Imagine having your boss tell you that you need to change your name to something more American sounding. That's just what one man asked some of the employees to do at his New Mexico inn, and it has many in the area outraged.
Larry Whitten, owner of the Whitten Inn, and his attorney Alan Maestas, spoke to Kiran Chetry on CNN’s “American Morning” Tuesday. Below is an edited transcript of that interview.
Kiran Chetry: Larry, let me just ask you, first of all, about the controversy that's going on. Explain when you took over this hotel, renamed it the Whitten inn – you've taken over failing hotels in other places. You moved there to Taos with your wife and some of the moves that you made at this hotel are generating a lot of controversy. How do you see it? What's been going on?
Whitten: Well, my operation is taking over distressed hotels and correcting as many problems as quickly as possible to reduce the outflow of cash. It's a simple procedure, a proven procedure of retraining everyone to be a professional hotelman, and up to this point it's been very successful.
Chetry: Well, in this case, you told your employees that you wanted them to change their names. Is that true? MAR-TEEN, you wanted him to be Martin instead?
Alan Maestas: That's actually not accurate. What he said was that he wanted people on the switchboard to use a name that people calling from all over the world would understand. He didn't ask them to change their names. He simply wanted the name at the switchboard something that was understandable.
Chetry: So how is that not changing their name?
Maestas: Well, for example, people say what's your name, and I say my name is Alan Maestas. Just call me Alan, because it's easier for people to understand. It’s more hospitable, it’s more polite.
Chetry: But isn't that your name?
Maestas: It is my name.
Chetry: In this case, one of the employees said his name was MAR-TEEN, not Martin.
Maestas: I understand that. But the point is changing the name was only the name to be used on the switchboard so people would understand it. Off the switchboard, he could use whatever name he wanted.
Chetry: Larry, how did the employees respond? As I also understand, you told them you didn't want them speaking Spanish in your presence, you wanted them to be speaking English and some of them were upset by that as well.
Whitten: Well, Kiran, when you take over distressed property, naturally, there are a lot of bad things that have been going on, still going on. So I was faced, as normal, with a great – a little bit more – a great deal of hostility. It was immediate. Cooperation was not there. And that at this meeting that I held the first day I was here, with this in mind, I asked them to speak English around me, but by all means, when my guests come in the doors, you accommodate that guest, and if it's Spanish, whatever language it may be, whatever language they speak, you take care of my guests. When they're in their own departments talking amongst themselves, use whatever language is comfortable to them.
Chetry: You said that as a result of this, some of your employees were hostile and insubordinate. That resulted in you letting some of them go. Now you've got a problem on your hands in that some of these employees are outside picketing. I mean, none of this can be good for business. Is this how you intended things to happen?
Maestas: You're not exactly accurate. The employees that were let go aren't the ones out there picketing. …
Chetry: You're doing the legalese stuff and I totally get it, but the bottom line is people are angry in this town. People are picketing in this town. Larry himself says it's costing him money, costing him business. Is this what you intended the outcome to be of this situation? You say you were going in there to try to make a distressed hotel a viable business.
Whitten: Well, certainly not. My method is one that I've used for 20 different hotels. The results here have not been good and I certainly did not do anything intentionally. My partner and I spent several million dollars to come to this beautiful land of enchantment. It would idiotic for me to purposely offend the great culture of the Spanish. You could really call me stupid, but I'm not a racist. No intention has ever been done purposely to insult anyone. It was a matter of procedure and, you know, hasn't been good and if I could take it all back, I’d snap my finger.
Chetry: Really? So you say if you could take it all back, you would. Going forward, how do you propose to handle the situation? How do you want to sort of make things right and make sure that this situation doesn't end up costing you and also the people who work there?
Whitten: Well, the people out front that are protesting, I've offered to mediate with them, I've offered to speak with them with no results. So all we can do is go forward, keep doing a great job remodeling. We're spending half a million dollars here. I am certainly more tolerant of the Spanish names. We're working to just make sure that my guest hears a distinct name and just go forward.
Chetry: All right. And one other quick note. A national civil rights organization, the League of United Latin American Citizens, issued a statement, but in part they're saying they're encouraging people in the Hispanic community not to patronize any of Mr. Whitten's establishments here or outside the state of New Mexico. They've sent copies about the situation. This is coming from Pablo Martinez, the state director there. How is this affecting your business, that they're asking people not to patronize your hotels because of this?
Whitten: Well, I wrote Mr. Martinez a letter and explained my situation, apologized for, you know, coming to town, hitting the deck in the wrong way and I wish for him to understand I had no ill intentions. I don't know the ramifications, you know. If we can undo everything, that's what we want to do.