Something I always love about discussing regionalism: trying to dissuade people from seeing unique places and peoples, whose histories can be tangential or contrary to the national narrative, as something other than special cases.
Take the current controversy over Larry Whitten, the hotelier who has come under fire for requiring employees in Taos, NM to Anglicize their names and speak only English in his presence. Certainly, it’s not difficult to see how his actions were insulting and impracticable, not to mention detrimental to the charms of tourism in the Southwest United States.
But the AP article, which has served as the basis for discussion about Whitten, makes Taos (as well as New Mexico) a special case where the normal expectations of assimilation do not apply:
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.
Taos is not originally Hispanic, and to its credit, the author (Melanie Dabovich) mentions that it has been “an American Indian dwelling inhabited for over 1,000 years”. The author’s language, which were reproduced or mimicked in most articles about this affair, plays into perceptions that Spanish speakers are tolerated in Taos, not native to Taos (if not properly indigenous). Yet they are not there because Taos is “liberal” or accepting of “alternative lifestyles.”
This presentation is moreover troubling because it plays into the equating of Hispanic and immigrant that is at the heart of the immigration debate. Rick Sanchez, who can be a visible advocate for Hispanic issues from the anchor desk at CNN, made this very point:
“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.”
Yet there is no reason to believe that the Taosenos were “allowed” to come to American. Even if there were immigrants (or their descendants) among those working for Whitten, Hispanic culture had already taken root in New Mexico before the arrival of the United States. Sanchez, born in Cuban, rather arrogantly has made his story that of all Spanish speakers.
Ultimately, the nationalization of Mexicans that occurred with the annexation of the Southwest in the 1840s ought to be sufficient for tolerating all Spanish speakers anywhere in the United States. Making New Mexico a special case, even its unique history is acknowledged, has the effect of territorializing and containing Hispanic heritage.