| December 2021, Por Felipe Herrera Aguirre


A large percentage of the US economy depends on foreign workforce, Latinos being the fastest growing population being employed. Were all of them expulsed from the country, who would do the dishes? Who would serve them? Or rather, who would do those things white people don’t want to do? 


Right now it’s 3pm in the afternoon of a Saturday in August, and I am about to get to ‘International Cuisine’, an Ecuadorian restaurant on East Lake street in Minneapolis, state of Minnesota. Within the next 24 hours, I will have spent 15 of those hours washing dishes. But for the time being, my arms are still not numb, my fingers are not wrinkly, my back is not stiff yet, and I do not stink of fat. It is my first day of work, a job I’ll do for a month, for 10 dollars an hour, and I’m feeling happy because I tried really hard to get it.

I have had similar jobs in the past. I worked washing dishes, and also as a deliveryman, as a cashier, and even as a cook at a pizza place back in Santiago de Chile, my hometown. I have walked all around the commune of Puente Alto —to the south of our capital city— pasting Redbank ads on the walls of the guardhouses where people go get their driving license renewal. I have waited tables at a bar in Vitacura, the wealthiest commune in Chile. I have worked selling magazines at the Estadio Nacional (National Stadium), I’ve written features for an amateur football league’s matches, and I have also been a journalist for a free newspaper. And for three years on a row, I worked in three fondas in Santiago de Chile during our Fiestas Patrias (National Holidays), whole days, day in, day out, stuck in there.

This is my résumé, and even though it all happened a long time ago, and no-one really cares about it here, I’m going over all of those jobs in my head so as to boost my confidence. I try to picture Arturo Vidal in his first game in FC Barcelona. I imagine him walking down the tunnel that leads up to the pitch of Camp Nou for the first time, ready to show his talent. I’ve come here to show them why I should keep my job as a dishwasher, which is what (nearly) all Latinos do when they come to work in the US.


The one who would be Messi within the restaurant is called Eduardo and he is a short, swarthy man from Ecuador, some Inca traces on his attractive face. He is the lead cook. He’s 33 and got to the US around 14 or 15 —he hesitates— years ago. He got here crossing the border all across the Arizona desert, along with a group of about 20 other people. From there he flew to Minneapolis as he had family living there. Ever since then, he’s worked in restaurant kitchens, and last June he associated with two other Ecuadorians to manage the restaurant that has hired me as their employee.

Eduardo is helped by Oscar, who is also from Ecuador. He is thin, swarthy, and a little shorter than Eduardo. He is 20 years old and he arrived in the US when he was 16. He got into public school, but he claims it was worthless to him. As he didn’t know any English, his classmates didn’t speak to him, and he understood very little in class. A year later, he left school in order to work and get some money. And that’s all he does: he wakes up at 5 in the morning, goes downtown where he works until 2.30pm, and then at 3pm he starts his shift at this restaurant. Every day. ‘You eventually get used to it,’ he says.

Photo by Felipe Herrera Aguirre
Photo by Felipe Herrera Aguirre


I’m not used to it yet. In fact, I’m feeling nervous.

I am briefly explained how the dishwasher works, and then I’m shown where the dishes, the pots, the pans, the ladles, and the wooden spoons go. Then they show me the huge cold store I’ll have to get into to fetch things from ‘in case we’re busy’, and then ‘okay, let’s get down to it!’: We’re ready. ‘You’d better put on your apron now so your clothes don’t get dirty with fat.’ C’mon, it’s coming! Let’s get to the dancefloor.

The frying pans start coming in and I have to clean them with a pre-rinse sprayer that hangs from the ceiling exactly where I am at, and I splash the dishes to remove the leftovers, and then I stick them into the dishwasher, push the “wash” button, and there comes another round of pots and pans, and I rinse them all using the sprayer, and once the dishwasher is done, I open its door and my face gets burned by the steam coming out of it, and my fingers get scalded too on account of the boiling water, and my arms get burned at the touch of the hot pans, and my feet slide on the slippery floor.

Another batch of dirty dishes comes in: leftovers and crumbled napkins on them, half-finished milkshakes, and there is rice and ketchup everywhere, and all of it is thrown away into a garbage container. Now I have to rinse these dishes too with the pre-rinse sprayer, and then stick them all into the dishwasher, push the button. Then it finishes, and I open the door, and my face is once again burned with the steam coming out of it, and my fingers get scalded too on account of the boiling water, and again my arms get burned at the touch of the pans, and my feet slide on the slippery floor.

I take a pause to eat: there’s either a beef stew known as Seco de Carne with grained rice, or Bandeja Paisa (in English, Paisa Platter). There’s Patacones (fried plantains), sautéed beef tenderloin, Humitas (steamed fresh corn cakes), or the beef tripe stew called Guatitas. Any of the items on the menu. But the machine does not stop. I get back to work, and there comes another set of pans. I can now recognize them because of the stains. There’s one that looks like an ostrich, there’s another one that’s scratched all over, and there’s one that is warped after so much wear and tear and because of the changes in temperature too: it now has five ends, like a star. And I feel proud because the dishwasher doesn’t beat me, and more and more things keep coming in, and I keep washing and washing non-stop.

But suddenly there is a stop.

And then I look at them. They are all cooking, moving across the room’s three square meters between the ovens, the dishes, and the food, as if following some kind of choreography that they already know by heart now, almost perfectly, doing so to the sound of bachata that is coming out of the wireless speaker. They do the dance of survival in a country that is progressively becoming more and more hostile to immigration There they are: fighting from the last cog in this massive non-stop wheel called the United States of America, a first world power.


‘What time does the kitchen close?” I ask, ashamed They look at me. ‘We should be closing now,’ Eduardo answers. ‘But I want to keep cooking.’

I don’t want to keep washing. But the last wave of dirty dishes and pots and pans is coming in, and so I scrub them, and I wash them, and I stick them in and out of the dishwasher, and I get burned, and then some more dishes and pots and pans come in again, piling up in the dishwasher.

Once step at a time, I keep working until it is almost midnight when I’m done. My hands are sore, I stink of fat, but the whole kitchen is clean.

‘Is this your first job here? Eduardo asks me.

‘Yes, it is’ I answer.

He laughs.

‘Well, it’s like this! Welcome to the US!’

Now I’m laughing. I’ve won. But I feel like a wet cat that has been run over by a car. Tomorrow another 7 frantic hours await me .


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