Yes, Miami has language barriers, but what happened to ‘the customer is always right’?

Miami is a modern-day Babel where thousands of daily interactions are lost in translation.

But most of the time English speakers, Spanish speakers and Creole speakers manage to make themselves understood. It’s a miracle, really, that there aren’t more incidents like the impasse at a Hialeah Taco Bell on Sept. 12 between a drive-through customer who tried to place her order in English and a recalcitrant cashier who insisted she spoke only Spanish.

“This is Hialeah,” the cashier said in Spanish. In a dismissive tone, she called the customer “mi vida,” or honey, and slid the window shut in her face.

Only in Miami-Dade County, which is conveniently located close to the United States, would the traditional jingoistic retort of “This is America, and we speak English here” be converted to, “This is Hialeah, and we speak Spanish here.”

The customer, Alexandria Montgomery, just wanted to buy a quesadilla, which is one of the many Spanish words on the menu of the Mexican-themed fast food chain. But Montgomery left hungry.

The employee, identified by Taco Bell only as Luisa, was fired after Montgomery’s cell phone video of the encounter went viral. Luisa also threatened to call the police because Montgomery was holding up the line of cars behind her. To Montgomery, who is black, the language barrier wasn’t the sole problem. She said she was a victim of racial discrimination and that Luisa would have served her had she been white.

“I understand everyone in Miami doesn’t speak English, and that’s fine, but if she had been willing to work with me I think the outcome would have been different,” Montgomery told NBC6, and she was absolutely right. During the three-minute exchange, it is clear Luisa understood Montgomery. At one point, a man in the car with Montgomery offers to place the order in Spanish using the combo numbers.

“Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, the menu?” he said. Luisa shakes her head, says “No mas, papi,” and tells two other employees not to bother completing the transaction.

If Miami is a melting pot, then linguistic tension is constantly on the verge of bubbling into a boil.

Montgomery felt like she was an unwelcome stranger in her hometown — a feeling that has caused numerous native Anglos to move away from a city where they have become a minority over the six decades since Fidel Castro took control of Cuba and since the growing influx of immigrants from Central and South America has changed the face and language of the “gateway to the Americas.” In Hialeah, the city with the largest Hispanic population in the U.S., 96 percent of residents say they speak Spanish as their primary language.

Read more: The Hialeah Taco Bell drive-thru lady just got remixed into a reggaeton song

Yet, in broken English and broken Spanish, the people who live in this fractured place find a way to keep it from breaking apart. Deploying incorrect tenses, pidgin vocabulary, improvised hand gestures and bad accents, South Floridians talk to each other. Even an attempt at “please” or “por favor” or “souple” can turn a hostile glare into a smile.

At the Taco Bell that is now a symbol of our failure to communicate, everything was back to normal Tuesday, six days after Montgomery received an apology and a $100 voucher from management. The restaurant is located at 785 E. 9th St. In Hialeah, “the City of Progress,” which has its own address system, which means it’s also located at 785 NW 62nd St. and 785 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Read Next

As in many local businesses, the employees are at least functionally bilingual. About half the drivers ordering food at the drive-through lane intercom spoke Spanish and half spoke English. The cashier working the window switched languages seamlessly.

At the counter inside, another cashier took most orders in Spanish and a couple in English. Her English was limited but she was able to explain what a chalupa is.

“Everyone here can do the job in English if they need to,” said Lucas Mena, the shift manager. “We are trained to be courteous and help the customer.”

Luisa, he said, violated a basic tenet of commerce: The customer is always right. If you want to be successful, you speak the language of the consumer. On Mars, speak Martian. In Little Haiti, speak Creole. In South Broward, speak French to accommodate visitors from Quebec.

“I don’t know why she did that. I don’t know why she acted that way,” Mena said of Luisa. “She was supervisor on that night shift and she knows enough English to take orders.”

taco bell window.jpg
Taco Bell drive-throug window in Hialeah, where a customer was refused service because a staffer said workers at the fast-food restaurant spoke only Spanish. Linda Robertson Miami Herald

Luisa, subject of a new parody song on the Only in Dade Facebook page, may have been pulling a Sammy Sosa. The Chicago Cubs slugger, a native of the Dominican Republic, feigned an inability to understand or speak English when he was hauled before Congress to address accusations of performance-enhancing steroid use.

“I guess she was having a very bad day,” Mena said of Luisa. “She was rude. She deserved to lose her job.”

From behind the counter, an employee called out the number of an order that was ready to be picked up.

“Ochenta y cuatro,” she said. But the customer, Bo Thornton, didn’t move. He doesn’t speak Spanish. The cashier signaled for another customer to alert Thornton. When Thornton took his tray, he said, “Gracias.”

“Thank you,” said the employee, bursting into a grin.

They bridged the communication gap, which Thornton said he does daily at his print shop job in Hialeah. He lives in Miramar.

“I come to eat here pretty often and when I saw the news, I had to laugh,” he said. “When she said, ‘This is Hialeah,’ that’s the truth. When I go to Publix for lunch, sometimes the lady making sandwiches doesn’t speak English, but I’ve learned enough Spanish to explain what I want. I still use amarillo for mustard, though. She understands.”

Thornton, who is black, said he can’t judge whether Luisa’s refusal to serve Montgomery was racist.

“You never know. You’ve got to be inside the person’s head to know,” he said. “I have experienced racism. I know it’s there in the Hispanic community. But you have pockets of it everywhere.”

Hialeah was invoked to justify another offensive episode when former state senator Frank Artiles defended his use of the n-word by saying, “I’m from Hialeah,” implying it was OK because he grew up in a diverse neighborhood. Artiles resigned amid a flood of outrage from fellow legislators and Hialeah leaders.

Thornton found the entire Taco Bell incident amusingly ironic.

“‘Hey, this is Hialeah, why would you expect us to habla ingles?’” he said.

Thornton walked past a sign on his way out. Taco Bell is hiring. Bilingual applicants wanted.

Related stories from Miami Herald