Working With Brazilian Immigrants
By Colleen Goodhue
Like most of the Irish Catholics in my town, the only interaction I had with the Brazilian immigrants that flocked to Massachusetts was getting frustrated at them while trying to order an iced coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. They should learn the goddamn language if they’re going to come to our country, I thought. Until this summer.
I spent my summer vacation flirting my tips up at a seafood restaurant near my home in Massachusetts watching one-boat, two-house, four-car families pay their friends’ tabs in shows of bravado. For the summer people, August means golf at the country club, afternoons out on a sailboat and locally caught Surf and Turf at my restaurant. Through the swinging doors, August means something totally different. The kitchen is staffed entirely with Brazilian immigrants who get no summer vacation. August means the kitchen is 20 degrees hotter and the picky summer people are back.
Richard worked as the sauté chef and pseudo-kitchen manager. He was in charge of relaying information from the waitresses to the cooks and dishwashers which was especially important seeing as they often didn’t speak the same language. He was 26 years old and worked there six days a week from noon to 10 p.m., after helping at his father Carlo’s auto body shop.
Richard was the most “Americanized” of any of them, because he was more immersed in the culture as a young boy. His family came over when he was still a teenager. He was constantly flirting with the waitresses and teaching us phrases to tell the dishwashers (phrases we would later find out did not mean “please wash the knives”).
All of the dishwashers were hired by Richard. He would drive to their houses and bring them to work. He spoke to them in this frantic sort of Portuguese, trying to explain every detail of the kitchen as quickly as possible. We assumed that he was friends with them before or they met him through a network of Brazilians in town looking for jobs. Over the course of the summer we went through four or five dishwashers, but not because they were fired or quit. They would learn other jobs in the kitchen, learn some English, and move on.
Paolo was the dishwasher when I started. At first, he only knew the words for the different silverware and the only words we knew in Portuguese were “please” and “thank you,” so there was minimal conversation. By the end of the summer, he was making salad and dessert and had learned so much English that at the end of the night we could all sit down for a pizza and talk while waiting for the restaurant to close.
He often mimicked Richard’s charisma, calling every girl “honey” and responding to every request with, “Everything for you, baby.” One of the head waitresses would scoff at him. She told me that they were all trying to charm me into being their ticket to a Green Card.
My best friend at the restaurant was a red- and baggy-eyed, middle-aged pizza chef named Milton. Our friendship, at first, was based solely on the fact that I always brought him ice water when it got hot, and he would teach me phrases in Portuguese. During lulls at work, we started talking. He worked mornings at a pizza place, nights at my restaurant and got up at the crack of dawn to deliver papers. I tried to not complain that I was missing “Project Runway” by working that Wednesday.
At the end of my last day, I was talking to Milton, telling him about how I couldn’t wait to get back to school. He started telling me about his two college-aged daughters: the reason he’s here. He needs to send money back home to his family, for school. He hasn’t been home in eight years because he doesn’t have his green card yet. He said he probably won’t get it for six more years. At the end of it, he won’t see the family he’s supporting for 14 years.
I got home from work that night and cried. I told my mom how selfish and spoiled I felt, and she told me that all immigrants have to struggle like that. My great-great grandfather was an immigrant like them. He spoke the language, but met with “Irish Need Not Apply” signs when he searched for employment. When he finally got a job, he worked seven days a week, taking only Sunday mornings off so he could go to church. He died very young, after working diligently to provide something for his family. And it wasn’t just for his children; it was for all of them after that, children he would never meet. And I wanted to thank a man I had never met for working so hard so that I could have the opportunity of a life so full of possibilities that I can hardly comprehend.
When Milton and I finished talking, Richard came out and put his arms around me and kissed me on the cheek and said “Don’t you forget about me honey, okay?” I won’t. •
Colleen Goodhue is a sophomore Television and Radio major who enjoys schmoozing with the kitchen help during her shift. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.