Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

English-only at Whole Foods?

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
June 12, 2013 -- Updated 1146 GMT (1946 HKT)
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
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT