The English Only Restaurant was published in New York in 1990, during the resurgence of nativist sentiment in the United States, a national phenomenon that some sociologists consider to be "a backlash against legislative and judicial tolerance toward linguistic minorities in the areas of civil rights, voting rights and educational opportunities" (Marshall 22). At the time the play appeared, New York's Suffolk County was considering a restrictive official English measure that "would prohibit social workers, child-abuse investigators, consumer-protection advocates and doctors in county clinics from speaking to clients in Spanish or any other foreign language" (Schmitt qtd. in Zentella 173). In 1987 and 1988, similar restrictions had been unsuccessfully proposed in the state legislature, but it is significant that 84 percent of those polled in 1989 supported Suffolk County's repressive bill (Schmitt B3). In The English Only Restaurant Martinez Palau's play takes these propositions to their logical extreme: the banning of foreign languages from the nation's public spaces.
The play presents a number of Latino characters who, seduced by the economic promises of assimilation, attempt to suppress their linguistic and cultural identities in order to run a business the "American way." Since the owner has an "English-only" license from the state, the presence in the restaurant of Spanish-speaking members of the local community threatens his enterprise; he contacts the ominous language police, who arrive in full military regalia and are ready to enforce the law there in Queens, New York City. The play ends in mayhem, and the circumstances of the event suggest that the tragic outcome is due as much to economic, political, and cultural factors associated with the American promise of prosperity for all assimilated "Americans" as to the violation of the fictional English-only statutes.
As befits a sociopolitical satire, the play on the one hand consciously ridicules the characters and their actions for the subservient conformity they represent, and on the other hand balances this critical vision with an implicit appeal to a more liberal norm by which these characters and behaviors can be judged: the United States has always been a multilingual society, and minority languages should have a rightful place alongside the language of the dominant majority group. Along with asserting this multilingual norm and establishing it as a frame, Martinez Palau addresses the social, economical, and political implications of minority language restrictions. The socioeconomic and political assumptions of his treatment of the language issue reveal a sociolinguistic orientation, a "complex of dispositions toward language and its role, and toward languages and their role in society" (Ruiz, 17). (1) This language-as-problem orientation organizes the message of the play and is the subject of this essay.
Language has a critically parodic function in Martinez Palau's play, so it is only appropriate that it develop in terms of satire, a genre related by etymology to satura, or the "full plate," a heaping assortment of food associated with the folkloric celebration of abundance and variety--the type of variety advocated by cultural pluralists in the United States. In the assimilationist environment of the United States, the "ethnic" restaurant, which rises out of a minority community's need for a place to meet and reaffirm cultural traditions, is a site for the production of a variety of cultural artifacts or commodities, to be "consumed" by members of the mainstream dominant culture, who as a matter of course disregard the potential societal value of the ethnic restaurant as a place of exchange among differences. With the consumer attitude comes the expectation that the restaurant conform to the linguistic and cultural standards of the patrons, who make little or no attempt to understand the culture and tradition that gives rise to …