0

CEPEDA: Pizza with culture war topping, por favor

Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

CHICAGO -- There are two kinds of people in the world: those who get inspired by a challenge and those who interpret it as an insult.

For example, if some clever travel agency offered the opportunity to get a free trip to France at the cost of having to recite all seven stanzas of the "La Marseillaise" -- France's national anthem -- I'd be all over it. I'd download the lyrics and start prepping my family like a high school chorus master struggling to get the German verses of "Stille Nacht" onto rebellious teenage tongues in the month before Christmas.

I certainly wouldn't take it as a slight to non-Francophiles, or discrimination against anyone who didn't want to learn French for the privilege of visiting the Eiffel Tower. To each his own, right? It's a free country. If you don't want a complimentary trip, you ignore the offer and move on.

Well, that's what normal people would do. Those paranoid with terror that un-American cheese-eating surrender monkeys were conspiring against them -- and all America stands for! -- would instead go on the attack.

Sounds silly, right?

Yet this is basically what's happening to a clever Dallas-based pizza franchise called Pizza Patron, which has been drawing flak from the fearful few for its upcoming "Pizzas Por Favor" promotion. On June 5 between the hours of 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., anyone who walks into a Pizza Patron location and orders in Spanish gets a large pepperoni pizza -- free.

Queue 80,000 pies worth of indignation.

According to USA Today, a few people were quite displeased. "It seems to punish people who can't speak Spanish, and I resent that," said Peter Thomas, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, an advocacy organization that wants English named as America's official language. "In public areas, people should be speaking English, and that includes pizza parlors."

And at least one Hispanic person was up in arms about the offer. Marcela Gomez, president of Hispanic Marketing Group based in Nashville, told USA Today: "Maybe they thought it was a cute thing to do, but I think it's discrimination." She also said that she'd never recommend such a tactic to her clients, and she may actually have a point for more timid companies.

But the folks at Pizza Patron are no strangers to controversy -- and their cultural tightrope walks have garnered scores of juicy headlines from around the world. Back in 2007, they started accepting Mexican pesos as payment, drawing international attention and some death threats, too.

"We were just offering a service to our customer base, which is primarily Hispanic, travels to and from Mexico frequently and has leftover pesos in their wallets and sock drawers -- and money is money," said Andy Gamm, Pizza Patron's brand director. "We couldn't believe the death threats, the negative commentaries and media coverage, but there's a large segment of the population for whom anything related to immigration, language or Mexican culture is a raw nerve."

According to Gamm, this time around the media coverage has been largely favorable, with few people having any great misunderstandings about what a piddling amount of Spanish you need to cash in on the free pizza deal. But there's still some serious ire.

"We are rewarding people for speaking Spanish, and not everyone's happy about that," Gamm told me. "We've gotten nasty calls, our email server got hacked and there have been minor incidents at various market stores. Last week, someone on the street recognized our company president and called him a racist."

As a result, Pizza Patron will be adding extra security at their locations -- most of their restaurants are in the Southwest -- on the day of the promotion, just in case. Bodyguards for pizza sellers -- doesn't this perfectly illustrate how ridiculous the whole thing is? And for what? All anyone needs is about as much Spanish as the Taco Bell chihuahua mustered.

Hungry patrons can say "Yo quiero pizza" (I want pizza) or "Pizza, por favor" (Pizza, please). But memorizing these phrases -- or writing them on your hand -- is completely unnecessary.

"Just show up and get in line," Gamm said. "You don't have to be prepared, you don't have to know anything, we will help you say the words. It's pretty crazy how easy it is."

Yes, and totally loco is the best way to describe anyone angry about a gratis pizza.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.