My small daily paintings with just the four tubes of paint continue. This past week I replaced marigolds with a bell pepper and an onion.
My small daily paintings with just the four tubes of paint continue. This past week I replaced marigolds with a bell pepper and an onion.
In Spanish, or at least in Mexican Spanish, the letters B and V sound the same. If you are spelling a word to someone and it includes one of them they will likely ask you, “V Chica o B Grande,” which means “Big B or Little V?” And it is very common to see these letters switched. Venda (bandage) becomes Benda, Abeja (bee) becomes Aveja, and Voy (I go) becomes Boy. Depending on my mood, how I might be feeling about the person making the errors, and my expectation of their level of education it can be amusing or very annoying.
In the four kitchens I have worked in I have experienced 3 different ways of tickets coming back. In our restaurant and the one in Gainesville we had printed tickets from the POS system that we would hang above the line. At the steakhouse everything is digital, the tickets show up on screens above the line, but at the restaurant in Cornelia they write out all the orders by hand. Among my challenges when I went to work there was trying to learn a new menu, how the items on that menu were abbreviated on the tickets and reading the waiters’ handwriting. The fact that their spelling was not good did not make it any easier. Taco Suabes, Berduras and Cevollas just made my job that much harder. I shook my head at the chicken scratch that I was trying to decipher. I might have also made a few disparaging comments about the Mexicanos and their spelling. I should have been more sensitive.
According to NationMaster the average years of schooling completed in the United States is 12, while the average in Mexico is 7.2. But my bet is that among Mexican immigrants to the United States the average is more like 4. I am amazed at how many of the people I have met, from dishwashers to business owners, only finished the fourth grade. My eight year old is in third grade and she is an atrocious speller. And as my mother reminded me recently, when I was in elementary school I was too.
And we are talking about averages. I am still blown away by the fact that there are still people getting no education at all. The woman from Guatemala who did dishes at our restaurant had never been to school. As a child instead of being sent to school she was sent out take care of sheep. She is completely illiterate and has no interest in being taught. I am not sure what percentage of people who can’t read wish they could. The lady who helped me with my house in Mexico also couldn’t read, but she wanted to learn.
I don’t know if it was because he heard me comment under my breath about spelling or if he just happened to bring it up but one day one of the waiters shared a bit about his reading and writing. He told me he had worked at the restaurant for 15 years (he is probably about my age, late 30’s). He told me that when he had first come to the US he hadn’t know any English or how to read or write in English or Spanish. The restaurant gave him a job as a busser (which requires no speaking, reading or writing) and then taught him enough of all three so that he could be a successful waiter. And it seems that he is a very good waiter. He was definitely the friendliest. He was the only person in the whole restaurant I could count on to answer my questions patiently and with a smile. He is the only one there I wish I could have said good bye to. When I am tempted to think less than nice thoughts about the owner and management of the place I remember that they took the time and energy to teach him. Someone who does that cannot be all vad.
Well, my adventure in the local Mexican restaurant’s kitchen only lasted a month, which was almost exactly the amount of time I lasted at the one in Gainesville. Tomorrow it will be a week since my last night there and I have not missed it one tiny bit. Working in a restaurant kitchen involves so much teamwork. Everyone needs to be able to trust that everyone else is doing their part and at the same pace so that all the pieces can come together and leave the kitchen correctly and in a timely manner. There is a rhythm to it. Each kitchen seems to have its own rhythm which I guess depends on many factors: the type of food, the volume of sales, the number of staff and their way of working.
In our own restaurant I understood the rhythm. Even when Enrique and I weren’t getting along, even when we were yelling at each other as we prepared the food we were working at the same pace. The plates went out on time and put together properly. Neither in Gainesville nor Cornelia did I ever feel like I was able to get on the same rhythm as my coworkers. Either I was ahead and waiting or more commonly I was just a little behind. In both places if I was even a second behind where they thought I should be in getting the plates out of the oven or putting the salads on they jumped ahead of me and did it for me. It was extremely frustrating and threw things off even further.
If I was having the same problem at the corporate steakhouse I think I would probably just decide that I am not actually cut out to work in restaurant kitchens after-all and hang up my apron and go look for something else. But so far (I hope I don’t jinx myself here) I feel like I am learning the rhythm there. I have worked the line with a variety of coworkers and overall I don’t sense the same type of problem at all. I could be wrong but it seems like the managers and my trainers are very happy with how much I’ve learned and the quality of my work. Tomorrow I am working “QB” during Friday lunch rush so hopefully I will do a good job. I really want to show myself that I am capable of doing this type of work and that my failure to thrive in the other two restaurants wasn’t just because I wasn’t good enough.
Yesterday I saw the owner of the restaurant next door to where ours was and when he heard I was working at Longhorn he told me if he had known I was looking for kitchen work he would have offered me some. The owner of the chain where my husband works has also mentioned the possibility of me working in one of his restaurants. If I decide that this work is indeed work I like and want to continue doing I feel like there will be a fair number of opportunities for me. So I feel like it is important to really look at what happened at the Mexican restaurants and what lessons I need to take away from the experiences.
I think one of the major problems in both places that I was a part time person coming in for 15 to 20 hours week while the other cooks were there open to close six days a week. If I had been there all day every day the same as they were I think it would have been easier to figure out how I fit in. Since I was coming in towards the end of the day I was never sure what I needed to be doing. I knew to restock the cold line and make sure I had what I needed in case of a rush, but as far as whether or not they were caught up with their prep work it seemed like they should have just been able to tell me what they had left to do rather than me having to go search it out. If I had been there all day I would have known. They seemed annoyed if I asked, but if I didn’t ask and went ahead and did what I thought seemed like needed to be done they made a point to correct me.
The other major problem was that there just wasn’t enough work to be done. In Gainesville there were dishes to be washed and their prep work was often behind, but in Cornelia they had dishwashers and by the time I got there the prep work was usually done. They had three full time cooks and two dishwashers. For the amount of volume they are doing they did not need another person. I felt like I was constantly looking for something to do when there weren’t tickets to be made. And even when there were tickets I felt like I had to compete with the little boy from Guatemala to see who would put the cheese on the beans, and then who would take the plate out of the oven to add the salad. It was pretty ridiculous. I do not miss it at all. At the steakhouse there is plenty of work to be done, it is clear what that work is (there is actually a list to check things off of), and if it is finished they send you home.
If I would consider going to work in another kitchen I would a) want to be sure that the hours I was working were similar to my coworkers, b) that there was enough work for the staff at hand, and that c) the expectations of what needs to be done are clearly laid out. There are more factors to explore such as age, gender, nationality and class but they will save for another day.
So this morning I wasn’t very excited to go to work. I have been enjoying the corporate steakhouse but today is my mex restaurant day. I got there at ten as scheduled and as I walked towards the kitchen door I passed a coworker. I said clearly and pleasantly, “Buenas dias” and the cabron walked right past me without so much as a nod of the head. We worked together for three and a half hours and spoke only maybe five essential-to-the-job words. I had thought that no work environment could be as heavy and negative as the mex restaurant I worked at in Gainesville, but this place may be coming close. I wish I knew if it’s me or if I’m justing working around a bunch of miserable folks. I know I’m not the sweet bubblegum cheerleader type, but surely I not as wretchedly pesada as these poor pendejos. I wish there was more of a chance to get more hours at the corporate steakhouse. I sure would love to call my experiment in being the gringa in Mexican kitchens a failure and be done with it. This sentiment is magnified by several factors: a) I burned my hand while adding water to the rice this morning and it hurts now and will continue to hurt for at least a week, b) the restaurant in Gainesville still hasn’t paid me and it has been three weeks since I left, c) I have to go back and work another six hours tonight before I can have my first day off in two weeks, and d) even working this much I don’t have enough in my pocket to go buy a bottle to enjoy tonight when I get off.
Mexicans and their mordidas are world famous. Mordida literally means “bite” but it is the name given to the bribes that are common in most parts of Mexico. Whether trying to get out of a speeding ticket, getting away with adding on without a building permit, or trying to get anything done at City Hall, mordidas are just part of how things are done. When I lived in Mexico I was alternatively fascinated and frustrated by their existance. There is an art to negotiating one and I only attempted to offer one once at the very end of my time in the country. It was accepted, but my form had to be mildly corrected by the officer involved. But currently I have been observing and puzzling over the predominance of literal “mordidas” amongst the men I am working with.
I think it is fairly common knowledge that Latin men are not as scared to be physical with each other as your average straight white American man would be. Generally speaking two Mexican men are going to have no problem giving each other a nice big hug while two American men are going to shake hands or if forced to hug it will be an awkward side hug. I remember when we first moved here and joined a church group Sebastian was given a lesson by our leader on how to give a hug with stiff arms so to properly avoid any bodily touching. I would say this has to do with 1) American men being overly afraid of seeming gay and 2) with the American sense of personal space.
I could probably do a whole post on personal space and the differences between what we Americans need in comparison to our southern neighbors but I have noticed that people’s eyes tend to glaze over whenever I attempt to discuss it. I guess no one else finds it as interesting as I do. So we’ll move right along back to my male coworkers and their surprising displays of affection.
These guys that I am working with at the Mexican restaurant are all over each other, really. They don’t just rough house and give each other the occasional hug, they at times hang all over each other. One night I watched the young dishwasher (I believe he is 16) come up behind the youngest cook, put his head on his shoulder and then scratch his head. It would not have been strange to see two teenage girls being affectionate like that, but young guys? I must admit I was a bit taken aback, but I am a pretty open-minded person and if I had thought they were actually flirting with each other I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But these are straight young men. The young cook is a quiet Guatemalan who has asked several times to meet my sister, and the dishwasher is of the type who isn’t afraid to greet a passing girl as “mamacita” and let her know that he is the macho she’s been looking for.
But what is most surprisingly to me is the mordidas. They actually bite each other and often. Not every shift, but almost every one, one of my coworkers will come up behind one of the other ones and bite him in the back, usually just between the shoulder and the shoulder bone. It appears that they bite hard and the other will try and get away or flinch and then they both laugh and work continues. Even the owner of the restaurant does this to the employees, both the kitchen staff and the waitors. From their reactions it would appear he bites the hardest. They all think it is hilarious and no one seems to think it is weird but me. I am baffled by it.
I have asked my husband and brother-in-law about this and they say it is not something they are familar with. They say it is not a Mexican thing and certainly not something “classy” folk would do. They have never heard of the custom and said it sounded to them like a gay thing. And yes, when I did a bit of internet searching on the subject nothing came up except gay porn, but there really doesn’t seem to be anything sexual about it. I guess it ‘s just another version of manly pain-as-affection, like punching each other in the arm, or a titty twister? Maybe there are frat boys across America biting each other and I just don’t know about it? I would like to know if this is a common occurance or if it just happens in this one particular restaurant. I would love to hear any antecdotes or insights about the subject.
It has been over a month since we closed our restaurant, and almost a week since I stopped working at the Gainesville location. I have worked at the Mexican restaurant in Cornelia four times in the past week and tomorrow I have my orientation at the corporate steak house. A year and a half ago I was an artist and a CASA volunteer with the vague idea that it might be nice to help my husband with his dream of having his own restaurant. Eight months ago I was incredibly nervous about being able to run our kitchen without our head cook and two months ago I was incredibly confident I could do it. I went to Gainesville sure that my hands and head were more than ready to do the job but a month with the Michacanos made me doubt I had ever prepared a plate properly in my life.
Now the combined effects of my kitchen experiences have me so exhausted that competing with a 17 year old undocumented Guatemalan to see who can get the plates in and out of the warmer and properly garnished seems like more than I can handle. Several times over the past few days I have just stood back and let him do the work because it just seems too ridicolous to struggle over. I have struggled so much in these kitchens with these young men. I do not understand what it is I am trying to prove.
Today as I was laying here sipping on a bit of Tequila and trying to process it all I realized that the young Guatemalan has literally risked his life and spent a large amount of money borrowed from friends and relatives to have the chance to come here and work this job. If I understand him correctly (and it is very possible I don’t, communication is something we need to work on,) he spent almost $7000 to make his crossing and has only been here six months. He probably still owes a great portion of it. He opens and closes the restaurant 6 days a week with a couple hours break each day. The chance that he has much of a social life is slim. The restaurant is surely the center of his world. Of course he feels like he needs to battle to show he can do the job well. He has so much more to lose than I do. I don’t even know that I want the job.
If the steak house job goes well I hope to be be able to get all the hours I need there. And if neither go well not only do I have all my documents in order and speak fluent English, but also have a college education and almost 20 years of experience as a graphic designer. I’ve been offered three jobs in the past month. I can get another one. In fact the more I think about it I am starting to feel a bit guilty that my working in these kitchens is keeping some young struggling immigrant from having a job. Maybe it is unfair of me, with the privledges of my citzenship and education, to take one of the positions that otherwise would be available to someone who has less opportunities. Perhaps that is why the Michocanos were so unfriendly? I had thought that maybe they wanted the job for a brother or cousin or friend, but I had thought it was because they just wanted to be with people like themselves, to keep themselves isolated from the culture of the country they had come to live and work in. I had judged them for that and thought it was good for them to have to spend time with one of the locals.
On my last night in Gainesville when Jaime admitted to not having been friendly because of his concern over his immigration status and whether he could trust an American I thought I understood. But as is so often the case, the more we understand the more we are aware of all that is still beyond our understanding. I do want to understand though. Even on the most frustrating days I am still fascinated by these restaurant kitchens and the men who work in them. And I feel almost desperate in my desire to figure out what it is I am to learn here.
In September of 2011 my husband and I unexpectedly had the opportunity to be the owner/operators of a Mexican restaurant in a small town in North Georgia. Within a few weeks he had resigned from his job and we had placed our house for rent and moved ourselves and our children to a brand new place for a new adventure. And what an adventure it was, for 14 months we put everything we had, and then some, into turning the restaurant around and getting the numbers to turn black. We weren’t able to do it. The restaurant is now closed with sad brown paper covering the windows, but neither of us regret the experience. It was an amazing journey that taught us so much, not just about food and hospitality, but about ourselves, our neighbors, and human nature. But I do regret that I didn’t write about it all as it was happening. Even the events that seem to be unforgettable as they occur fade with time as life continues to throw us new trials and triumphs. As we start yet another completely different chapter of our life I would like to do a better job of recording it. And I hope that as I do so I will also find that I am able to further process and sort out the experiences that brought us this point and share them as well.
There is a place near the end of the book of Luke that I keep coming back to. After the Lord’s Supper and before the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus predicted Peter’s denial. He said, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32 NIV) Peter’s failure that night is completely different from my own failures and I have no delusiones of changing the world by blogging about what its like to be an American woman working in restaurant kitchens dominated by Mexican men. But I do feel like I know what it feels like to be sifted and realize that you are nothing but a pile of dust, and as I try to turn back I would love to be able to have the chance to even in the smallest way strengthen my brothers and sisters.
I have always seemed to be a person drawn to extremes. I like to see how far I can push things. I don’t want to do things halfway and I don’t want to be bored or worse, seem boring. My family might even go so far as to call me a bit melodramatic. I don’t know that I want to claim that trait but I must admit that it gives me a strange kind of pleasure to tell people that I, an almost 40 white American woman with a college degree, am working as a dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant. There is more to it than simple shock value, and I really don’t think its just about making people uncomfortable. I am sure to post many more musings on why this is my job of choice at the moment, and a lot of them may make sense due all sorts of different factors, but a simple explanation is I like high contrast. I like being different. I like being the only woman and the only American. And even though it can be extremely humbling there is something very interesting in being an “educated” person struggling to learn a job that seems to have been so easily mastered by many who didn’t have the chance to finish elementary school. I like what I am learning about myself, what I am capable of doing, and learning about the people around me. And I think it about to get even more interesting as I have actually resigned from my dishwasher job at one Mexican restaurant to take both a slightly higher level kitchen job at a different Mexican restaurant AND a dishwasher/prep job at a big nice corporate chain restaurant. There are sure to be juxtapositions galore awaiting me. Despite knowing it will not add a single hour to my life I am full of worries about both these new jobs. But even though I can expect long hours of repeating similar tasks I do not expect to be bored. I believe I am on embarking on an interesting and enlightening adventure, one that will make me a more well-rounded and empathetic person, and also provide interesting antedotes to share along the way.