Language and the stratification of restaurant labour

Originally posted at Language on the Move.

Different languages for different jobs in this Los Angeles restaurant

Different languages for different jobs in this Los Angeles restaurant

Are there language requirements for working in restaurants in Los Angeles? These two employment signs that I saw in the window of a sushi restaurant near UCLA suggests that you need English to wait tables and Spanish to work in the kitchen.

On the left, the English sign says ‘Experienced servers! Full or Part Time, Inquire Within’. On the right, the Spanish sign seeks ‘amigo con experiensia en cocina japonesa’ (‘friend** with experience in Japanese cooking/cuisine’).

It makes sense for the sign about servers to be in English. English is the predominant language in the United States, and this restaurant is located in a largely white and Persian neighbourhood. Servers would have to be able to communicate in English to do their job adequately. But why is the second sign in Spanish? Is knowledge of Spanish necessary to work in the kitchen?

Language and labour market segmentation

By posting the ad for the kitchen job in Spanish and the server job in English, the restaurant is making a statement about the hierarchy of race, language, and nativity in the Los Angeles restaurant workforce. Restaurant worker advocacy group ROC United has found that in the US, white and native-born workers tend to be hired for better-paid positions in the ‘front of the house’ (areas where employees interact with customers), while immigrants and people of colour tend to work in low-pay, hazardous jobs in the back of the house.

The choice of language in these employment ads suggests that the restaurant owners expect back of the house workers to be Spanish-speaking immigrants. In Los Angeles, Mexican and Central American immigrants, many of whom are undocumented, are concentrated in back of the house jobs. This ethnic/racial niching extends even to restaurants in non-Latin American immigrant communities. Chinese restaurants in the dense Chinese ‘ethnoburbs’ to the east of the city will hire Mexican and Central American dishwashers and bussers, for example. The Los Angeles location of Ding Tai Fung, the Taiwan-based dumpling chain, has Latino kitchen workers wrapping their famous Shanghainese soup dumplings.

Speaking Spanish is not a requirement for working in the restaurant kitchen in the way that speaking English is a requirement for working as a server. Front of the house employees are expected to know enough English to do the type of linguistically complex performance that customers expect. While communication is important in the back of the house, one does not need to be fluent in English or Spanish to wash plates or wrap dumplings. That is part of the reason why one sees so many linguistically isolated immigrants in restaurant kitchen jobs.

Thinking sociologically about this, though, perhaps speaking Spanish is a requirement for back of the house work in Los Angeles. Waldinger (1998) suggests that as immigrants of a particular group get concentrated in particular sectors of particular industries, employers prefer not to hire workers from other groups because they have trouble fitting in:

‘Because of the language barrier, there are two jobs here (for blacks), if they are unskilled: shipping and sweeping the floor’. ‘Unless the blacks speak Spanish’, noted one furniture manufacturer, ‘we have a major problem’; another reported that language was an issue, not so much for management, but for ‘blacks dealing with Hispanics’; a third, who emphasized the need for cooperation and communication, went on to tell us that ‘the fact that our workforce is homogenous’ – they were all Mexican – ‘helps towards this communication’. Explaining why it was ‘difficult to hire blacks when you have a predominantly Hispanic workforce’, a hotel manager pointed to ‘discomfort with Latino influence. They don’t understand the language’.

Employers’ stereotypes of Latin American workers and hiring within migrants’ social networks compounds the effects of this implicit language requirement. Social and linguistic barriers to employment initiated a path dependent process by which more immigrants of a similar cultural and linguistic background came to be employed in the same types of jobs. The result is a workforce that is highly stratified by race, ethnicity, class, and language. Spanish-speaking immigrants occupy the bottom rung of the ladder, even in restaurants operated by other non-white immigrants.

Note 1: The use of ‘amigo’ (friend) in the Spanish sign is an example of what Hill calls ‘mock Spanish’, a racist and racializing parody of Spanish in the Southwest. Used among non-Spanish speakers, ‘amigo’ refers specifically to men of Latin American origin. For example, someone who does not speak Spanish may call a Latin American origin man over by calling out, ‘Hey, amigo!’ (The feminine ‘amiga’ is not as common.) Though ‘amigo’ is definitely a holdover from mock Spanish, taken as a whole, the sign seems to be a genuine attempt at communication in Spanish with Spanish speakers. Hill argues that mock Spanish is generally used for comedic effect among native English speaking whites. However, other ethnic groups have also adopted it, using it to distance themselves discursively from Latin American immigrants, who are situated near the bottom of the racial hierarchy. Waldinger, Roger (1998). The Language of Work in an Immigrant Metropolis Journal des anthropologues (72-73)


One thought on “Language and the stratification of restaurant labour

  1. hey amigo,

    Anthony Bourdain’s book gives some possible explanations why many cooks and chefs of “French restaurants” in New York are actually either Mexicans or Ecuadorians.

    tl;dr easy way to work in a restaurant by doing the dishes if you are a untrained immigrant. With time, lots of learning eventually become Sous-Chef and even restaurant Chef.
    He also opines that if you are native English speaking and want to work in the kitchen, learn at least some decent Spanish (maybe not to the linguistically-complex-performance level).

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