Song's lyrics hit low note at banquet for officers

If you don't speak English, you aren't welcome, they hear.

Published May 10, 2007

PLANT CITY - Things had been going fine at the 45th Annual East Hillsborough Law Enforcement Appreciation Dinner at the Strawberry Festival Exhibition Hall on Tuesday night.

An honor guard presented colors. Officers feasted on smoked pork loin with spiced apples and maple-glazed carrots.

Then the entertainers for the evening, a husband and wife duo called the Rivoli Revue, broke into Press One for English, a song that left some people cringing, and sent one out the door.

It went something like this, according to Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White: "If you don't speak English, you're not welcome here. ... If you don't speak English, go back where you came from."

The song seemed to go on for 10 uncomfortable minutes, White said. Others at the dinner said that was indeed the gist of the tune.

White, a former Tampa police officer, said he left soon after, no longer wishing to be there.

"It was definitely appalling to many of the people who were there," he said. "One of the things that makes us great is our diverse community."

White noted several Hispanic officers were at the dinner. And it took place in a community where immigrant workers are the backbone of the local farming economy.

As he got up midway through the song, White turned to County Administrator Pat Bean, asking her whether she thought people would applaud.

"I didn't," Bean said. "A lot of people did."

Public officials reached afterward expressed disappointment in the selection of entertainment for the event.

State Rep. Rick Glorioso, R-Plant City, whose family emigrated from Italy two generations ago, said he agrees with the sentiment that immigrants should learn English as his family did. But he said the way that message was conveyed "was not right," dampening what has been a top-notch event in years past.

"English is our language," Glorioso said. "I think all immigrants prior to recent times felt that way. But I felt the song Tuesday night was offensive. I'm sure it was offensive to some."

Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson said he doesn't have any desire to remember the words.

"There are a lot of good patriotic songs in the repertoire of American music," Johnson said. "I didn't recognize that one."

A group of civic leaders called the East Hillsborough Law Enforcement Appreciation Dinner Committee puts on the event, which is not affiliated with the Strawberry Festival.

The committee formed in 1962 after two Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies were shot while investigating a domestic dispute in Plant City. One of the officers died.

Doug Gibbs, the treasurer of the organizing committee and one of the contacts for those attending, said he laments that the performance overshadowed a worthy cause.

"We are sorry that we offended some of the people by their song," he said. "I can honestly say I did not hear that song. From what I understand, it was inappropriate."

He said each year the committee takes recommendations for possible entertainment, but there is not much screening. A few people go through the suggestions mainly keeping in mind that the audience includes law enforcement officers and businesspeople.

Gibbs said he did not know much about Ron and Kay Rivoli, the performers, going into the event, other than that they regularly play in recreational vehicle parks. A Google search for the Rivoli Revue confirms as much.

Attempts to reach the Rivolis were unsuccessful.

Guadalupe Lamas, a former undocumented farmworker who is now a legal resident and U.S. citizen who works as a nurse and community activist, said she was not entirely surprised by a reporter's account of the song at the dinner.

Unhappy people looking to blame someone for their misfortunes see an easy scapegoat in immigrants. Still, she said she is disappointed.

"In know in private people express those feelings," Lamas said. "But I wouldn't expect it at such a public event."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.