Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

English-only at Whole Foods?

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
updated 7:46 AM EDT, Wed June 12, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two Whole Foods workers in New Mexico say they spoke Spanish, got suspended
  • Ruben Navarrette: Does the company have some sort of "English-only" policy?
  • He says New Mexico's state constitution actually does not declare an official language
  • Navarrette: Whole Foods need to be smarter about its language policy for employees

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

(CNN) -- Does your company have in place what amounts to an "English-only" policy for employees? Yes? No?

How do we get Whole Foods to tell the whole truth?

At the very least, what we have at the trendy organic supermarket chain is a failure to communicate -- in any language.

Bryan Baldizan and Lupe Gonzales -- two employees of a Whole Foods Market in Albuquerque, New Mexico -- say that they were suspended for speaking Spanish on the job and complaining to a manager who told them, in a staff meeting, that a company policy required them to speak English.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Who would have thought? Hispanics make up a staggering 46.7% of New Mexico's population, and many of those folks have roots that run deep in the Land of Enchantment.

New Mexicans do not play games when it comes to preserving language and culture. They take their right to speak Spanish seriously. New Mexico's state constitution does not declare an official language, and it protects Spanish and American Indian languages. So you can't have English-only policies there.

But not everyone sees eye to eye.

Remember that flap in October 2009 when Larry Whitten -- an innkeeper in Taos, New Mexico -- got in hot "agua" after firing some of his employees for speaking Spanish and refusing to Anglicize their names. You know, "Juan" to "John," "Maria" to "Mary" etc.

Whitten, a Texas transplant, claimed he was only thinking about his customer. But a lot of New Mexicans thought he wasn't thinking at all.

Now, Baldizan and Gonzales got in trouble. Granted, their suspension at Whole Foods only lasted a day, and it was with pay.

So the individual employees didn't suffer much harm. But there are those who believe that the cultural traditions of the state of New Mexico took a slap in the face. This isn't the end of this. Not even close.

How did the company respond? Take your pick. It's multiple choice.

At first, Whole Foods spokeswoman Libba Letton told the Associated Press that the employees misunderstood the reason they were disciplined and that they were actually suspended for being "rude and disrespectful." In the context of employees talking to their boss, it's pretty clear that what she really meant to say was that they were "insubordinate."

Letton also told AP that the employees were never told they couldn't speak Spanish, and that there is no policy in place at the company that prohibits people from speaking a foreign language.

But the issue is not whether the company prohibits the speaking of a foreign language, but whether it requires the speaking of English. Maybe it's just semantics, or maybe it's more than semantics.

Besides, it doesn't look like Letton -- who is based in Austin -- was up to speed on what was happening on the ground in Albuquerque.

Ben Friedland, executive marketing coordinator for Whole Foods Market Rocky Mountain Region, issued a statement acknowledging that the company believes that "having a uniform form of communication is essential to a safe and efficient working environment."

Therefore, the statement said, "our policy states that all English speaking Team Members must speak English to customers and other Team Members while on the clock."

"Must speak," eh? Sounds like an English-only policy to me.

It went on: "Team Members are free to speak any language they would like during their breaks, meal periods and before and after work."

Wow. Whole Foods gives you permission to speak Spanish with family members at home before leaving for work. That's big of them.

And what if a Spanish-speaking customer wants to come in and pay too much for an organic apple? They thought of that, too.

The statement continues: "Additionally, this policy does not apply to conversations among Team Members and customers if all parties present agree that a different language is their preferred form of communication."

Then, of course, there was the PR sprinkled with PC.

"At Whole Foods Market, we take pride in the diversity of our Team Member and customer base. We recognize with this diversity comes the challenge of different languages spoken."

See, there's the problem right there. The fact that an employee speaks more than one language isn't a challenge to be overcome. It's a valuable asset that provides one's company with limitless opportunities.

And, after all that effort and all those words, the folks responsible for communicating for Whole Foods still weren't sure they were communicating well enough.

So Letton circled back around and tried to edit Friedland's statement, telling USA Today in an e-mail that saying employees "must speak English" was "an overstatement."

The final word is that the company now says that it would review the policy. You know, the one that it supposedly didn't have 10 minutes ago.

And these are the folks who want us all to speak proper English so we can get our point across? They need to go first.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 5:15 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT