Throwing Shrimp

The year was 2005. I had just started law school and already couldn’t wait for it to be over. Despite being a crack law student with a bright future, I still needed to put beer on the table every week. To make ends meet, I took a job at a local restaurant as a server. Civil procedure by day, “would you like fries with that?” at night. While at first it felt a little demeaning for a Villanova college graduate studying law to be serving food, it didn’t matter. The money was good, and I got paid every day in cold, hard cash.

The restaurant was broken into two sections – you had your “front of the house” staff, and in the back, you had your “back of the house” staff. The front of the house staff is what you would imagine – servers, hostesses, and bartenders. They were mostly middle class kids trying to make a few bucks. Some of them were in school. Most were white.

In the back of the house no one spoke a lick of English – it was all Spanish. Apparently the guys in the back were here from Mexico illegally.

As a conservative, I’d always considered myself against illegal immigration. People should come to America legally. If they come here illegally, they should have to leave. Simple enough, right?

Despite being a fancy and important law student, I quickly bonded with my fellow servers, whose upbringings were similar to mine. These kids liked to party and hang out. I found them much easier to get along with than my fellow law students, who were often pruning about their LSAT scores, college scholarships, and bragging about how they were going to easily graduate in the top 5% of the class and make law review. I was just trying to get my law degree and start a practice – not set the academic world on fire. Can we talk about punk rock instead of debating “International Shoe?” Please? Pretty please? If I heard the phrase “minimum contacts” in a casual conversation one more time I was going to punch someone. 

As time went on, my schedule was basically law school during the day, and then serving at night and on the weekends. I enjoyed serving, and it opened my eyes up to the service industry. It was fun.

One afternoon we learned that one of our cooks had been detained because he didn’t have “paperwork.” Something about being an illegal immigrant. Whatever. Serves him right. The restaurant manager was fretting because we were short staffed. Maybe I’m a moron, but I decided a little variety in my work couldn’t hurt.

“Matt”, I said to our manager, “tell you what. I’ll wash dishes in the back today. I know it’s not my job, but I’ll have some fun.”
“Jordan, you do know it pays $10 an hour? You make way more money serving.”
“Eh, I had a good couple of nights. Throw me an apron and let’s get this done. Now come here and gimme a kiss you handsome man.” Sexual banter is common in the service industry.
“I hate you, Jordan.”
“Don’t lie. You love me.”

I don’t know why I felt compelled to work in the back of the house that night, but I did. Everyone thought it was a little strange, but whatever. I felt like washing dishes instead of serving french fries.

What’s interesting is the front of the house and back of the house didn’t hang out with each other much. I figured it was the language barrier. For whatever reason, the front of the house stuck to themselves, and the back of the house stuck to themselves. I’d worked at the restaurant for about 6 months and didn’t know the name of one guy who worked in the back of the house. They were just “The Mexicans.”

I soon learned that “Oscar” was the defacto manager of the back. His English wasn’t terrible, so Matt put him in charge. Oscar was responsible for deciding who did what job and making sure his guys came to work on time.

Holy shit was this a tough job. The kitchen was about 115 degrees, and we were all drenched in sweat within 20 minutes of starting our shift. The risk of burning yourself on the stove was common. If one of the guys burned themselves, they just said “ouch!” and kept working. I noticed that all the guys had burn marks on their hands and forearms. There was no crying in the back of the house.

I couldn’t believe how efficiently these guys ran the kitchen. The front end servers would run in the back, scream about how they needed something “rapido”, and the staff would get it done without question. It was hard to keep up. What people don’t realize is that a server’s night can depend entirely on the kitchen staff getting the food right, and getting it out quickly.

The language barrier was there, but I quickly bonded with “the Mexicans.” They were a fun group. The guys were all in their 30s. Juan, Oscar, Antonio, and Fernando. By the end of the night they started referring to me as “buey”, which apparently means “dude” in Spanish. We spent the entire night making fun of each other, using words like “gordo”, “guapo”, and referring to women we liked as “muy bueno.” I felt like I was back in a high school locker room. It was awesome. We didn’t understand each other’s language, but some stuff is universal.

When the night was over, I was completely drenched in sweat. But we had gotten through the shift, like conquering heroes. I asked the guys if they wanted to go out for drinks. Oscar explained to me that none of them had IDs, so the bars wouldn’t serve them. I drove over to the liquor store and picked up a case of Tecate and a bottle of tequila. I asked the guys if they wanted to come back to my dorm room and help me pound all this liquor. Oscar looked at me, and in his best English, said “I… love you.” I smiled and responded with what little Spanish I had picked up that night – “vete al carajo”, which I think means “fuck off.”

Back at my dorm room, after a few drinks, we did our best to talk to each other. Oscar explained to me that he was from a town called Puebla. There are no jobs there, so he decided to come to America about 8 years ago with his wife Juana. His daughter was born here in Wilmington, and she goes to the local public school. Oscar and his wife Juana slipped into the country in the back of a van with about 20 other people. At one point on the way here, they had to traverse a desert and his wife almost died of dehydration. Oscar was happy to be here, and have a job where he could save money. The guys all lived together in a tiny apartment to save money, along with their wives and kids.

I couldn’t imagine risking my life and traversing a desert to flip hamburgers for $10 an hour. But that’s what Oscar and his family did. They risked their lives to cook hamburgers in Delaware, and were thankful for the opportunity.

A few days later I went into work on a Sunday morning. Oscar told me to come to the kitchen before my shift started. I’d always wondered what the Mexicans did back there before their shifts. Apparently Oscar was cooking “off menu” – he had brought in hand made corn tortillas, Valentia hot sauce, and then threw together tacos using ingredients from the back of the house. It was one of the best yet simplest breakfasts I’d ever eaten – shredded chicken, black beans, and eggs, in fried corn tortillas with a little bit of hot sauce. The meal was absolutely delicious. “Mexican Sunday breakfast” became a routine. Every Sunday morning we’d come in early and Oscar would cook us tacos, and Juana and their daughter Maria would join us. Oscar’s cooking tasted better than anything on the actual menu.

I started to become close with my bueys, and would volunteer for kitchen shifts when I could afford it. I got pretty decent at working in the back of the house, too, even though it was hard work. The bueys were fun as hell to work with. We would throw food at each other, call each other names, and pull off all kinds of elaborate pranks.  My Spanish got better, although most of it was insults and curse words.

After our shift, we would all go drink in my dorm room, and now the front house servers would join us. It was cool that two groups who worked in the same place actually talked to each other now. We would discuss everything from politics, our girlfriends, to what Mexico is “really” like. We stopped referring to them as “The Mexicans” – now they were just Oscar, Juan, Antonio, and Fernando. My bueys wanted to be legal citizens more than anything else, but didn’t think it was possible.

The semester ended and grades came out. Despite putting in zero effort and spending more of my time drinking with my Mexican pals than studying law, I managed to place within the top 10% of the class. Which sounds great, but it also meant a bunch of stupid shit like law review, on campus interviews, and maybe getting a law job.

I managed to find a job in a law firm, where I’d learn to practice my craft. I put in my two weeks resignation at the restaurant. Matt said I could come back to the restaurant any time, and that he appreciated my ability to work both the front and back of the house. I would miss that job, and my friends there.

After a few months working my law job, I was bored and needed money. I actually made more money serving than working at my law job. I called Matt and asked if I could pick up a few shifts. He said sure, but they needed my experience in the back of the house more than the front. I told him that was fine, and looked forward to getting the band back together. I began plotting elaborate pranks to celebrate my triumphant return. Before I left, I’d nicknamed Oscar “El Guapo.” That afternoon I began printing out pictures of El Guapo, which I would put in every hamburger bun in the restaurant.

When I got to work, Oscar wasn’t there. I picked up a fried shrimp and threw it at Fernando’s head, which was common practice. “Where the fuck is Oscar?” I asked him. “La resaca? I miss his cabesa guapo.” Fernando didn’t seem interested in our usual antics, and simply said “mas tarde”, which means “later.”

The next morning I came into work and Juana, Oscar’s wife, was there. She said something along the lines of “they took him.” Apparently a competing restaurant found out that some of our house staff was undocumented, and had called ICE on us. Oscar was in a detention center.

This made no sense to me. Rather than fine the owners of the restaurant, they decided to take Oscar into custody. Clearly this was a mistake. I told Juana that “I’m a law student, don’t worry about anything, I’m going to get it all taken care of. Next week we’ll be back to throwing fried camarones at each other.”

I went to one of my professors who teaches immigration law. We’d get this cleared up fast.

“Professor Mack, I need your help. Oscar has a job at the restaurant where I work, but he doesn’t have citizenship paperwork. He got taken into custody because our competitor restaurant is mad that we’re way better than them. Oscar pays income taxes, and he’s got a wife and daughter here. He’s got nowhere to live in Mexico, and hasn’t been there for 8 years. The guy traversed a fucking desert to come to Wilmington and flip burgers for $10 an hour. Let’s just get him whatever we need to make him legal. This should be an easy case. They wouldn’t seriously split up a family like that.”
“Jordan, I’m afraid it doesn’t work like you think. Oscar is here illegally. Long story short, he has to go back to Mexico and apply for citizenship legally.”
“What the fuck? He has no place to live there. What are his wife and daughter going to do?”
“I don’t know, Jordan. They can go back to Mexico with him.”
“His daughter’s enrolled in school. They don’t have a house in Mexico. We just expect this guy to quit his job, take his daughter out of school, and go back to Mexico? A place he hasn’t been to in eight years? Where is he going to live?”
“Look, I don’t much disagree with you. But that’s how the law works. He’s an illegal…”
“How can a person be “illegal”? He might not have papers, but he’s a person. He’s Oscar.”

I went back to Juana. ICE was looking for her, and apparently their child, even though the kid was a US citizen. I let them stay in my tiny dorm room for the time being, violating school policy and probably federal law. I didn’t give a shit. Then I went down to ICE and told them I was Oscar’s lawyer, and filled out a bunch of paperwork.

Weeks later I got a call from Matt:

“Dude, Oscar’s been released. I can’t have him come to the restaurant, but he wants to talk to you. Can he meet you at your dorm room? Can you get this shit cleared up? I need him back at the restaurant stat.”
“Matt, I’m working on it. Have him meet me here at the dorm.”

I was relieved to see Oscar. But he had lost about 10lbs, and his face was pale white. He didn’t want to talk about the detention center, other than that it was “no bueno.” We packed up Oscar, Juana, and their daughter Maria’s belongings. They didn’t own much. I put them all on a train to Washington D.C., which is a “sanctuary city.” Hopefully they’d find work, and Maria would be in a good school.

Matt called and asked when Oscar was coming back to work. I told him that he wasn’t, but I couldn’t get into it. He would need to find someone else to manage the back of the house.

I never saw Oscar, Juana, or Maria again.

I hope they made it to DC.

2 Responses to Throwing Shrimp

  1. My wife is Canadian. It took over a year and over a thousand dollars just to get her permanent residency. Not to mention all the paperwork and interviews (yes, interviews.). And that was with me being her husband and acting as her “sponsor” as they call it. I don’t know how you could even come to the states without a sponsor unless you were claiming refugee status. It’s a real regulatory mess. After going through it, I don’t think there is any way a poor immigrant with a language barrier could possibly navigate through the immigration procedures and forms without a lawyer assisting them. And how many poor immigrants do you think can afford a lawyer?

  2. Excellent piece Jordan. I too had the experience of working with “The Mexicans” in a restaurant and I’ve never had more fun while working harder than ever. We would prank one another with fake eyeballs in the chef’s soda or plastic ants on the platter waiting for delivery to a hungry patron. I loved going to work each day and I made long term friendships with the tres amigos, their wives and chidren. They would make the best ceviche and invite me to the back to eat with them where we’d laugh and tease one another.

    This nation has to find a way to regard the humanity in everyone regardless of their status. Our crooked system is cruel and unfair to natives, illegal & legal immigrants alike. I’d hate to see what would come of the nation if all illegals were suddenly deported because they, unlike a lot of Americans, don’t take the fact that they actually have jobs for granted.

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