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Robert Diefenbach took his annual vacation two months ago in Albuquerque. While there, the Newport, Oregon, resident picked up a copy of the alt-weekly Albuquerque Alibi. He read °Ask a Mexican!, the column in which yours truly answers readers' questions about Mexicans and which the Alibi also publishes. The questions that week concerned the Mexican love affair with chickens and similarities between Mexicans and the Irish.
Diefenbach had never heard of °Ask a Mexican! but thought it was "wonderful." Upon returning to work as a handyman at Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital, the 62-year-old printed a copy of the chicken/Irish installment for a Mexican-American co-worker. The two discussed the Nov. 16 column's reference to the San Patricios Brigade, the battalion of Irish-American soldiers who defected and fought for Mexico in the Mexican-American War.
The following day, Diefenbach's supervisors called him into a meeting. They reportedly told Diefenbach he would be suspended for five days without pay, effective immediately. His offense: using a computer on company time, racial discrimination and sexual harassment for showing °Ask a Mexican! to his coworker. Diefenbach wasn't allowed to appeal or respond to the charges.
"It felt like a hit in the stomach where the air gets knocked out of you," says a still-shaken Diefenbach. "There's an indignation when you're accused of something that's totally untrue. I felt sick."
Diefenbach's union didn't buy his argument that °Ask a Mexican! was satirical, that its reference to Mexicans and the Irish as "drunk, degenerate, fornicating Catholics" and use of a fat, gold-toothed Mexican for a logo was tongue-in-cheek. So Diefenbach hired private attorney Kerry Smith to see if he could sue Samaritan for wrongful suspension.
Smith thought the °Ask a Mexican! in question—which also called Mexicans and the Irish "brothers in depravity" and claimed Mexican men treat chickens "as they treat their women: as purveyors of breasts, eggs and little else"—"was really funny. I'm Irish and call myself a feminist. In that particular column, I found it absolutely funny and understood the point right away."
But Smith told Diefenbach she didn't think any arbitrator in the state of Oregon would agree and advised him to drop the case.
"I've never come across anything like this before," she says. "I see both sides. Looking at this column at face value, arbitrators could see it as offensive. However, I think that in the context in that it was presented, the hospital acted in a reactionary way."
Diefenbach's disciplinary report doesn't say much about the incident—it only mentions that Diefenbach showed a coworker a column that "depicts people of Mexican origin, women, Irish, and the Catholic religion in a discriminatory and derogatory way" and included a copy of the offending °Ask a Mexican! The report also mentions that Diefenbach "has a record of saying dumb things" but mentions only one other incident: last April, Diefenbach received a written warning for saying "something that was out of place and could be construed as a sexual remark."
Diefenbach's offense: he was eating lunch with Samaritan's engineering staff when a woman asked them why she wasn't invited. "This is the boys' club," Diefenbach joked.
Before that, the only other time Diefenbach received disciplinary action in his 22 years at Samaritan was when he visited a garage sale on company time.
Diefenbach says he isn't allowed to speak to his coworkers about the incident. "If I try to approach the subject at all, I have no idea what might happen," he sighs.
"I'm going to look over my shoulder for a while," Diefenbach adds. "Hopefully, I can keep my nose clean. But I'm having a hard time with it. I love telling jokes. I love people. I love interacting with people. Now, I have to weigh everything I say. It takes the joy out of it."
Read the latest °Ask a Mexican! Warning: Not advised at work.