Here is a story and a sociological essay all rolled into one.
My son the recent college graduate only thinks about cooking. I encourage his inclination, of course. Compulsion does not work. Most people do well only what they like to do. Besides, I am an immigrant from France. Scabs of French pessimism stick to my brain. I don’t know how long the current economic crisis will last. In Japan, there were ten dead years, a full decade lost. I tell myself that cooks never go hungry and neither do those who are close to them. I adore my son’s girlfriend. I want her to have enough to eat, happen what may. I used to work in kitchens myself, around the 18th century. I believe that even the leavings from the average restaurant kitchen will keep you pleasantly fat forever. Go for it, I tell him.
My son has been cooking part-time since he was a teenager and throughout the embarrassingly long years it took him to complete his political science major. He has experience in a variety of fairly humble kitchen positions. I also think he has some talent. I don’t say this because he is my son. I am a mean father by California standards, a stern figure more or less from the Old Testament, you might say. Not long ago, I thought my son was worse than worthless. I am not afraid to be “judgmental,” bet on it! But he has changed. His brain has caught up with his glands at last. Having finished college, he is naturally looking for a full-time position, or better. He is meeting with an obstacle we did not expect but that was expectable if we had thought about it: He is not Mexican.
In California, where I live, everywhere in California, I think, during the fat cow years, immigrants from Mexico took over nearly all the kitchen jobs, Those are mostly hard jobs, stressful jobs offering low pay. The native-born young shunned them in favor of retail “sales associates” positions that are easy and allow for a fair margin of laziness although they don’t pay any better. The Mexican take-over began with Taco Bells and private tamales stands, and, naturally, taco shops. But immigrants are predictable. Many went considerably further.
It does not matter where immigrants come from. They are a self-selected group and the selection is based neither on indolence nor on passivity. Every wave of immigrants comprises more than its share of hard workers, of ambitious, tenacious individuals with a vision. Yes, I do think that as far as these qualities are concerned, immigrants rank higher on the average than the native-born. That’s the case everywhere: in the US, in Canada, in the UK, in France. Accordingly, many immigrants make their way up within little-prized occupations. There are so many of them trying that some are bound to achieve high positions within these occupations. It’s the same at all levels of educational achievement. Immigrants are overrepresented in kitchens, in universities, and in innovative high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. I would bet they are under-represented in government jobs.
Courage, tenacity and vision often make up for initial linguistic incompetence, and even for continuing incompetence. The same qualities help immigrants overcome the reputed obstacle of culture. It’s much exaggerated anyway, as far as this country is concerned, at least. In the US, hardly anyone puts pressure on immigrants to assimilate beyond the strict requirements of their job. It’s even truer in Canada, and only a little less true in other open, tolerant, democratic, capitalist societies. (As I write, the French political class is arguing endlessly about forbidding the burqha, the complete, supposedly Islamic cover for women, in government offices. That’s in France!)
Note what I am not talking about: affirmative action, preferential hiring, or preferential promotion. If you invited yourself to the party, I say, you should not expect to be served first, or the best morsels. If your parents or grandparents had the good idea to come here, most likely uninvited (like me), congratulate them on their good sense but their inspired move does not give you any special right. It’s absurd to think that their immigration creates a debt for the society that took them in. It’s silly to think so even for a minute. But I digress. Back to the story of my son and of his search for a full-time cooking job. But first, a necessary personal digression.
Some of my friends take me for an inveterate food snob just because of my French accent. I am not; I am not even a foodie. I just know what I like and I have no tolerance for make-believe gastronomy, especially for presumptuous dishes. “Eyes-only” food is a plague all over this country. If that’s what you want, you are not a gourmet but an interior decorator, and probably gay, at least if you are a man. (If you are a woman, you are the chi-chi kind and almost certainly mediocre in bed.) Anyway, the occasions when I feel the urge to compliment a chef are rare. They are rare enough that I remember the last five with ease. On the last occasion, I enjoyed a quintessential traditional dish you never, ever find in so-called “French” restaurants in this country. (If I ever see another “French onion soup” slathered in cheap melted cheese, I will yell crudely!) Anyway, the dish is: “blanquette de veau.” I don’t want to sound brutal but frankly, if you have not had blanquette de veau at least ten times in your life, you have had a rude, bland, nasty existence, a life hardly worth living. On that occasion, I was so happy that I asked to talk to the chef of that otherwise unremarkable, small chain establishment. And yes, you guessed it right, the blanquette de veau artist, the masterful chef, was a Mexican immigrant, a man in his forties.
As I said, my son the graduate is hard-working and intelligent. He is also full of initiative in the kitchen and at work in general. Moreover, he was brought up in a household where the most traditional French cooking interrupted the rhythm of two kinds of Indian cuisine, North Indian and Bengali. He has had the exposure at least. He is not narrow-tasted. (I made that word up, by analogy with narrow-minded.) I employ him frequently on various repair tasks around my sweet Victorian house. I prefer him to most casual laborers I have employed. I pay him better than the going local rate because he deserves it. Under my guidance, he has even learned to dress in a way that is not distracting to employers. (No skateboarding championship t-shirt and no “Fuck Communism” t-shirts either.) So, he looks neat most of the time.
With all these qualities, my son can hardly cross the threshold of a restaurant without suffering rejection. He says managers hardly take a second look at him. “No opening” they affirm. This cannot be always true. People are still eating out in spite of the current prolonged crisis and the restaurant business is notorious for personnel turnover. I think rather that restaurants owners and managers discriminate passively against my son. They profile him.
It’s easy to imagine how it happens. When José, the second cook decides to go visit his old mother in Mexico, he recommends his cousin Jesùs to take his place for a while. And why shouldn’t he? The cousin is more likely to give him back his job when he returns than a stranger, especially a stranger who is not even Mexican. When Antonio gets fired, the first cook, Miguel, is first to know and he immediately offers his brother-in-law, Luis. The system makes for smoothness of operations by minimizing disruptions. Besides, when you observe Mexicans in a kitchen, you quickly notice that they have their own cadence of work, their own tempo. The current mechanism works well. Why risk throwing sand in its gears by bringing in a new guy, an unknown quantity who will be comparatively unpredictable simply because he is not Mexican?
In this closed market, my son enjoys a slight advantage over the average Santa Cruz surfer, say. In California, currently, the probability of a blond, tanned surfer getting a job in a restaurant kitchen is about the same as that of my winning the lottery. And I rarely buy tickets. My son was adopted from India and has brown skin. An unobservant or distracted restaurant manager might fail to notice that neither his first name nor his last name sounds Spanish. I keep hoping my son will be taken for a Mexican, that he will be mistakenly profiled and be given a chance. I encourage him to learn more Spanish, to form complete sentences in that language so someone will think he is just a slightly mentally challenged young Mexican man.
Obviously, this profiling looks unfair. But why not? The Mexican de facto monopoly over kitchens succeeds for nearly everyone concerned. It’s good for the Mexican immigrants, of course. It works well for the owners, as I just explained. The patrons don’t complain, except me, and that, only seldom. I eat Mexican food frequently by choice (I am fond of tacos de lengua, and of menudo on Saturdays.) I just wish almost everything you eat in California did not taste like Mexican food. But I tell myself, virtuously, “If you don’t like it here just go home where you come from, you stupid foreigner!” That usually takes care of it for a while. In the meantime, our reasonably laissez-faire policies are pretty successful overall. Our unemployment rate at its worst, now (March 2010), looks like normal unemployment in much of Europe.
What ails my son is clearly discrimination. It’s racial profiling of the crudest kind. And so, what?
PS It’s not unethical to offer my son a try-out and it’s not embarrassing to me. If you have an interesting cooking slot, even a temporary one, let me know. You can contact me through a ‘comment’ on this blog or email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
© Jacques Delacroix 2010
IF YOU WANT TO LEARN ABOUT MY VIEWS ABOUT ILLEGAL MEXICAN IMMIGRATION, SPECIFICALLY, CLICK HERE. IT WILL TAKE YOU TO AN ARTICLE (PDF) CO-AUTHORED WITH SERGEY NIKIFOROV AND PUBLISHED RECENTLY IN THE INDEPENDENT REVIEW. THE ARTICLE PRESENTS A REAL LIBERTARIAN VIEW OF THE ISSUE. IT WILL PROBABLY SURPRISE YOU SOME.