PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A sign in a landmark Philadelphia restaurant asking customers to order in English is sparking controversy in the metropolis known as the "City of Brotherly Love."
The owner of Geno's Steaks said on Thursday that the sign, "This is America - when ordering speak English," is intended to encourage immigrants to learn the language and assimilate into U.S. society, but one Latino activist said it's racist.
The controversy comes amid a national debate over immigration in the United States. The U.S. Senate passed an immigration bill last month that includes a provision which would make English the national language.
"They should be glad that I put the sign up. I'm trying to help them to speak English," said Joey Vento, 66, whose grandparents moved to the United States from Italy. "Without the English language, they are going to have a lot of problems in this country.
"There is nobody who can say they are turned down because of the language," he added. "They can point if they want to."
The sign, which Vento posted at his cheese steak restaurant about six months ago and says he has no intention of removing, has made some people angry.
Roberto Santiago, executive director of Philadelphia's Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations, said he was "appalled" by the policy.
"I think what's coming out of his mouth is racist," said Santiago. "He is saying, 'I don't like these brown faces in my community and I will do everything I can to get them out of there.'"
Santiago said he has urged Latinos to boycott Geno's Steaks, a fixture in South Philadelphia's Little Italy neighborhood which has seen an influx of Hispanic immigrants in recent years.
Vento denied that anyone would be refused service if they ordered one of the sliced beef-and-cheese sandwiches, a famed bit of cuisine in the Quaker-founded "City of Brotherly Love," in a language other than English.
Tony Luke, co-owner of competitor Tony Luke's restaurant, said Vento has taken "too much of a hard line" with non-English-speaking customers.
"You can't be expected to learn English in a week," he said. "We will be a lot more tolerant than that."