La Cantera Hill Country Resort will be closed through next April for major renovations. Photo courtesy of La Cantera Hill Country Resort.
La Cantera Resort & Spa faces a class action lawsuit on behalf of former and current employees. Credit: Courtesy / La Cantera Resort & Spa

La Cantera Resort & Spa’s operators face a federal lawsuit over discrimination, including a so-called “English-only” policy for its employees.

After three years of investigation, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission  (EEOC) on Monday filed a federal lawsuit against DH San Antonio Management for discriminating against employees who spoke Spanish at work – including while on break or while serving at events such as quinceañeras.

The EEOC filed the class action lawsuit on behalf of 25 current and former employees of La Cantera Resort & Spa. San Antonio-based Espinoza Law Firm joined the agency on the lawsuit, which was filed in the Western District of Texas. The local law firm represents the plaintiffs who originally filed a claim with the EEOC in 2015 – 23 of the 25 named in the lawsuit.

According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, the resort in Northwest San Antonio changed management in 2014 and began prohibiting employees from speaking Spanish. Management allegedly punished those who violated the language ban with write-ups, demotions, and firings.

John Spomer, vice president and managing director of the resort, denied “any claims related to unwritten policies that allegedly existed three or four years ago.”

The lawsuit claims that Kathleen Bischoff, who was hired in 2014 and oversaw the resort’s banquet department alongside fellow new hire Will Primavera, called Hispanics “Mexican spics” and said Spanish was a “foul language.” One plaintiff, who complained to human resources about the English-only policy, was subsequently demoted from supervisor to server. The plaintiff, who had worked as a supervisor for 25 years, refused to accept the demotion and was then fired.

Sergio Vitela, one of the plaintiffs represented by Espinoza Law Firm, worked for La Cantera for 12 years. Vitela said he was fired after speaking Spanish on the job. He and his father both worked at La Cantera at the time.

“My father, he speaks Spanish, and they were telling me not to talk to my dad in Spanish, and I can’t [not speak Spanish] – it’s my father,” Vitela said. “That’s when I started seeing the first signs of them not liking our culture and race, really. They were telling us not to speak any Spanish.”

Vitela said his father understands English, but not being allowed to speak in his native language was difficult. According to Vitela, Espinoza, and some La Cantera staffers, Vitela is the only person in the group of 23 individuals who filed a claim with EEOC who speaks English fluently — the rest speak it proficiently enough to do their jobs. Vitela said he had to encourage his coworkers to file an EEOC claim against La Cantera for discrimination, as many of them were afraid of losing their jobs.

“Whatever [La Cantera was] doing, it’s illegal,” Vitela said.

Spomer said at Destination Hotels, the company that operates La Cantera, they celebrate San Antonio’s heritage.

“We work very hard to foster an environment which all individuals are treated with respect and dignity,” Spomer said. “We’re proud that we employ a diverse, multicultural workforce, and encourage our associates to converse with our guests and each other in a language that was mutually understood. And they’ve always been allowed to do that.”

Spomer said the only language guideline at the resort is that employees speak the language in which guests speak to them.

“It’s part of the service business,” he said. “When spoken to in one language, we should speak in that language.”

Spomer added that employees are welcome to speak to each other in the language they choose.

“If there are no guests and you’re in the associate cafeteria or in the back of the house corridors, feel free to converse in a language that whoever you’re speaking to mutually understands,” he said. “That’s been going on since the day I’ve been here.”

Javier Espinoza, attorney at Espinoza Law Firm, said it took claimants a lot of courage to file a complaint against their employer.

Javier Espinoza of Espinoza Law Firm explains the discrimination lawsuit filed by the EEOC at a press conference on Monday, Sept. 24. Plaintiffs of the lawsuit stand behind him. Credit: Jackie Wang / San Antonio Report

“They could have said, ‘I’m not gonna burn a bridge, I want to keep my job,’” he said. “But they said, ‘I want to do something because, this isn’t right for anybody in this town.’”

Usually, the EEOC either gives claimants a “right to sue” letter or determines there is not enough evidence to do so, Espinoza explained. But in this case, the agency found the claims were valid and the evidence strong enough to bring the lawsuit forward itself.

“That’s like a 600 pound gorilla behind us, for sure,” Espinoza said, adding that this is the first lawsuit of this nature in San Antonio to the best of his knowledge.

“I think speaking Spanish is innate to Hispanics,” Espinoza said. “When you grow up with something innate to you – your language, the food you eat, the music you listen to – I have no right to discriminate against your culture.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.