Philadelphia: Combating Xenopho bia at Geno ’s Cheesesteaks Joint

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Jul 2 17:49:44 UTC 2008

Combating Xenophobia at Geno's Cheesesteaks Joint

By Amee Vora

When my mother first arrived in this country over twenty years ago,
she watched "Sesame Street" with her children in order to improve her
English. The countless afternoons she spent watching Big Bird, the
Cookie Monster, and Elmo with me and my brother are memories she
fondly recounts. In fact, she attributes much of her success with the
language to various other PBS programs, such as "Mister Roger's
Neighborhood" or "Reading Rainbow." These shows, with their kind and
friendly characters, engaging techniques, and overall gentle demeanor,
provided a safe environment in which my mother, an Indian immigrant,
slowly adjusted and acclimated herself with American life and

However, it seems that many of the immigrants living in the America of
today are not fortunate enough to spend their adjustment period on
Sesame Street or in the Land of Make-Believe. They are thrown into the
"real world," where flaws are contemptibly scrutinized, criticism is
readily and frequently served, and English is at once expected to be
spoken out of the mouth of every individual.

Joe Vento, the owner of Philadelphia's popular cheesesteak spot,
Geno's, embodies this expectation. He put up two signs outside his
shop window to inform patrons that "This is America. When ordering,
please speak English," a message that received complaints that went to
the city's Commission of Human Relations. According to,
Vento was upset by Philadelphia's growing number of Hispanic and Asian
immigrants and their inability to place orders in English. However,
the commission, after holding a public hearing, recently decided in a
two to one ruling that the signs could stay because they did not state
that service would be refused on the account of language or ethnicity.

For me, this is not a matter of legality; in my opinion, this is not
an issue regarding the extent of the freedom of speech. As an attorney
for the commission asserted, this is a case of intimidation. Mr.
Vento's sign does not merely imply his views on having a national
language or immigration policy, it implies his lack of acceptance and
understanding. Although Vento claims to have never refused service to
anyone based on language, reported that Vento had said that if
he had been asked to take the signs down, he would have closed his
shop instead.

As he proudly displays this insulting, mean-spirited, and intimidating
message, I cannot help but wonder where his compassion for fellow
human beings is? Where is the empathy for someone embarking on a new
journey to a country that has, for centuries, stood as a symbol of
hope, acceptance, and dreams? Instead of welcoming these individuals
and helping them along, he has humiliated and intimidated them.

Especially in recent years, the emphasis on speaking English while
living in America has been hotly debated, with some saying that it
should be proclaimed the national language of this country simply due
to the fact that it is the most commonly spoken and utilized language
in the U.S. But whether or not this is made official, Mr. Vento's sign
will continue to be cruel and discriminatory towards people who have
come to this country in search of a better life.

With the presence of similar messages found on bumper stickers,
posters, t-shirts and other storefronts across this country, how will
immigrants ever take their first step towards acclimation and
adjustment? I do not want America, a country known for the melting-pot
cliché and its foundation of immigration, to be represented on a
global scale as a nation that detests foreigners and anything that is
not "normal." Mr. Vento, the descendent of Italian immigrants, should
realize that, while certain American freedoms may protect what he is
doing, his is also an act that goes against the concept of America

The adjustment to American life can be a long and painful process, a
notion that my immigrant parents' experiences, who are now both
American citizens, have certainly proven.

While "Sesame Street" and "Mister Rogers" may be for kids, the kind of
friendly, caring attitude in these shows is something we can all learn
from and mirror. It is important to be patient, accepting, and helpful
to all people, whether they speak English, Spanish, or Swahili.

Let's just say that that I will not be paying a visit to Geno's
anytime soon—and not simply because I am a vegetarian.
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