For today’s Friday Free-for-All I’m cheating and recycling something I wrote a long time ago. Yeah, I need a break. It’s late. [And I don’t know what’s going on with the formatting, but I’ll fix it later…maybe.]
When asked about my language learning experience, I don’t conjure up memories of singing Alouette in high school French class or of trying to teach myself German with a best friend, a book, and a cassette. Instead I look back to my Spanish learning in the mini-immersion sessions I had at a restaurant I worked at in San Rafael.
Not surprisingly, the kitchen staff, including cooks, dishwashers, and busboys, were all Latino. More specifically, they were all Mexican, with the exception of one Peruano late in the game. This is a common theme in San Rafael. The owners, managers, and anyone who makes money is white; everyone else is…not.
But the guys had fun. Until the owner or manager came in, they’d blast their Spanish radio station as they did prep work. Pedro would sing along as he made meatballs. Sergio would curse and flick balls of pizza dough at the dishwasher. Ernesto and Saulo would throw bits of olive at me as I refilled pepper grinders. Julian would talk to me about his English class, his girlfriend in Mexico, and the latest rumors about the lunch shift busboy.
At first I just listened to the Spanish. The guys would eat their pizza in a collective group after the shift was over, and I’d pick at my salad and be quiet. In the beginning, when they all burst out into laughter, I would feel anxious and self-conscious. Are they laughing at me? Is a piece of broccoli wedged between my teeth? As time passed, I lost some of my reservations and let the unfamiliar sounds roll around me so I could be still and enjoy the music.
Soon I wanted to join in on the conversation, and with the occasional gracias or por favor, I started speaking Spanish. The plenitude of teachers inspired me. I could gesture to anything–a box, an apron, a fork–and learn its Spanish name immediately. I’m not sure how it happened, but I know it started with short phrases: para llevar, por favor, Julian, and soon moved into sentences: Este es para mesa treinta y tres. Quieren dos cajas por favor.
I needed to be heard. Waiting tables in a busy restaurant is the material of nightmares (I know, because I still have them if I think about the restaurant too much), and I wanted to perform my nightmare well. That meant communicating effectively with the kitchen. Julian, the busboy, was my main teacher and translator. We conducted informal tutorials by the servers station as i scarfed down fresh-baked bread before the restaurant opened, or as I ate my free meal at the end of the shift. He asked me questions about English, and I tried out my Spanish phrases. As my Spanish improved, our conversations turned into a strange hybrid language, back and forth, English and Spanish, Spanish and English. In the middle of a Spanish sentence, I’d falter on a word. If I could describe it in Spanish, I could, and Julian would supply the word afterwards. I could always fall back on como se dice?
As far as functioning in the workplace, I found that when asking questions or giving instructions, Spanish was faster. It was smoother and danced out of my mouth in a melodic and concise string. Also, considering that many of the kitchen staff didn’t know much English, Spanish was more expressive; with Spanish I could communicate both what I needed and why in just a few words. The owner felt this was bad for business, somehow, since the kitchen was an open kitchen and our Spanish communications could be overheard by customers. He told me to speak English with the cooks, but I was never really able to stop the Spanish. As I said, it was too convenient.
Eventually I discovered that sometimes the guys weren’t speaking English or Spanish. “Julian, what are they saying?”
“It’s in Maya,” he said, and translated some of the words.
“You speak Mayan, too?”
“My grandfathers taught me.”
I asked Julian and some of the cooks to teach me Mayan as well, but I didn’t get far with it–just hi, how are you; good; where are you going? nowhere; what are you doing? nothing, and…let’s have sex. The last one was a joke Julian played on me.
The guys told so many jokes in Spanish–about each other’s girlfriends, about the boss, about each other’s supposed femininity. A large part of my desire to learn Spanish was a desire to be in on the jokes. I wanted to be one of the guys.
Early on I was a novelty–almost a muñeca (toy doll) in the restaurant. My pronunciation errors and other mistakes made the cooks laugh genially, not frown with indignation. Learning Spanish in this way prevented me from feeling pressured, and I never felt stupid. It was all for fun, and I took on my identity of a white girl learning Spanish with glee. It probably helped that the cooks found me pretty and flirtatious, and I would repeat pretty much anything they said slowly enough for me to hear. (Hence, “let’s have sex,” in Mayan. Which sounds something like “cosh tseets.’)
As my knowledge of the language grew, however, the guys stopped staring at me and started treating me like a sister. The transition was slow, and I barely noticed it. What I do remember now is being very uncomfortable at first–I was touched and ogled a lot. It seems, though, that the change happened as I got to know each of the cooks individually, and they got to know me. It seems that as they learned I was a person with my own emotions too, they could stop treating me as a muñeca, or an object. This was reciprocal: the salad chef stopped being “the salad guy,” and became Guillermo. Communication was a huge factor in the transition from muñeca to person, and it didn’t really matter in which language the communication took place. But it had to take place.
For awhile when I went back to visit the restaurant, I would shout to the kitchen first and throw big hugs all around. Slang phrases came back to me in a rush, and I practiced “your mama” jokes with Sergio. There was always a lot to catch up on with Julian, like the house he was having built in Mexico with money he sent home, or whether or not his suspicions of his girlfriend being unfaithful were true. Everyone called me Doña Bethie since I got married, and they would ask me all sorts of inappropriate questions in Spanish. In my view, there was inherent respect in that, as they were treating me not so different from each other.
The last time I went back I had Z strapped to me in her baby carrier. Julian and Sergio were gone; only Guillermo from the old crew was left. I knew Julian wouldn’t be there anymore; his phone number stopped working about a year after I moved to Davis. Still I was saddened; the kitchen wasn’t the same. These guys had no idea that I knew how to tell them to take care of their butts in Spanish, and without the close friendship forged through stressful Friday night rushes, they didn’t care. I don’t think I’ll go back there very often anymore. It’s too painful to miss the faces and voices of my friends.