought up her earlier segment with Whitten. The Caucasian anchor seemed genuinely surprised by her Hispanic colleague’s politically-incorrect take on the controversy:
SANCHEZ: You know that argument you were having with the hotel guy a little while ago?
PHILLIPS: Oh, Larry Whitten in Taos, New Mexico.
SANCHEZ: I agree with him.
PHILLIPS: You agree- okay, hold on a second. You agree with him that he should be able to fire people because they don't speak very good English-
PHILLIPS: In addition to Anglicizing their names? Rick, what if someone said to you, ‘Rick Sanchez, your name, it doesn’t sound right, people won’t understand it. We’re going to change it to Rick Sanford. Let’s go now to Rick Sanford.’
SANCHEZ: My real name is Ricardo Leon Sanchez de Reinaldo. I don’t use it because I want to be respectful of this wonderful country that allowed us as Hispanics to come here, and I think it’s easier if someone’s able to understand me by Anglicizing my name, and all he said was-
PHILLIPS: But Sanchez isn’t Anglicizing your name!
SANCHEZ: Well, hold on, let me finish my point. When I was listening to the conversation, I heard him say- I don’t do that with all employees, only people who man the switchboard to make it easier for them to have conversations with prospective clients who are trying to call in. I- it didn’t sound to me like he was being unreasonable with that demand.
PHILLIPS: Rick! It’s Taos, New Mexico and he’s firing people because of their Spanish-English. And by the way, Sanchez, you haven’t Anglicized your name.
SANCHEZ: Yeah, I have. It’s Rick Sanchez.
PHILLIPS: Rick Sanchez!
SANCHEZ: My real name is Ricardo Leon Sanchez de Reinaldo, and I’m not going to go on the air and say, make people say, ‘Hi, you're watching the news on CNN with Ricardo Leon Sanchez de Reinaldo.’
PHILLIPS: But you speak Spanish. You speak Spanish on your show. You speak Spanish on your show. You’ve got a little picture thing where you play a little salsa music. I mean, you’ve got your culture in there. You’re identifying with the Latin culture.
SANCHEZ: Of course I do. I’m Latin. I couldn’t be prouder of being Latin. But I’m not going to let my being Latin get in the way of what is a respectful way of behaving when you’re in somebody else’s country. The culture of the United States is not Latin, and if you can Anglicize your name to make people in this country better understand you and to do business, then I don’t think it’s a bad idea, and that we need to be going- you know, that we need to be that critical. I mean- look, there's two sides to the story. It’s just- it’s one of those where I’m looking at it and I’m going, like- you know what? If you really think about it, it’s not a bad idea.