English only at Philly cheesesteak joint

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Jun 9 12:06:42 UTC 2006

>>From the Seattle P-I, Thursday, June 8, 2006

English only at Philly cheesesteak joint


PHILADELPHIA -- Bistec con queso? Not at Geno's Steaks. An English-only
ordering policy has thrust one of Philadelphia's best-known cheesesteak
joints into the national immigration debate. Situated in a South
Philadelphia immigrant neighborhood, Geno's - which together with its
chief rival, Pat's King of Steaks, forms the epicenter of an area
described as "ground zero for cheesesteaks" - has posted small signs
telling customers, "This Is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING `SPEAK ENGLISH.'"

"They don't know how lucky they are. All we're asking them to do is learn
the English language," said Geno's owner Joseph Vento, 66. "We're out to
help these people, but they've got to help themselves, too." Vento, whose
grandparents struggled to learn English after immigrating from Sicily in
the 1920s, said he posted the sign about six months ago amid concerns over
immigration reform and the increasing number of customers who could not
order in English when they wanted Philly's gooey, greasy specialty - fried
steak, sliced or chopped, in a long roll, with cheese and fried onions.

Of course, it's not as if native Philadelphians speak the King's English
either. A Philadelphian might order a cheesesteak by saying something
like, "Yo, gimme a cheesesteak wit, will youse?" ("Wit," or "with," means
with fried onions.) To which the counterman might reply: "Youse want fries
widdat?" The traditionally Italian community near Geno's has become more
diverse over the decades. Immigrants from Asia and Latin America have
moved in, joining longtime residents and young professionals seeking
reasonably priced rowhouses. In the past 10 years, an estimated 15,000 to
20,000 Mexican immigrants - many of them here illegally, community leaders
say - have settled in South Philly.

Vento said his staff is glad to help non-native speakers order in English
and has never turned someone away because of a language barrier. But the
policy has "really upset a lot of a people," said Brad Baldia of Day
Without An Immigrant, a coalition of immigrant groups. "For some people, I
think we're just going to say, `Le gusta Pat's.'" Juntos, a Hispanic
neighborhood organization, said it plans to send people to Geno's to try
to order in Spanish and may pursue court action, depending on what

"His grandparents encountered the same racism and the same xenophobia,"
said Peter Bloom, the group's director. "Why would he begin that process
over again?" Vento said he has gotten plenty of criticism and threats. One
person told him they hoped one his many neon signs flames out and burns
the place down, he said. But he said he plans to hold his ground.
Customers placing orders on a recent morning seemed unfazed. Angelica
Marquez, 22 and originally from Puerto Rico, ordered in well-spoken
English, but said some of her relatives struggle with the language. "They
always come and just say `cheesesteak,'" Marquez said, adding that the
policy "bothers her some" but not enough to keep her away.

When a non-English speaking customer showed up at the window a short time
later, a clerk patiently coached him through the process. Eventually, both
said "cheesesteak." Vento, a short, fiery man with a ninth-grade
education, arms covered in tattoos and a large diamond ring in his ear,
also sells "freedom fries" to protest France's opposition to the Iraq war.
He rails against Mumia Abu-Jamal, the black man who was convicted of
killing police Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981 and has become a cause
celebre among some death penalty opponents. Memorials to Faulkner are
posted at his shop. Those who market the city, often using images of
Geno's and other famous steak shops, are watching with concern.

"I certainly wouldn't want a national audience to think it represented all
of the wonderful cheesesteak makers in the whole city," said Meryl Levitz,
president and chief executive of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism
Marketing Corp. "This isn't representative of the Philadelphia attitude."
Competitors are seizing on the controversy. Tony Luke's issued a statement
saying it welcomes all customers "whether or not they speak a `wit' of
English." And a manager at Pat's, Kathy Smith, said of Geno's English-only
policy:  "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard in my life. I'd
rather listen to the Spanish than the foul language of the college


[moderator's note: "Youse" is usually pronounced [yIz] in unstressed
position in South Philadelphia. (hs)]

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