During the past year and a half while our family tried to own and operate a restaurant everything else fell by the wayside. In fourteen months I only finished two paintings and didn’t even notice when my server crashed and my entire website was lost. I am now ready to get back to the studio and rebuild my online presence. Hopefully if you return soon there will be much moer to see here.
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.
I have been writing a post in my head about Latin men and the surprising way the ones I am currently working with in the Mexican restaurant sometimes act, but then yesterday I spent the day working with a couple American men at the steakhouse and I realized men in general are a mystery, not just los Mexicanos and Guatamalens. I need to rethink some of what I was going to say, but in the meantime I would like to sing praises for the Michilada.
Saturday night around closing time one of the waiters brought the head cook a pitcher of red stuff. I must admit that at first I thought it might be some sort of chemical concoction to use for cleaning, but then he asked me if I liked Michiladas. I hadn’t even thought about one in years but I had been hoping someone there would offer me a drink so I said I did. And boy do I like it. I enjoyed it so much that when I left work I went straight to the grocery store to buy the ingredients to make more. I drank one yesterday and two today. I hope to have another tomorrow.
You can have one too…
A Michilada is like a Bloody Mary only with beer instead of vodka. Start with about a fourth of a glass of Clamato, add a few drops of worchestcher sauce, some hot sauce (to taste), squeeze in half a lime, sprinkle a bit of salt (or salt the rim first) and then fill the rest of the glass with a light Mexican beer, I used Modelo Especial. So refreshing and satisfying, I would go make myself another right now if there was more beer in the house.
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.
Tonight when I got home from work I sat down with my brother-in-law, his wife, and daughter to talk and drink and talk. He drank wine, they sangria, and I tequila. My brother-in-law put on Radio Quelite on his computer which plays Mexican music from all different regions and times. Huapango, danzon, rancheras, chachacha, I love it all. There wasn’t a song they played that I didn’t enjoy. There really is something about Mexico that touches me deeply. I really hope that I have the chance to live there again someday. I want to go back, not to Cancun, but to the heart of Mexico, to live in a colonial town or city and really be able to soak in the culture completely. How odd is it that the thing that most keeps me from being able to do so is my Mexican husband.
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.