By Patrick Rogers
September 25, 1995 12:00 PM

CUSTODY BATTLES ARE RARELY for the faint of heart, but Garcia v. Laureano has been particularly gamy. For over two years the parents of Faviola Garcia, a mainly Spanish-speaking 5-year-old, have been trading angry charges of neglect and sexual molestation in an Amarillo, Texas, court. But neither Martha Laureano, 29, nor Timothy Garcia, 28, generated as much heat as state district Judge Samuel Riser during a hearing on June 30. “Now get this straight,” Kiser told Laureano, a bilingual, naturalized American citizen born in Mexico. “You start speaking English to that child, because if she doesn’t do good in school, then I can remove her [from your custody].” He then called not teaching an American child English a form of abuse. “What are you trying to do?” he asked. “Make her a maid for the rest of her life?”

Kiser, 47, toned down his rhetoric in a written ruling ordering Laureano to teach her daughter English, but the damage was already done. “I felt like I was [living] a hundred years back,” says Laureano, who demanded the judge’s ouster. “I just could not believe what I was hearing.” Nor, evidently, could a number of other people, including Texas politicians and Hispanic leaders nationwide, some of whom were further angered when Kiser at first publicly apologized to housemaids, but not to Hispanics. “He stepped on the dignity of the United States by the comments he made,” says Coco Medina, an Amarillo civic activist. “We cannot afford to have people in office who are going to be antiminority, anti-immigrant.”

Some of the criticism came from as far away as Washington. “He was well-intentioned,” says Linda Chavez, a well-known opponent of public school programs that teach immigrant children in their native tongues, “but I don’t think it’s the business of judges to tell people what they can speak at home.” Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of English First, a group lobbying to make English the nation’s official language, agrees. “The judge’s decision was wrong,” he says. “But I think what he meant to say was what Ernesto Ortiz, a migrant farmworker, once said: ‘They teach my children in Spanish in school so they can be bus-boys and waiters. I teach them in English at home so they can be doctors and lawyers.’ ”

Ironically the judge himself speaks rusty Spanish, learned through total immersion 25 years ago at the University of Córdoba in Argentina, where Kiser roomed with locals. “I know how difficult it is to learn a foreign language unless you’re immersed in it,” he says. Kiser, who believes children should be taught English as early as possible, occasionally practices Spanish with his own family at the dinner table. His wife, Patsy, a private elementary school teacher in Amarillo, was formerly certified as an English-Spanish bilingual instructor, and both of their teenage sons have studied Spanish at school. “Everybody should be bilingual,” Kiser says—including Faviola Garcia.

Even Faviola’s parents agree on that, although only further legal action is likely to resolve their many other differences. When Garcia, a bank teller, and Laureano, an office clerk, divorced after a yearlong marriage in 1990, they decided their 5-month-old daughter would learn Spanish from her mother, who was granted sole custody, and English during weekly visits from her father. But Garcia, the Texas-born son of Mexican immigrants, was cut off from Faviola after Laureano accused him of sexually molesting their daughter—an allegation Garcia denies and for which he was never charged. In 1993 he sued for custody, charging Laureano with shuttling Faviola and her four children from other relationships from house to house, as well as neglecting to teach enough English. The parents have been in court ever since, although both now say they’ll attend mediation sessions ordered by Kiser to decide who is responsible for teaching Faviola English.

The flap has taught Kiser a lesson on the impact of words. “This was just an attempt to explain the importance of education and English, nothing more,” he insists. “I would have tried to find a different way to say it if I had known it was going to create such a furor.” Yet given the abundance of strong feelings—including his own—on the subject, Kiser probably won’t be surprised by any future language controversies. “We have to have a common denominator as a nation because we are very diverse. I just feel that language is what holds us together,” he says, adding wryly, “and in some cases what tears us apart.”