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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 June 2007, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
Mind your language at Geno's
By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, Philadelphia

The collapse of President Bush's recent immigration reform was partly fuelled by fears that the English language was under threat from Spanish. But as one food stall owner in Philadelphia illustrates, English has some unlikely champions.

Joey Vento sounded pleased to hear from me. Well, fairly pleased.

Joey Vento (Photo courtesy of Geno's Steaks)
Facing threat of legal action, Joey Vento says: "Bring it on!"
"Sure I remember you," his voice came down the phone. "You're the guy who put me through the wringer last year."

That is not quite how I remembered our previous encounter. I had certainly quizzed him about his views on immigration, but he had given as good as he had got and been more than happy to talk about the need to defend the English language in today's America. With immigration back in the news, I asked him, could we have another chat?

"Sure," he said. And with that I was on my way to Geno's - the Philadelphia cheese steak stall he founded 41 years ago.

It is hard to miss, on the apex of Ninth and Passyunk, in the heart of Little Italy.

It is just a takeaway stall really, but there is so much neon on the inside and outside that Joey affectionately calls it "the Las Vegas of Philadelphia".

Defender of English

Which is appropriate, for a man who had just hit the publicity jackpot when I last met him.

Map showing Philadelphia
Then, as now, immigration was the hot political topic of the day, and Joey had turned up the heat. He had been reported to the authorities for having a sticker on the sliding door of his stall, which featured a picture of an eagle and the phrase: "This is America. Please speak English when ordering."

For some, he had struck a chord, struck a blow for ordinary Americans. For others, this was brazen discrimination.

English is a language that Joey's Sicilian grandfather never mastered when he came to the United States in the 1920s. "But he tried," Joey told me, "and he knew that was what it meant to come here."

Joey's not exactly proud of his family. He freely admits that his brother and father were gangsters. But he is proud of the notoriety he has achieved as a defender of the English language.

Somewhat disconcertingly he was brandishing a knife when I arrived, but it turned out he was in the middle of slicing the rolls for the day's food.

"I'm 68," he reminded me, looking fighting fit in a black T-shirt, with a silver chain around his neck, "and I've been up since three in the morning. Don't tell me Americans won't do the tough jobs."

Something of a shrine

Geno's Steaks (Photo courtesy of Geno's Steaks)
Joey Vento's restaurant is a Philadelphia landmark
Geno's is one of Philadelphia's most famous landmarks.

"People visit us, then they see the Liberty Bell," Joey jokes, placing his stall just above one of the symbols of American independence.

Its signature - in fact its only dish - is a bun filled with thinly sliced rib-eyed steaks, topped with chopped, fried onion and a choice of three cheeses: American, provolone and an amorphous, glutinous yellow substance called cheese whiz.

I would not recommend the latter. As we were chatting, one of Joey's well-fed regulars popped in and asked for a double helping of whiz. For breakfast.

When he left, Joey confided that the whiz could be speeding him to a heart attack. "But in moderation there's no better stuff," he added quickly, "although I'd recommend the provolone."

Twelve months on, the cheese choice remains the same and the controversial sticker is still there. Joey maintains that his stall has become something of a shrine, not just for cheese steak connoisseurs, but for English-first pilgrims, who get a free pen and sticker when they order.

Messages of support

He seems unconcerned that the local authorities are taking him to court for placing what they argue is an offensive sign in his window.

"Bring it on," he says, his eyes glistening almost as brightly as his diamond ear stud. "What have I got to fear?" And with that, he glances up at the walls for reassurance.

Staring back at him is a host of famous faces, from Bill Clinton to Justin Timberlake to Rudy Giuliani - some snapped in the act of rustling up cheese steaks at the stall themselves - all wearing huge, cheese whiz-eating grins on their faces. But none of those grins is as wide as Joey's, a self-made man who clearly loves the limelight.

Leaving a batch of rolls to languish unsliced, he scuttles away to a back room, looking for proof of the righteousness of his cause. He returns with a pile of folders, overflowing with letters and messages of support from all over the country.

"We're with you, Joey."

"What you're doing is great, Joey."

Even: "We'll vote for you Joey."

To these writers, he is a true patriot, defending his countrymen from the threat to their identity posed by the growing influence of Spanish.

And while that is not the only reason why the immigration bill failed, the letters to Joey give a sense of the grassroots anger that senators from both parties have been hearing.

Unlike Joey, the immigration bill really has been through the wringer, and failed to come out the other side.

When I phoned him, just after the senate vote, Joey was triumphant. "Looks like those politicians listened to Joey," he said. Looks like they did.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 30 June, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Philly landmark goes English-only
02 Jul 06 |  Americas
Q&A: US immigration debate
01 May 06 |  Americas


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