Guest Commentary


— When I was a waiter at the Rio Grande Cafe in Salt Lake City, the swinging double-doors that led to the restaurant's kitchen served as passage between two worlds.

Outside the doors, the downtown lunchtime crowds dined in the cool spaciousness of the restaurant's dining room. Dressed in a starched white shirt and tie tucked between the buttons, I zipped between pairs of Mormons who ordered chile rellenos and O'Doul's, luncheon parties of 10 plump secretaries and tables of four men all on cell phones all having the special.

Through the doors with the orders in hand, however, I found myself in quite another place. The temperature rose 20 degrees, and ranchera music almost but not quite overcame the voices of the Mexican cooks who cursed at each other as they banged spatulas against the line.

Once us waiters entered, they made it clear that this was their kitchen, and not ours. "Amigo," they would say, pointing to a scrawled order, "What is this pinche crap?"

Amigo was what the Mexicans called all of us gringos. As hapless as we were fumbling through their domain, it was as good as boy. They called each other compadrito. I wished I could be a compadrito.

During the lunch rush I breathed sighs of relief as I escaped the cooks' clutches, falling back into rhythm between the rows of bland, suited clientele. I hated feeling like a foreigner in my own country. Some of these Mexicans could have been in the States less time than I had been employed at the Rio.

Which is why I can sympathize with many Utahns, and Westerners all over, when they say "English Only."

The Utah proposal to make English its official language, known as Initiative A on this November's ballot, would make English the sole language of the government. Utah is just one of several Western states to join in on the chorus of "English Only" In the past four years, Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota have passed legislation. The issue also has surfaced in California and Arizona. The Utah law's supporters, like state Rep. Tammy Rowan, have said the law would help the state's immigrants and natives speak the same language.

But underlying this hope is fear. How do I know? Because it's the same fear that I felt in the Rio Grande's kitchen. It is the same fear that residents of Western communities inevitably feel when they can't read the business signs in the neighborhood where they have lived their whole lives.

But fear is a poor basis for writing law. It is true that in Utah's case at least, "English Only" would apply only to government documents, such as driver's license exams, but the law sends a message to Hispanics, whether they be American citizens, documented immigrants or illegal aliens: "My way or the highway."

But in whose country do we live? Some studies project that in the year 2020 a majority of the United States population will speak Spanish. Nowhere is the Hispanic population growing faster than in the West in its agricultural fields, its ski towns and its cities. Either with papers or without, Hispanic immigrants grease the wheels of our bull-market economy. White-collar Anglos couldn't power lunch in restaurants like the Rio Grande without the huge Hispanic work force.

America has jumped headfirst into globalization. But can we rake in global capital through our borders while refusing entry to the cultures and languages that accompany these profits? We can't pick and choose which parts of globalization we want.

Many immigrants settling in to our country will learn English. Certainly their children and grandchildren will. But the English-speaking people of our country need to return the favor by learning the languages of the people who make our global economy possible.

My Spanish isn't great, but it got better the more I hung out behind the double doors at the Rio Grande Cafe. I learned the names of the cooks, and they learned mine, sort of.

"Teen," they said.

What part of Mexico are you from, I asked them. How did you get here? They asked me if I was married, and when I said I wasn't, they displayed their rings, and said it was a bad idea. We laughed together.

All the Mexican cooks spoke at least a little English. It was a wonderful thing to be able to converse with them in and out of two languages. They never stopped calling me "amigo," but I think they meant it.

Tim Sullivan is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.


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