SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2007        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Lana Schmitt

Como Agua Para Café;
How One Kitchen Taught Me un poco Español and a lot about Difference

    Me- There was a time I felt I really discovered the power of ‘difference’ when I got a job at a local coffee shop in my area as a barista working with an espresso machine and making pricey lattes and mochas for the locals and tourists. The company roasts their own beans on-site and uses these beans to make coffee and espresso drinks. The shop originally started out as just a coffee bar, but eventually turned into a restaurant and wine bar. The scent of coffee wafts through the whole building, and the smell clings to your clothes even hours after you have left and gone home.

    There was a Mexican girl trying to get the same job I was, and I got the position. The other employees told me that the girl, whose name was Ana, didn’t get the same job that I did because her English wasn’t very good and she wouldn’t be able to communicate with the customers very well. At the time, I was happy that I got the job (I had wanted to work there since I was 15), but I felt bad for this girl who ended up getting a job as a runner on the wine bar, clearing tables and serving water. I had taken classes before that had taught me about white privilege, but I could hardly believe that it would happen so plainly and right in front of my eyes. 

    The guys who worked in the kitchen were all Mexican, and while I made good friends with the other baristas, I was alienated by the cooks in the kitchen because they all spoke Spanish in front of me, and I figured out that they talked a lot about me. Ana hung around them a lot, laughing with them and speaking rapidly in Spanish. I knew she didn’t like me because I am white, and even though I tried to talk to her, she never really tried to make friends with me or the other baristas. Over time, I eventually got to be friends with most of the guys in the kitchen even though they made me feel uncomfortable--they whistled and catcalled me a lot when I walked into the kitchen.

What separated the girls at the barista station from the guys in the kitchen were two barriers; the saloon doors that led to the kitchen and the language barrier. While it was white, young women that made the coffee, it was the Mexican men who made all the food in the kitchen. Some were fluent in English, but most of them had migrated to Arizona from Mexico and knew very little English. The male camaraderie of the kitchen was shared by a common language, Spanish. Hearing them speak rapidly to each other in Spanish was entertaining, especially when they were telling dirty jokes or one was mad at another. I tried to be as friendly as possible with all the employees there, but I felt as if Ana resented me for some reason that I never quite understood.                                          

Ana- There is a white girl that applied for the same job that I did at the Cave Creek Coffee Company, and she got the barista position that I was interested in. I know that because I am Mexican, and my English is not the best, they gave me the job as a runner on the wine bar. My job is to hand menus to the customers, bring water glasses to their table, and clear the plates and glasses after they finish eating. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen where all the other Mexicans work, and I am enraged when I walk over to the coffee bar and see a bunch of young white girls working there. I know that I was discriminated against because English is my second language. I always knew that white privilege is prevalent in the workplace, but I didn’t realize how angry and hurtful it would be once I got here. I loved standing in the kitchen to watch the guys cooking all the foods that were served- they use a lot of roasted garlic, used heavily in tomato sauces and on plates of bruschetta. Whole cloves of garlic were put in a pan and roasted in an oven, filling the entire building with the strong scene, and it made everyone’s eyes burn. Also, onions were chopped and caramelized to put into sandwiches, and the chemicals released by the onions made me sneeze and my eyes water. It was hard to stand in the kitchen when the cooks were roasting garlic or onions because the scent was so pungent. The scent rarely ever came out of my work uniform.

    The guys here in the kitchen make sexual remarks about them when they walk back there to make sandwiches or ask the staff for something.  I feel invisible in this place- I haven’t made any friends here, the barista girls don’t talk to me because they think I don’t speak any English, and the Mexican guys are nice to me but ignore me as soon as those girls come around. They seem like they have so much fun out there- laughing, telling stories with each other and the customers. The reason I wanted to work here was because of the casual environment that the baristas work in- they get to chat with all the regulars and make cappuccinos and smoothies. I feel like I got the short end of the straw by being Mexican. I’m constantly having orders barked at me by the waiters and waitresses, telling me to get more tables cleared, to bring water to table 5.
    I know how vehemently immigration is opposed especially in Arizona, but it makes me realize that the guys that work in this kitchen are here for the same reasons that we all go to work- to make some money and to help support themselves and their families. My friend Ricardo used to show me pictures of his son back in Mexico who lives with his ex-wife, and the pain that he felt for not being able to see Little Ricky came through in his eyes. It made me said to think that he had to leave his home and his family to come to the US because he had no other choice, but he did it for his family. All the opposition to immigration from the government dismisses the hardships that immigrants face when they leave their home countries and come to a new place. I find that the human element is often forgotten when one thinks of immigration- that people who come to new places looking to better their lives- are here on this planet for all the same reasons as we are; hate and degradation of other cultures is a byproduct of fear. This class and this assignment has taught me not to fear or oppose those who are not familiar by color or class. I hate to think that I have made assumptions in the past about people who are not white, because it reminds me that I once thought that people who didn’t look like me had nothing in common with me. If cultural diversity and immigration has taught me anything, it has indeed taught that people are all here to live their lives as peacefully and happily as I try to lead mine, but some people may not have been as fortunate enough to have been born here in this country. The pursuit of happiness is not only an American right, but I think is more of a human right.

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