PHILADELPHIA — The sign contains just eight words and is hardly big enough to wrap around a cheesesteak. But here in South Philadelphia, home of the cheesesteak, the sign that Joey Vento posted at Geno's Steaks speaks volumes.
It reads: "This Is America. When Ordering Please Speak English."
Vento, whose Italian grandparents arrived in America unable to speak English, faces a discrimination complaint from the city's Commission on Human Relations, which said the English-only sign may violate city laws.
At a time when illegal immigration has become a divisive national issue, the tiny sign above the bright orange tile at a local culinary institution has sharpened the debate in a neighborhood founded by Italian immigrants. Though some civic leaders are appalled, many Geno's customers insist that everyone in America should speak English -- and express themselves freely.
"Hey, what happened to freedom of speech?" customer Al Buck asked Tuesday, clutching a hot cheesesteak and sporting a T-shirt with a red, white and blue message: "Welcome to America -- Now Speak English."
Vento, 66, has said the sign is aimed at illegal immigrants in a community where the Mexican population has grown in recent years. He told the Associated Press on Monday that the sign would remain, even if the city fined him. "They would have to handcuff me and take me out because I'm not taking it down," he said.
City Councilman James F. Kenney has called the sign "divisive and mean-spirited," not to mention "bad for the neighborhood and bad for tourism." The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, concerned about the city's image, reminded everyone that the city values immigrants' "culture, vibrancy and history."
A Philadelphia Inquirer editorial called Vento's policies "boneheaded," which may explain why he is no longer speaking to the newspaper, or any newspaper.
"The papers twisted his words," said his son, Geno Vento, who was working the counter at lunchtime Tuesday.
Joey Vento was taking the day off, his son said, "resting his vocal cords" after a marathon round of TV interviews. Asked for a comment, Geno Vento replied, "This whole thing is getting out of hand."
The Commission on Human Relations will determine whether the sign violates the city's Fair Practices Act, said City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz. If so, Diaz said, the city code calls for fines or imprisonment for failure to comply -- though the commission normally tries to resolve issues without sanctions.
The local ACLU chapter has staked out a middle ground. "Putting up a sign saying you need to speak English is protected speech," said Mary Catherine Roper, an ACLU staff attorney in Philadelphia. But refusing service based on language or nationality would violate the law, she said.
Anthony Marconni, who was helping Geno Vento serve steaming cheesesteaks, said no customer had been turned away. "We serve everybody. We're not discriminating against anybody," Marconni said.
Back when Joey Vento was speaking to newspapers, he told the Inquirer that illegal Mexican immigrants had brought diseases and crime, and were a drain on hospitals and schools.
It's "wrong, wrong, wrong that a Mexican girl comes here to pop a baby," the paper quoted Vento as saying.
He added: "I say what everybody's thinking but is afraid to say."
Vento, who has "Geno's Steaks" tattooed on his arm, has posted "Speak English" signs on his Hummer. According to the Inquirer, he has driven through South Philadelphia with a public-address system, chastising businesses that hire illegal immigrants.
Vento said the sign, which he posted about six months ago, was intended to improve communication. "If you can't tell me what you want, I can't serve you," he said.
For the uninitiated, a cheesesteak is a cholesterol-delivery device consisting of grilled strips of beef, melted cheese, onions and peppers on an Italian roll.
It is sometimes difficult for outsiders to order at Geno's or other local cheesesteak emporiums because of an unspoken code that requires ordering "wid" or "widout," meaning with or without onions. (One newcomer once asked "Wid what?" and was told, "Wid cheese, stoopid!") One must also specify the cheese -- Cheez Wiz or provolone, as in "Cheez Wiz wid."
Given those customs, ordering a "bistec con queso" is not likely to elicit cooperation.
"Why can't they go to school and learn English?" asked Penny Constantino, 78, who told Geno Vento that the sign was too small and should be "more like 10 feet by 10 feet."
Constantino, a lifelong resident of South Philadelphia, said her neighborhood had been swamped by Mexican immigrants. "They're here for years, and they still won't learn English," she said, chewing on a cheesesteak wid.