The subject under discussion was raising the minimum wage. As Rosa Ramos addressed the Long Beach City Council in her native Spanish, unbeknown to her, the publisher of a local newspaper posted a tweet.
"Minimum Wage: 1st speaker gets 6 min because she doesn't speak English even though she has lived her [sic] 28 years. This is going to be a mess," the message by Long Beach Business Journal Publisher George Economides read.
Economides tweeted again when a Latino man was given additional time at the podium to allow for translation.
Those social media posts have landed Economides in hot water with activists who have denounced his statements as "hateful and shameful."
And the tweets —which increasingly have become the nation's favored forum for hot-button discourse — tapped into a wider national debate over immigration, assimilation and the movement among low-wage workers, many of them immigrants, to raise the minimum wage. Such issues are dividing neighbors, towns and lawmakers around the country, not to mention provoking heated election-year rhetoric from leading presidential candidates.
In Long Beach, a coalition of nine community groups expressed displeasure with Economides and support for accommodating non-English speakers.
"Doubling the time for a speaker of a language other than English to allow for accurate interpretation is equity in action," the Long Beach Language Access Coalition said in a statement.
Wende Nichols-Julien, executive director at the California Conference for Equality and Justice, said she was dumbfounded at the publisher's comments.
"I was surprised and very disappointed that a publication I hold in high regard would stoop to this level that sounds racist or at least discriminatory against Spanish-speaking people," she said.
Dozens of people jammed the Jan. 19 City Council meeting in Long Beach to speak for and against raising the minimum wage. City officials adopted a policy three years ago to provide more time for translation of non-English speakers. Ramos spoke of needing to work up to three minimum-wage jobs to support her family.
Economides acknowledged writing the tweets while viewing a broadcast of the meeting, but did not apologize.
"It's being blown out of proportion," he said in a telephone interview. "People are looking to make more out of it than they should."
Many Latinos view the current political discussions as more inflammatory than informative, such as Republican presidential candidate
Recently, labor and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta said on Twitter that she was shouted off the stage during the Nevada caucuses by supporters of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders with chants of "English only" when she offered Spanish translation. There is much dispute about what occurred, and the Vermont senator's campaign said it expects its supporters to be respectful of everyone.
Economides said his tweets were intended to question whether non-English speakers supporting a higher minimum wage could have increased their opportunities to "get ahead" if they had learned English.
"If you're going to call the United States your home, or France or Egypt, if that's where you are going to plant your roots, then you should learn the language," he said.
Mark Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center, said evidence supports both sides of the argument.
"Not speaking English can have a detrimental effect on immigrants in the labor market," Lopez said.
But his research has also found that most immigrants understand the importance of learning the language of their adopted homeland.
Economides said his family immigrated to the U.S. from Cyprus many years ago. He welcomes immigrants, he said, but stood fast in his views.
"My parents understood, if you want to get ahead you got to work hard and learn the language," he said.