As a full-time student who has both parents unemployed due to the economy, I have also had to take on another role: full-time worker. I’ve been a waitress in New York City for a couple of years and have worked at a sports bar on the Lower East Side, a Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn, a pan-Asian restaurant in the heart of Times Square, and have just begun work at a lovely French restaurant in the Manhattan neighborhood, Gramercy. Some could say I’m working my way up in the hospitality industry, but I wouldn’t go that far. I work in restaurants because I’m young and don’t mind the weird hours, long periods of time on my feet, and it’s my best bet for supporting myself. There’s money to be made as a waitress. I’ve always remarked that by working in a restaurant, you are able to see how primitive the act of feeding is and how people have different survival mechanisms when it comes to feeding themselves. However it was an article in the Washington Post that made me turn away from noticing the behaviors of patrons, and turn my attention to what goes on with employment at restaurants.
Living in New York City, you become accustomed to all sorts of races and ethnicities–it comes with the turf. Like I said, the first place I worked was a sports bar. I never thought twice that most of the staff were young women like myself, and mostly white with myself. I think the most “ethnic” person who worked there was Greek. But of course, go behind the kitchen doors, and the entire kitchen was Hispanic. If the kitchen staff spoke any English, it was very accented English. The same went for the neighborhood restaurant, and can be said for most restaurants in New York City. However there is more diversity on the floor (which is server slang for people who work in Front of House, such as waiters, bartenders, bussers, etc). At the Mexican restaurant I worked at, there were a couple of Mexican servers. Mexican servers at a Mexican restaurant is not an outrageous idea though. However, at my Times Square gig there was a running joke that any Asian that applied would get the job. I was often asked by customers how I got the job because I wasn’t Asian. I was thrown by the audacity these people had to ask me such a question but, maybe since they thought I looked like them, that we obviously belonged to a secret club and such a remark wouldn’t be out-of-place or offensive. But when I thought about it, how many Asian restaurants have I been to where the staff is only Asian? I can’t think of one Chinese or Japanese restaurant I’ve dined in within the last couple of months that hasn’t been a completely Asian staff. Growing up I went to the same sushi restaurant every Friday night with my parents and there wasn’t one Japanese person who worked there–everyone was either from the Philippines or Korea. But where they came from didn’t matter, all that mattered was the appearance of an authentically Asian staff. Someone of European descent would throw off the equilibrium.
When I came across Carol Morello and Ted Mellnick’s article Hispanic Kids are the Largest Group of Children Living in Poverty, published September 28th in the Washington Post, I immediately thought of my new co-workers at the French restaurant I’ve recently begun working at (and by recently, I mean within the last month). I work lunch, dinner, and brunch shifts and noticed the differences in staff. The people who work Lunch shifts with me are Hispanic women: one girl is my age and is from Guatemala, while the few other women are older than me by 15 or more years and are from Mexico, Peru and Colombia. Two of the older women have young sons. The girl my age–the ripe age of 23– has been married for two years and is raising her sister’s baby. The night shift, the most lucrative shift of all, is worked by mainly men or young, white women. The girl who has worked there the longest is from Kentucky, if you catch my drift. One of the men who works the night shift recently got married, but he’s in his thirties. But no one who works at night has any children. I’ve grown to really enjoy working day shifts because of the strong women I work with. They wake up early and work at least two jobs in order to support their children, as they are all single mothers. Even the young hostess is a Hispanic single mom of a 3-year-old, and she’s just 20. I understand that working a day shift frees up the evening, and this is optimal if you’d like to eat dinner with your child, but the women I work with express that they want to be able to work some night shifts.
“To be able to work night shifts”? What did they mean? They made it sound like they didn’t have permission to work night shifts.
These women have told me that they’ve asked explicitly to work some night shifts but instead, the restaurant continues to hire new people –like myself–to work nights. They never try to rationalize it to me, but they voice their frustration. They have young children and they want to provide them with a better life than they had growing up in their native country. I don’t want to say that my new restaurant is racist and that these women aren’t given night shifts because they are Hispanic, but I really do believe that plays in a part in management’s position. Every restaurants hires people based on appearance, whether it be blonde or brunette; or black or white. I can’t help but think that situations like this contribute to why Hispanic children are the largest group of children who live in poverty. How often are low-paying jobs given to Hispanics rather than more profitable ones because of their ethnicity? The article points out that many Hispanics who are living in poverty often have home foreclosures to blame for their current financial standing. The women I work with support the article’s claim that Hispanics invested in homes because of the “American Dream”: they tell me they try to bring their children to museums and take them to Broadway shows; that they want their sons to do well in school and thrive in this country, that they want to experience the American Dream. Perhaps these women are making the same sacrifices my great-grandparents made when they immigrated from Italy. Perhaps the American dream begins with a sacrifice. But nobody tells you that, now do they?