SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2009 Personal Memory Ethnographies
You Didn’t Ask
When I was sixteen I got my first job at the local pizza restaurant by my house. I was responsible for answering the phones, taking orders for delivery and takeout, rolling silverware, and whatever other side jobs needed to be done.
The kitchen staff consisted predominately of Latinos, very few of them English speaking. I would try my best to communicate with them by piecing together the few Spanish words I knew and they would do the same. After a while it felt as though we were friends even though we had no real means of communication.
One cold Friday afternoon, after I had been working there for about six months, I walked into the restaurant at the start of my shift immediately sensing the stress the accompanied with the busiest night of the week. Loud Italian music played over the baseball game plastered on all six televisions and the smell of pizza seemed to be drawing in hungry consumers by the dozens. I was cleaning up the ice cold beer spilled on the countertop when Edward walked in. I was told he was the new busier we had just hired and it was his first night on the job. He was a very quiet young Mexican boy with dark hair and brown skin, probably about my age at the time. He spoke in fluent Spanish to the kitchen staff as if he knew them but he did not speak to anyone else in English or Spanish.
My parents told me if I wanted a car I had to get a part-time job after school, so after filling out several applications and enduring the seemingly endless chore of job hunting, I got lucky. A couple of my friends, who worked in the kitchen at the Streets of New York Pizza restaurant by my house, called and said that they needed a busier for tonight and that they would put in a good word for me if I filled out an application. Several hours later I was hired and on the schedule for that night.
About half way through the evening the manager told me to roll the silverware and ask Edward to help me so we could get it done as quickly as possible. I looked intently around the restaurant for him and found him cleaning a table in the back corner. As I walked in his direction I tried to remember how to say roll the silverware in Spanish, “Hola Edward, me llamo Julie. ¿Puedes ayudar me roll los tenedores, por favor?” He looked at me as if he wanted to correct my clearly broken Spanish, but instead he simply shook his head yes.
I was about half way through my shift when Julie, a girl who went to my school, came over and asked me in Spanish if I would help her roll the forks. I think she was referring to the silverware, but I didn’t correct her. At first I was not sure why she was speaking in Spanish, especially since her Spanish was not that great, but I just went along with it. Shortly after I realized that she was speaking Spanish because she did not think I could speak English; it was as if she was trying to do me a favor by speaking Spanish.
For the rest of the evening I tried communicating with Edward as I did the kitchen staff, a few words of Spanish mixed in with English and hand gestures in order to get my point across and he did the same.
I was so angry; I went to school with this girl, I was born and raised here in Phoenix and I spoke English! Because I was Mexican she classified me as the “other,” the migrant, and uneducated. I wanted so badly to scream, “I speak English” but I didn’t say anything.
At the end of the exhausting night, I was gathering my stuff to go home when I heard Edward speaking to the manager in perfect English. I was dumb founded! He didn’t tell me he spoke English! I had spent the whole night trying to remember enough Spanish to hold a conversion with this guy not knowing he spoke fluent English. After he was done talking I walked right over to him somewhat angry at the thought of being made to look foolish and said, “I have been trying to speak to you in Spanish the whole night, why didn’t you tell me you spoke English?”
“ You didn’t ask,” I told her. I could tell she was angry but so was I; she acted as if it was my responsibility to correct her socially constructed image of me. I wanted to be rude, but I just simply said, “You didn’t ask.”
He was right, I didn’t ask, I just assumed that because he was Mexican, quiet, and friendly to Spanish speaking employees at the restaurant that he didn’t speak English. I later found out that he was born and raised here in Arizona and to make me feel even worse went to my high school.
I felt so dumb; I had made an assumption based on race and ethnicity that I never thought I would have done. Because the majority of the Latino people I worked with at the restaurant did not speak English, I assumed Edward must not either. Now, I realize that this is absolutely outrageous and even racist at its most basic level but that is what happened; I cannot take it back, but I can learn from it. I apologized to Edward immediately and soon thereafter we became good friends.
When this happened I didn’t consider myself racist, in fact, I thought I was very open minded. I had Black friends, Latino friends, Asian friends, even my boyfriend was Mexican. Now I know better, just because I interacted with people of other races didn’t mean I understood the concept of race, the concept of “other,” constructed through a white gaze. I didn’t think of race as much more than the color of one’s skin; now to me race is a socially constructed ideal that aligns people in an imaginary hierarchy.
When I look back now, and set this incident within a larger social context, I think I know why this happened and more importantly why it became meaningful to me over the last couple years. In 1986 Congress passed an Immigration Reform and Control Act to stop illegal immigration from Mexico, which was seen as a threat to the U.S. economy. Ten years later President Clinton used a strict approach to limiting illegal immigration in his re-election campaign and under his direction, 40 miles of 14-foot fence was built along the U.S-Mexico border. It wasn’t until the new millennium that Hispanic was even considered a possible ethnic category for U.S citizens on the governmental census and four years later, I met Edward for the first time.
So my incident happened at a time when the borderland of race, difference and the classification of “immigrant” were still very raw; a time where it was illegal to be Mexican in the United States, obviously this is a play on words it was not far from the truth. There seemed to be an unspoken assumption in a border state like Arizona that every Hispanic person who worked in landscaping, food service, or construction was fresh out of Mexico, here illegally, and could not speak English. My incident shows that this could not be more false, and this diversity is exactly what America claims to be built on.
Like I said earlier I cannot change what I did but I can make every effort to learn from it. I have learned how to embrace cultural diversity and respect it. I have learned what it means to judge someone… and I will never do it again.
Lastly, I am so sorry Edward. I am sorry that I judged you on your skin color and I am even sorrier that I unwillingly became part of the battle, a battle for equality that is nowhere near over.
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