|By Phil Parker, Albuquerque Journal,
N.M.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
September 20, 2009 - TAOS -- Larry Whitten said a woman recently walked into his hotel wanting to speak with him. "She was one of these mountain people that live around here," Whitten said, "one of these potheads who escaped society."
Whitten owns and operates the Whitten Inn in Taos, and, for the last month, protesters have stood outside holding signs and shouting "Boycott! Boycott!" from the sidewalk at anyone who heads toward the hotel's front doors.
The "mountain" woman had talked with the protesters and wanted to hear Whitten's side of the story.
The controversy began after Whitten fired several hotel workers and told some to use Anglo versions of their Spanish first names like Martin and Marcos (they were instructed to go by Martin, without the accent, and Mark instead). Whitten also told employees they couldn't speak Spanish, at least when they're around him.
"This mountain lady who wanted to hear the truth, she asks me, 'When you told Martin his name was gonna change, did you ask him how he felt about that?' " Whitten said.
"I said 'Lady, I'm not running a nursery.' When the Marine Corps teaches you to hit the dirt because there's a grenade, you don't say, 'Hey fellas, you wanna hit the dirt or you wanna get your ass blown up?'"
Whitten came to Taos this summer to take the reins of financially strapped Paragon Inn, a hotel described by one reviewer on TripAdvisor. com as "Old, dusty and dirty." Determined to make his new investment a success, Whitten enacted a host of policies he says are standard practice in all his hotels, including having some employees change their names. He quickly fired at least seven people. Now, former employees and other members of the Hispanic community in Taos are calling him a racist, the daily boycott protests off Paseo del Pueblo Sur/N.M. 68 -- the main road into Taos from the south -- are denting the Whitten Inn's bottom line, and a prominent national Latino organization is threatening to sue.
Whitten said that he is in the "distressed hotel business" and that the Paragon Inn is the 29th hotel he's taken over. One of his first acts as owner was to hold a meeting with the employees. At that meeting, everyone was fired, then rehired on a probationary basis (except for two workers under 18, who Whitten said couldn't stay on because of insurance issues).
Martin Gutierrez, 21, is one of the employees sacked soon after Whitten took over.
"At that first meeting, he told us things weren't working out the way the business was being run, that we, the employees, were running the business down and most of us probably wouldn't like his ways," Gutierrez said.
One of the many rules Whitten established was that no employee could speak Spanish in his presence. Whitten has another policy he institutes at his hotels, which has gone over poorly with Hispanics in Taos -- he insists employees "simplify" their names.
Martin Gutierrez was told to go by Martin, without the Spanish accent on the second syllable. "When you say Martin with a Spanish accent, and you try to embellish it, I thought he was saying 'My thing,' " Whitten said.
Another employee, named Marcos, was told to change his name to Mark. Or Bill.
Whitten, 63 and a veteran of the Marines, runs a tight ship. He insists employees arrive for shifts 10 minutes early, and he's crafted a philosophy strictly tailored to the idea that he must not lose a single customer.
About two weeks after he took over, five employees said they needed a meeting, and one called the police to ensure their protection. Whitten said they were all in his office when one of the workers called him a white supremacist.
"The whole meeting was about this," Whitten said. "Not name changes, not culture, not speaking Spanish." That same employee called him "white (expletive)," Whitten said, and so he fired that worker and those who had rallied alongside him.
Whitten also said he needed to shake up the hotel's loose atmosphere. Last week, he made an employee write the words "One moment please" 100 times after failing repeatedly to use that phrase with customers being put on hold.
Two days after the meeting and the firings, the picketing started.
The League of United Latin American Citizens was alerted to the situation at the Whitten Inn and is considering legal action.
A LULAC representative was sent to Taos and organized a news conference. When she got here, LULAC National Youth President Jessica Martinez saw the words "LULAC group says owner a white (expletive). Who's the real racist?" on the Whitten Inn marquee.
That day, Martinez wrote a letter threatening legal action if the sign wasn't changed (LULAC says it wasn't one of their people who used the racial slur), and the letter was delivered by police.
The words quickly came down.
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