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.
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.