TAOS, N.M. —Larry Whitten marched into this northern New Mexico town in late July on a mission: resurrect a failing hotel.
He immediately laid down some new rules. Among them, he forbade the Hispanic workers from speaking Spanish in his presence and ordered some to Anglicize their names.
No more Martin (Mahr-TEEN). It was plain-old Martin. No more Marcos. Now it would be Mark.
The 63-year-old Texan wasn't prepared for what followed.
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 Spanish language, culture and traditions have a long and revered history.
"I came into this landmine of Anglos versus Spanish versus Mexicans versus Indians versus everybody up here," Whitten said. "I'm just doing what I've always done."
Former workers, their relatives and some town residents picketed across the street from the hotel.
"I do feel he's a racist, but he's a racist out of ignorance. He doesn't know that what he's doing is wrong," said protester Juanito Burns Jr..
The Virginia-born Whitten had spent 40 years in the hotel business, turning around more than 20 hotels in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and South Carolina, before moving with his wife to Taos from Abilene, Texas. He had visited Taos before, and liked its beauty. When Whitten saw that the Paragon Inn was up for sale, he jumped at it.
After he arrived, Whitten met with the employees. He said he immediately noticed that they were hostile to his management style and worried they might start talking about him in Spanish.
"Because of that, I asked the people in my presence to speak only English because I do not understand Spanish," Whitten said. "I've been working 24 years in Texas and we have a lot of Spanish people there. I've never had to ask anyone to speak only English in front of me because I've never had a reason to."
Fired hotel manager Kathy Archuleta said the workers initially tried to adjust to his style. "We had already gone through four or five owners before him, so we knew what to expect," Archuleta said. "I told (the workers) we needed to give him a chance."
Then Whitten told some employees he was changing their Spanish first names. Whitten said it's a routine practice at his hotels to change first names of employees who work the front desk phones or deal directly with guests if their names are difficult to understand or pronounce.
Martin Gutierrez, another fired employee, said he felt disrespected.
"I don't have to change my name and language or heritage," he said. "I'm professional the way I am."
In an interview with the Associated Press, Whitten said he was sorry for the misunderstanding and insisted he has never been against any culture.