1 language, many questions

Some can't see why Taneytown made English its official tongue

November 15, 2006|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun Reporter

Antonino LoBue didn't need a law to force him to learn English when he moved to this country from Belgium 22 years ago.

The same drive that motivated him to adapt to his new country's language brought him five years later to Taneytown, where he bought a small pizza parlor and transformed it into one of the most popular restaurants in town.

But the Taneytown resident doesn't understand why his City Council voted 3-to-2 Monday night to become the first municipality in Maryland to make English its official language.

"I don't think it should be mandated by law," LoBue, 48, who speaks five languages fluently, said yesterday. "People may think they can walk in my store here and arrest or sue me for speaking a different language. It makes no sense."

With a population of 5,500 - 96 percent white and 1.5 percent Latino or Hispanic, according to the 2000 U.S. Census - Taneytown represents few diverse cultures.

Two Chinese restaurants sit off opposite ends of the city's quaint main street. One of the only visible signs in Spanish - "Facilite Su Vida!" (Make Your Life Easier) - sits atop a rack of international calling cards at a Sheetz convenience store.

Five men who work for LoBue in the kitchen of Tony's Caf? and Pizzeria hail from El Salvador and Mexico. The young men, most in their 20s and 30s, did not want to be identified and were apprehensive about discussing the city's new resolution.

"They just want to do their jobs and be left alone," said Karen LoBue, Antonino's wife.

The tiny city in northwest Carroll County has joined the ranks of more than 50 municipalities nationwide that have considered, approved or rejected similar resolutions and laws to make English the official language, according to the Associated Press.

Monday night, the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch became the first Texas city to approve English as its official language and to pass tough anti-immigration measures that establish fines for landlords who rent to undocumented immigrants.

About a dozen Hispanic residents of Taneytown attend a weekly Spanish Mass at St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster and all oppose the English-language resolution, according to Gary Chance, the church's liaison to the Hispanic community.

"They're not in Taneytown trying to change the language," Chance said. "They just want to live and be left alone. They try to help themselves as opposed to putting their burdens on society."

As a bilingual Puerto Rican raised in the Bronx, N.Y., St. John parishioner and Taneytown resident Maribel Vicioso said she found the resolution disrespectful.

"Everyone should keep their culture," Vicioso said. "At home, we speak English and Spanish."

For Lin Ling, there is little time to perfect her English. She works 13 hours a day, six days a week as a hostess at Taneytown's Beijing Restaurant. When she's not at the restaurant, she studies English with a tutor.

She's more fluent than the restaurant's other employees, some of whom speak no English.

"For me, it's OK, but some Chinese speakers don't really understand [English]," said Lin, 25, a native of Shenzhen, China, near Hong Kong. "It's really difficult."

At other downtown Taneytown businesses, opinions on the English-language resolution were mixed.

Across the street from the Beijing Restaurant, a "God Bless America" sign and a blue and yellow-ribboned "Support Our Troops" flag adorned the entrance to the Irish Moon Coffee House.

Inside, employee Carla Myers paused between pouring lattes and knitting a hat to express her opinion that the measure is unnecessary.

"I'm not going to call the cops if someone comes in here and says, `Hola!'" Myers said.

At Antrim 1844, Taneytown's elegant French-American restaurant and country inn, employees said the resolution shouldn't negatively affect their business.

"Personally, I don't see a problem with it," said innkeeper Denise Jones. "If you go to live in France and own a business there, would you only want to speak English? But I do see both sides. What a big thing going on for little old Taneytown."

Unlike the Texas law, the non-binding Taneytown resolution has no real teeth.

At the 11th hour, Taneytown Councilman Paul E. Chamberlain Jr. dropped plans to change the city charter with a related ordinance. That would have been more costly to implement and probably would have drawn lawsuits from immigrant-rights groups.

LoBue said he tried to assuage his Hispanic employees' concerns about the City Council's actions, describing it as a government matter that shouldn't affect them.

"I think it's not necessary, but I understand the feelings of people," LoBue said. "It's just a human reaction. I will not go out of my way to hide that I speak other languages."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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