Discussion: Learning to Serve and How to Tame a Wild Tongue

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  For this discussion you will need to read How to Tame a Wild Tongue Download How to Tame a Wild Tongueand Learning to Serve Download Learning to Serve. For this discussion, I want you to focus on one of the readings for your Initial Post. 

Your posts can be a mixture of your personal experiences and thoughts as well as direct quotes and examples from the readings. I will expect at least two quotes in your Initial Post and one quote per follow up post.

Below are some prompts to help you think about ways to approach your Initial Post. (Don’t respond to multiple prompts. Some of these prompts are interconnected, and some are not.) You may also use these prompts as inspiration for your responses to classmates, but you do not have to.

Prompts (use one or two of the following prompts):

So what is the relationship between language and identity? 
What exactly is identity and why is it important?
Is identity fixed? Or does it change and develop over time?

What situations—work, school, travel—have you be in when you have been forced to learn a new “language” or adjust your style of communication—writing, speaking etc—to fit in and succeed?

What about the different languages you speak and write in?

What situations can you use some languages in, versus others? Are any of these languages in conflict with each other? 

In terms of literacy, what are some of your formative moments? Where did you learn to write and read in certain languages?

Where did these moments seem in harmony with your self-identity? Where did they seem in conflict?

Consider the relationship between authority/power and identity and literacy/language. Who determines what is the proper way to speak or write?

142 Wha They Don’t Learn in School

Works Cited
The Gossamer Projea. (2000). krycek.gossamer.org/gossamer/index.html (accessed 20 Dec.

Jaszi, P. (1994). On the author effect: Contemporary copyright and collective creativity. In

M. Woodmansee and P. Jaszi (Eds.), The Construction of authorship: Textual appropria­
tion in law and literature. Durham: Duke University Press.

Porter, J. (1999). Liberal individualism and internet poUcy: A commiuiitarian critique. In
G. Hawisher and S. Selfe (Eds.), Passions, pedagogies, and 21st century technologies (pp.
231-248). Logan: Utah State University Press.

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the internet. New York: Simon and


Learning to Serve:
The Language and Literacy

o f Food Service Workers
Tony Mirabelli

itterwaitress.com is one of the newest among a burgeoning number of
‘ worker-produced websites associated with the service industry.! T h e

menu on the first page of this website offers links to gossip about
;lebrity behavior in restaurants, gossip about chefs and restaurant own-
rs, accounts from famous people who were once waitresses,2 and cus-
mer-related horror stories. There is also a forum that includes a “hate
ail”‘page that posts email criticisms of the website itself, as well as gen-

ral criticisms of waitressing, but the criticisms are followed by rebuttals
ually from past or present waitresses. Predictably, most p f the criticisms

j’ther impUcitly or explicitly portray waitresses as ignorant and stupid,
” n e ejliail respondent didn’t hke what he read on the customer horror

ry page and sent in this response:

I f you find your job [as a waitressl so despicable, then go get an education and
! ‘ get a REAL job. You are .whining’about something that you can fix. Stop being

‘ such a weakling, go out and leam something, anything, and go m,ake a real con­
tribution to society…. Wait, Iqt me guess: you do not have any marketable skills

,or useful knowledge, so you do what any bumbling fool can do, wait on tebles.
This is your own fault.

. ‘his response inspired a number of rebuttals of which the following two

. st summarize the overall sentiment expressed in response to the- rant
bove. The first is from the webmaster of bittenvaitress.com:.

1 4 4 What They Don’t Learn in School

Is it possible that I have an education, maybe I went to, oh say, Duke, and I just
waitressed for some free time? Or that there are very many people in the indus­
try who do this so that they CAN get an education? N o t all of us were born with
a trust fund.—^There is, I might add, considerably more or less to a job than a
“clear cut” salary. I f you…live in New York, …you’ll know that empty stores and
un-crowded subways are half the reason to work at night. By the way, what are
the three Leovilles? What are the two kinds of tripe? Who was Cesar Ritz’ part­
ner? WTiat is the JavaScript for a rollover? I guess I would have to ask a bum­
bling fool those questions. So, tell me then.

The second is from a mother of four:

I might not have a college education, but I would love to see those so called intel­
ligent people get a big tip out of a bad meal, or from a person who is rude and
cocky just because that’s the way they are—that takes talent and its not a talent
you can learn at any university. So, think about it before you say, “poor girl—to
dumb to get a real job….”

Assumptions that waitresses (and waiters) are ignorant and stupid and that
waiting on tables contributes little to society are not new. The rebuttals
to commonplace, pejorative understandings of the food service industry
suggest, however, that there is complexity and skill that may go unrecog­
nized by the general public or institutions such as universities. Indeed
institutions, particularly government and corporate entities in the United
States, hke the Bureau of Labor Statistics o r the National Skills Labor
Board, define waiting on tables as a low skilled profession. By defining
this kind of work as low skilled, there is a concomitant implication that
the more than one-third of America’s work force who do it are low skilled.

Service occupations, otherwise known as “in-person” services (Reich,
1992) or “interactive services” (Leidner, 1993; MacDonald and Sirianni,
1996), include any kind of work which fundamentally involves face-to-face
or voice-to-voice interactions and conscious manipulation of self-presen-
tation. As distinguished from white-collar service work, this category of
“emotional proletariat” (Macdonald and Sirianni, 1996) is comprised pri­
marily of retail sales workers, hotel workers, cashiers, house cleaners, flight
attendants, taxi drivers, package delivery drivers, and waiters, among oth­
ers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (1996), one-fifth of
the jobs in eating, drinking, and grocery store establishments are held by
youth workers between the ages of 16 and 24. While this kind of work is
traditionally assumed to be primarily a stop-gap for young workers who
will later move up and on to other careers, it also involves youths who will
later end up in both middle- and working-class careers. It should not be

Learning t o Serve / ‘ 145

forgotten that more than two thirds of the workers involved in food serv­
ice are mature adults—many or most who began their careers in the same
or similar industries. Interactive service work is a significant part of the
economy in the U.S. today, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that
jobs will be “abundant” in this category through 2006.

Economists such as Peter Drucker (1993) suggest that interactive
service workers lack the necessary education to be “knowledge” workers.
These economists support general conceptions that service work is
“mindless,” involving routine and repetitive tasks that require little edu­
cation. This orientation further suggests that these supposedly low skilled
workers lack the problem identifying, problem solving, and other high
level abilities needed to work in other occupations. However, relatively
little specific attention and analysis have been given to the literacy skills
and language abilities needed to do this work. My research investigates
these issues with a focus on waiters and waitresses who work in diners.
Diner restaurants are somewhat distinct from fast food or fine-dining
restaurants, and they also epitomize many of the assumptions held about
low.skilled workplaces that require interactive services. The National
Skills Standards Board, for instance, has determined that a ninth-grade
level of spoken and written language use is needed to be a waiter or a wait­
ress.’Yet, how language is spoken, read, or written in a restaurant may be
vastly different from how it is used in a classroom. A seemingly simple
event such as taking a customer’s food order can become significantly
more complex, for example, when a customer has a special request. How
the waitress or waiter understands and uses texts such as the menu and
hotv she or he “reads” and verbally interacts with the customer reflect
carefully constructed uses of language and literacy.

This chapter explores these constructed ways of “reading” texts (and
customers) along with the verbal “performances” and other manipulations
of self-presentation that characterize interactive service work. In line with
Macdonald and Sirianni (1996), I hope this work will contribute to the
development of understandings and pohcies that build more respect and
recognition for service work to help ensure it does not become equated
with servitude.

Literacy and Contemporary Theory
In’ contrast to institutional assessments such as the National Skills
Standards Board (1995), current thinking in key areas of education, soci­
ology, anthropology and linguistics views language, Uteracy, and learning

146 What They Don’t Learn in School

as embedded in social practice rather than entirely in the minds of indi

w t ; J r ‘ K r – 19M
, Mabr i and Sablo, 1996; New London Group, 1996; Gee Hull anri

ankshear 1996). As earlier chapters in this book have noted, Gee (1991.
6 ) – a key proponent of this conception of literacy-explains that to be lit”
erate means to have control of «a socially accepted association amon^
identi^ ^smg anguage, of thinking, and of acting that can be used to
w o T – T n ‘ T ‘ r t ‘ meaningfol group or ‘social net­
work. In a similar fashion, research work located exphdtly within w o r t
p ace studies proposes that hteracy is “a range of practices specific to

l i l l t X w ‘ s l ^ genders”

^ societal institutions, however, literacy, continues to be
defined by considerations of achievement and by abstract, standardized
tests of mdividual students. Also, there is a decided focus on printed
texts over other mediums of communication hke visual and audio Such
a focus limits our understanding of Uteracy in terms of its use in spe­
cific situations m multiple modes of communication. T h e New
Literacy Studies orientation that shapes the work reported in this book
a n d T – ^ J « f ^ d s beyond individual experiences o f reading
tions nf the various modes of communication and situa­
tions of any socially meaningfiil group or network where language is

claims that due to changes m the social and economic environment

t e r m f of T f literacy education in
tradif T h e concept of multiliteracies supplements
ttad tional h t e r a ^ pedagogy by addressing the multiphcity o f commu-

cations channels and the mcreasing saHency of cultural and linguistic
diversity m the world today. Central to this study is the understa^di^^J
that literate acts are embedded in specific situations and that they also

t T o T i t l T ” K of commmiica-
tion including both verbal and nonverbal. In this chapter, I illustrate
something of the character o f literacies specific to the “social network”
o waiting on tables and show how they are distinct from the concep­
tions o f hteracy commonly associated with formal education. This is
not simply to suggest that there is a jargon specific to the work, which
a b o X h e something unique and complex
abom the ways waiters and waitresses in diners use language and l i L –
aCy in doing their work. ^ iirer

Learning t o Serve / 147

Takfen together, extant New Literacies Studies research makes a formida­
ble argument for the need to re-evaluate how we understand literacy in
the workplace—particularly from the perspective of interactive service
workers. The research reported here is modeled after Hull and her col­
leagues’ groundbreaking ethnographic study of skill requirements in the
factories of two different SiHcon Valley computer manufacturing plants
(1996). Instead o f studying manufacturing plants, the larger research
sthdy I conducted and that underpins the study reported here involves
two diner restaurants—one that is corporately owned and one that is pri­
vately owned. In this chapter, however, I focus only on the one that is pri­
vately owned to begin addressing the specific ways that language use and
literacy practices function in this kind of workplace.

l b analyze the data, I relied on some of the methodological tools from
the work of Hull and her colleagues (1996). In short, I looked at patterns
of thought and behavior in the setting; I identified key events taking place;
I did conversational analysis of verbal interactions; and, I conducted soci-
dcultural analyses of key work events.

The data used in this chapter came from direct participation, obser­
vation, field notes, documents, interviews, tape recordings, and transcrip­
tions, as well as from historical and bibhographic hterature. I myself have
been a waiter (both part-time and full-time over a ten-year period), and I
was actually employed at the privately owned restaurant during my data
collection period. In addition to providing important insights into work­
er skills, attitudes, and behaviors, my experience and positioning in this
setting also enabled access to imique aspects of the work that might have
otherwise gone unnoticed. T h e primary data considered in this chapter
were collected during eight-hour periods o f participant observation on
Friday and/or Saturday nights in the restaurant. I chose weekend nights
because they were usually the busiest times in the diner and were there­
fore the most challenging for the workers. Weekend shifts are also the
most lucrative for the restaurant and the workers.

Lou’s Restaurant
Lou’s Restaurant^ is a modest, privately owned diner restaurant patterned
in a style that is popular in the local region. I t has an open kitchen layout
with a coimter where individual customers can come and sit directly in
front of the cooks’ line and watch the “drama” of food service unfold
while enjoying their meals. The food served at Lou’s is Italian-American

148 WhatThey Don’t Learn in School

and It includes pastas, seafood, and a variety of sauteed or broiled poultry
beef, and veal. As is often the case with diner restaurants, Lou’s has over
ninety mam course items, including several kinds of appetizers and salads
as well as a number of side dishes. The primary participants focused on in

‘this chapter are three waiters at Lou’s: John, Harvey, and myself.
After finishing my master’s degree in Enghsh Uterature and deciding-

to move out of the state where I taught EngUsh as a Second Language at
a commumty college, I ended up working as a waiter for two years at
Lous. This work allowed me to survive financially while fiirther advanc­
ing ̂ y academic career. At the time I began my study aj; this site, the only
waiter to have worked longer than two years at Lou’s was John. Like
myself, Jolm began working in the restaurant business to earn extra
money wlule in school after he had been discharged from the Marines
where he had been trained as a radio operator, telephone wireman, and
Arabic translator. Two days after his honorable discharge, he started
working m the restaurant that four years later would become Lou’s H e
subsequently has worked there for ten years. John also is the most expe-
nenced waiter at Lou’s, and although the restaurant does not have an offi­
cial head” waiter, John is considered by his peers to be the expert. In an
interview, he noted that it took almost ten years before he felt that he had
really begun to master his craft.

Harvey might also be considered a master waiter, having been in the
profession for over thirty years. However, at the beginning of the study
he had been with Lou’s for only two weeks. He ,was initially reticent to
participate m the study because he said he lacked experience at this
restaurant and “didn’t know the menu.” Having left home when he was
14 years old to come “out West,” over the years he Jiad done a stint in
toe Air Force held a position as a postal clerk, worked as a bellhop and
artende^ and even had the opportunity to manage, a local cafe. H e

decided that he did not like managerial work because he missed the free­
dom, autonomy, and customer interaction he had as a waiter and took a
position at Lou’s.

The Menu
Harve/s concern over mot knowing the menu was not surprising. The
menu is the most important printed text used by waiters and waitresses,
and n o t ^ o w m g it can dramatically affect how they are able, to do their
work. The menu is the key text used for most interactions with the cus­
tomer, and, of course, th’e contents of menus vary greatly from restaurant

Learning t o Serve / 1 4 9

o restaurant. But, what is a menu and what does it mean to have a liter-
te understanding of one?

The restaurant menu is a genre unto itself There is regularity and
redictability in the conventions used such as the listing, categorizing,
nd pricing of individual, ready-made food items. The menu at Lou’s con­

tains ninety main course items, as well as a variety of soups, salads, appe­
tizers, and side dishes. In addition, there are numerous selections where,
for’example, many main course items offer customers a choice of their
own starch item from a selection of four: spaghetti, ravioli, french fries, or
a* baked potato. Some of the main course items, such as sandwiches, how­
ever, only cDme with french fries—but if the customer prefers something
such as spaghetti, or vegetables instead of fries, they can substitute anoth­
er item for a small charge, although this service is not listed in the menu.
In addition to the food menu, there is also a wine menu and a fall service
bai” meaning that hard liquor is sold in this restaurant. There are twenty
different kinds of wine sold by the glass and a selection o f thirty-eight dif-
felent kinds of wine sold by the bottle, and customers can order most
other kinds of alcoholic beverages.

In one context, waitresses and waiters’ knowing the meaning of the
words in the menus means knowing the process of food production in the
restaurant. But this meaning is generally only used when a customer has
a question or special request. In such situations the meaning of the words
olT the page are defined more by the questions and the waiters or wait­
resses’ understanding of specific food preparation than by any standard
cookbook or dictionary. For example, the Better Homes and Gardens New
Cook Book (1996) presents a recipe for marinara sauce calling for a thick
sauce consisting of tomatoes, tomatb puree, peppers, carrots, celery, and
garlic all sauteed and simmered for over thirty minutes. At Lou’s, a mari­
nara sauce is cooked in less than ten minutes and is a light tomato sauce
•consisting of fresh tomatoes, garlic, and parsley sauteed in olive oil. At’a
similar restaurant nearby—Joe’s Italian Diner—marinara sauce is a
seafood sauce, albeit tomato based. Someone who is familiar with Italian
cooking will know that marinara sauce will have ingredients like toma­
toes, olive oil, and garlic, but, in a restaurant, to have a more conjplete
understanding of a word like marinara requires knowing how the kitchen
prepares the dish. Clearly, the meanings of the language used in menus
are socially and culturally embedded in the context of the specific situa­
tion or restaurant., l b be literate here requires something Other than a
ninth-grade level of literacy. More than just a factual, or literal interpre­
tation of the words on the page, it requires knowledge of specific prac­

1 5 0 What They Don’t Learn in School

tices such as methods of food preparation—that take place in a particu
lar restaurant. i’ ^u-

On one occasion Harvey, the new but experienced waiter, asked me
w at pesto sauce was. H e said that he had never come across the term

f l a m e d that he had never worked in an ItaHan restaurant
and had rarely eaten at one. Pesto is one of the standard sauces on the
menu, and hke marinara, is commonly found on the menus of many
tahan-i^erican restaurants. I explained that it comprised primarily ohve

oil and basil, as well as garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, and a Httle
cream. Harvey then told me that a customer had asked him about the
sauce, and smce he could not explain what it was, the customer did not
order it.

On another occasion a mother asked Harvey i f her child could have
only carrots mstead of the mixed vegetables as it said in the menu.

though he initially told her this was not possible, explaining that the
vegetables were premixed and that the cooks would have to pick t h e car­
rots out one by one, the motiier persisted. After a few trips from the table
to the cooks hne, Harvey managed to get the carrots, but the customer
tiien declined them because everyone had finished eating. Later I
explained to Harvey that it would have been possible to go to the back of
the restaurant where he could find the vegetables in various stages of
preparation. While the cooks only have supphes of pre-mixed vegetables
on the hne, Harvey could have gone to the walk-in refrigerator and
picked up an order of carrots himself to give to the cooks.

Harvey’s interactions with his customers highhght how much of what
he needs to know to be a good waiter is learned witiiin the specific situa­
tions and social networks in which that knowledge is used. The instantia­
tion of the meaning of words Uke pesto and marinara often occurs in the
interaction, between co-workers as well as with customers. Conversation
becomes a necessary element in achieving an appropriately hterate under­
standing of the menu.

Harvey’s understanding and use of the menu and special requests also
mvolves more than his knowledge of food preparation. I t involves the
mampulation of power and control. Sociocultural tiieories of Hteracy con-

^’ithority in tiie construction o f meaning
(Kresj 1993). From his perspective, the order of carrots was not simply
M order of carrots, but a way o f positioning one’s self in tiae interaction.
T ^ e customer saw her desire for tiie carrots as greater tiian what was
advertised in the menu and thus exercised authority as a customer by
requestmg them despite Harvey’s attempt to not make die carrots an

Learning t o Serve / 151

option. While such a request might seem fairly innocuous in isolation,
•when considered in the specific situation of Lou’s at that time—that is,
peak dinner hour—it becomes more complex.

Special requests and questions can extend the meaning of the menu
beyond the printed page and into the conversation and interaction
between the waiter or waitress and the customer. Furthermore, special
requests and questions can be as varied as the individual customers them­
selves. The general public shares a diner restaurant menu, but it is used
by each individual patron to satisfy a private appetite. How to describe
something to an individual customer and satisfy their private appetite
requires not only the abiHty to read the menu, but also the ability to read
the customer. This is achieved during the process of the dinner interac­
tion, and it includes linguistic events such as greeting the customer or tak­
ing food orders and involves both verbal and non-verbal communication.
In such events the meaning of the menu is continually reconstructed in
the interaction between the waitress or waiter and the individual cus­
tomer, and as a text functions as a “boimdary object” that coordinates the
perspectives of various constituencies for a similar purpose (Star and
Griesmer, 1989); in this case the satisfaction of the individual patron’s
appetite. The degree to which private appetite is truly satisfied is open to
debate, however. Virtually everyone who has eaten at a restaurant has his
or her favorite horror story about the food and/or the service, and more
often than not these stories in some way involve the menu and an unful­
filled private appetite.

In addition to being a text that is shared by the general public and
used by the individual patron to satisfy a private appetite, the menu is also
a text whose production of meaning results in ready-made consumable
goods sold for a profit. The authors of a printed menu, usually the chefs
and owners of the restaurant, have their own intentions when producing
the hard copy. For example, it is common practice to write long exten­
sively itemized menus in diner restaurants like Lou’s. As was pointed out
earlier, Lou’s menu has over ninety selections from which to choose, and
many of these can be combined with a range of additional possible choic­
es. Printing a large selection of food items gives the appearance that the
customer will be able to make a personal—and personalized—selection
from the extensive menu. In fact, it is not uncommon for patrons at Lou’s
to request extra time to read the menu, or ask for recommendations
before making a choice. The authors of the printed menu at Lou’s con­
structed a text that appears to be able to satisfy private appetites, but they

152 What They Don’t Learn in School

ultimately have little control over how the patron Avill interpret and use
the menu.

T h e waiters and waitresses, however, do have some control. While
customers certainly have their own intentions when asking questions,
waitresses and waiters have their own intentions when responding. When
customers ask questions about the menu, in addition to exercising their
own authority, they also introduce the opportunity for waiters and wait­
resses to gain control of the interaction. A good example of how this con­
trol could be manipulated by a waiter or waitress comes from Chris
Fehlinger, the web-master of bitterwaitress.com, in an interview with New
Yorker magazine:

“A lot of times when people asked about the menu, I would make it sound so
elaborate that they would just leave it up to me,” he said, “I’d describe, like, three
dishes in excruciating detail, and they would just stutter, ‘I, I, I can’t decide, you
decide for me.’ So in that case, if the kitchen wants to sell fish, you’re gonna have
fish.” He also employed what might be called a “magic words” strategy: “All you
have to do is throw out certain terms, like guanciale, and then you throw in some­
thing like saba, a reduction of the unfermented must of the Trebbiano grape. If
you mention things like that, people are just, Hke, ‘O.K.!'” (Teicholz, 1999)

The use of linguistic devices hke obfuscating descriptions and “magic
words” is not unusual—particularly for waiters in fine dining restaurants.
In The World of Waiters (1983), Mars and Nicod examined how English
waiters use such devices to “get the jtmip” and gain control of selecting
items from the menu. Their position of authority is further substantiated
in fine dining restaurants by the common practice of printing menus in
foreign languages, such as French, because it shifts the responsibihty of
food ordering from the customer, who often will not imderstand the lan­
guage, to the waiter.

While diner restaurants generally do not print their menus in incom­
prehensible terms, they do, as at Lou’s, tend to produce unusually long
ones that can have a similar effect. But, diner menus hke Lou’s which offer
Italian-American cuisine do use some language that is potentially unfa­
miliar to the clientele (e.g., pesto). The combination of menu length and
potentially confiising language creates frequent opportunities for waiters
and waitresses to get a jump on the customer. Customers at Lou’s tend to
ask questions about the meaning of almost every word and phrase in the
menu. No t being able to provide at least a basic description of a menu
item, as shown by Harvey’s unfamiHarity with pesto, usually results in that
item not being ordered.

Learning t o Serve / 1 5 3

Knowing what a customer wants often goes beyond simply being able
to describe the food. I t also involves knowing which descriptions will
more likely sell and requires being able to apply the menu to the specific
situation. For instance, in the following transcription I approach a table
to take a food order while one customer is still reading the rrienu
(Customer 3 b). She asks me to explain the difference between veal scalop-
pini and veal scaloppini sec.

Tony: (to Customer 3 a and Customer 3 b) hi
Customer 3b: what’s the difference between scaloppini and scaloppini sec?
Tony: veal scaloppini is a tomato-based sauce with green onions and

mushrooms / veal scaloppini sec is with marsala wine green onions
and mushrooms

Customer 3b: I’ll have the veal scaloppini sec
Tony: ok / would you like it with spaghetti / ravioli / firench fries
Customer 3b: ravioli
Customer 3 a: and / I’ll get the tomato one / the veal scaloppini with mushrooms
Tony: with spaghetti / ravioli / french fries
Customer 3a: can I get steamed vegetables
Tony: you want vegetables and no starch? / it already comes with veg­

etables / (.) (Customer 3 a nods yes) ok / great / thank you
Customer 3 a: thanks

The word sec fimctions not unlike one of Fehlinger’s “magic” words.
Customers who are interested in ordering veal frequendy ask questions
about the distinction between the two kinds of scaloppini. I discovered over
rime that my description of the veal scaloppini sec almost always resulted in
the customer ordering the dish. It seemed that mentioning marsala wine
piqued customer interest more than tomato sauce did. One customer once
quipped that marsala was a sweet wine and wanted to know why the word
sec—meaning dry—^was used. I replied that since no fat was used in the
cooking process, it was considered “dry” cooking. In situations like this the
menu is situated more in a conversational mode than a printed one. The
transition from print to spoken word occurs due to the customer’s inabiUty
to tmderstand the menu, and/or satisfy his or her private appetite which
results in a request for assistance. As a result the waiter or waitress can
become the authority in relation to not only the printed text, but within the
interaction as well. Eventually, I began to recommend this dish when cus­
tomers asked for one, and the customers more often than not purchased it.

This particular food-ordering event also is interesting with regard to
the customer’s request for steamed vegetables. When I asked what kind of
pasta she would Uke with her meal, she asked for steamed vegetables. T h e

1 5 4 What They Don’t Learn in School

menu clearly states that vegetables are included with the meal along with
the customer’s choice of spaghetti, ravioU, or french fries. When she
requested steamed vegetables, I simply could have arranged for her to have
them and persisted in asking her which pasta she would Uke, but instead I
anticipated that she might not want any pasta at all. I knew that, while it
was not printed in the menu, the kitchen could serve her a double portion
of steamed vegetables with no pasta. Most importantly, this customer’s
ability to order food that would satisfy her private appetite depended
almost entirely upon my suggestions and understanding of the menu. Mars
and Nicod (1984: 82), discussing a situation in a similar restaurant noted
a waiter who would say, “You don’t really need a menu… I ‘m a ‘walking
menu’ and I’m much better than the ordinary kind… I can tell you things
you won’t find on the menu.” Examples Uke this illustrate not only how
waitresses and waiters gain control of their interactions with customers,
but also how other modes of communication—such as conversations—are
used to construct complex forms of meaning around printed texts hke
menus. Thus, the meamng of words in a menu are embedded in the situa­
tion, its participants, and the balance of power and authority, and this
meaning manifests itself in more than one mode of communication.

Reading menus and reading customers also involves a myriad of cultur­
al distinctions. Although there is not the space to discuss them here, age,
gender, race, and class are all relevant to interactions between customers
and waiter or waitress. The argument can be made that diner restaurants
like Lou’s promote a friendly, family-hke atmosphere. Historically diners in
the U.S. have been recognized as being places where customers can find a
familial environment. Popular media today support this characteristic—
particularly via television—^where restaurant chains explicitly advertise that
their customers are treated like family, and a number of television situation
comedies have long used restaurants, diners, bars, and cafes as settings
where customers and employees interact in very personal and intimate
ways. This cultural atmosphere can have a tremendous impact on interac­
tions with the customers. There is sometimes miscommunication or resist­
ance where a customer may or may not want to be treated like family, or the
waitress or waiter may or may not want to treat a customer Hke femily. At
Lou’s, in addition to having an intimate understanding of food production
and being able to describe it to a customer in an appealing fashion, reading
a menu and taking a customer’s food order also requires the abiHty to per­
form these tasks in a friendly, familial m a n n e r

The following example reveals the complexity of meanings involved
in taking a customer’s food order and the expression of ” f a m i l y ” A1 is a

Learning t o Serve / 155

regular customer who almost always comes in by himself and sits at the
counter in front of the cooks’ line. He also always has the same thing to
eat, a side order of spaghetti Marinara, and never looks at the menu,
perhaps more important to A1 than the food he eats are the people he
interacts with at Lou’s. H e will sit at the covmter and enjoy the badinage
he shares with the other customers who sit down next to him at the count­
er, the waitresses and waiters as they pass by his seat, and the cooks work­
ing just across the counter. On this particular evening, however, he was
joined by his son, daughter-in-law, and young adult granddaughter, and
rather than sitting at the counter, he sat in a large booth. Although I
immediately recognized Al, I had never waited on him and his family
before, I was not sure how informal he would like the interaction to be.
So I began with a fairly formal greeting saying “hello” instead of “hi” and
avoided opportunities to make small talk with Al and his family:

Tony: hello::=
Customer 2d; =heIlo
Al: hey (.) what they put in the water? / 1 don’t know / is it the ice or

what is it?
Customer 2s: (chuckles from Customer 2d, Customer 2s and Customer 2c)
Tony: does the water taste strange?
Customer 2s: no
Tony: do you want me to get you another water?
Al: no / 1 don’t want any water
Tony: ok
Al: I had a couple of drinks before I came
Customer 2s: (chuckles)=
Tony: (in reference to the water tasting strange) =it could be / it could

be/ I don’t know
Customer 2d: (to Customer 2s) are you having anything to drink?
Customer 2s: I’ll have a beer / American beer / you have miller draft?
Tony: (while writing dovra the order) miller genuine
Customer 2d: and I’ll have a tequila sunrise
Al: (to Customer 2d) what are you having?
Customer 2d: tequila sunrise
Al: oh / you should fly / you should fly
Tony: (to Customer 2 a) al / you want anything
Customer 2s; (to Customer 2a) a beer? / or anything?
Al: no / I’ve had too much already
Customer 2s: are you sure
Customer 2d: we’ll get you a coffee later
Tony: (nod of affirmation to daughter-in-law)
Al: I’ve been home alone drinking
Tony: ugh ogh:: / (chuckles along with Customer 2s)

1 5 6 What They Don’t Learn in School

Al’s comments about the water tasting funny and his drinking at home
alone both provided opportunities for me to interact more intimately with
A] and his family, but instead I concerned myself solely with taking theif
drink orders. Al’s desire for me to interact in a more famil ial manner
became more apparent when I returned to take their food order.

Customer 2d: (as the drinks are delivered) ah / great / thank you
Tony; (placing drinks in front of customers) there you go / you’re wel­

Al: (to Customer 2s) so we’re flying to vegas (mumbles)
Tony: all right / you need a few minutes here?
Customer 2s: no / (to Customer 2a) are you ready or do you want to wait?
Customer 2d: you made up yoiu” mind yet?
Al: (mumble) made up my mind yet
Customer 2d: oh / ok
Tony: al / what can I get for you?
AI: I said I haven’t made up my mind yet
Tony: oh / ok (everyone at the table chuckles except Al)
Al: I always have pasta you know / I would walk out there (points to

the counter) the guy says / 1 know what you want
Tony: ok / I’ll be back in a few minutes
Customer 2d: come back in a few minutes / thanks

While I misunderstood Al when I asked if he was ready to order, for him
the greater transgression was simply asking if he was ready to order. Al
expected me to know what he was going to eat because he’s a regular; he’s
like family. He wanted a side order of spaghetti marinara and didn’t want
to have to speak regarding his food order. To be successful in fulfilling Al’s
private appetite required more than the abihty to describe food according
to individual customer preferences. A side order of spaghetti marinara
represents not merely a food item on a menu, nor a satisfying mix of pasta
and tomatoes, but also, depending on the way it is ordered and served, a
gesture of friendliness; “I always have pasta you know / 1 would walk out
there (points to the counter) the guy says / 1 know what you want.” l b be
literate with a menu also means knowing when and how to express emo­
tion (or not express emotion) to a customer through its use.

Being able to take a customer’s order without him or her reading the
menu or being, able to fulfill a special request not printed in the menu are
important ways of expressing friendliness and family at Lou’s. John, the
most experienced waiter on staff, often can be found running to get an
order of homemade gnocchi from the back freezer and deUvering them
to the cooks when they are too busy to get back there themselves. Or, he
might step in behind the bar to make his own cappuccino when the bar­

Learning t o Serve / 1 5 7

tender is busy serving other customers. On one occasion, hke matiy oth­
ers, John had a customer request a special order called prawns, romano, a
pasta dish consisting of fettuccine with prawns in a white sauce with
green onions, tomatoes, and garhc. This is not listed on any menu in the
restaurant, but it is something that the cooks occasionally offer as an
eyening special. John politely asked whether or not the cooks could
accommodate his customer’s request, and they complied. One can fre­
quently hear John greeting many of his customers with some variation of,
“Can I get you the usual?” Alternatively, in the case of special requests,
some variant of, “That’s no problem” is an often used phrase. Just hke a
friend for whom it would be no problem, John attempts to satisfy his cus­
tomer’s special requests in a similar fashion.

Yet, friendliness is often a feigned performance. Being friendly is an
experiential phenomenon that is learned through participation. To be a
good waitress or waiter generally requires being able to perform friendh-
ness xmder any number of circumstances. To be successful at the practice
of being friendly requires performing certain techniques over and over
until they can be performed on an unconscious level. Referred to as emo­
tional labor (Hochschild, 1983: 6-7) this kind of work “requires one to
induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance
t^at produces the proper state of mind in others.” Emotional labor also is
an integral part to how a waitress constructs meaning in a menu. While
emotional labor may not yield the same monetary results in restaurants
hke Lou’s, it is still essential to the work. For example, John is masterful
in the way he utihzes emotional labor. On one particularly busy evening
John was trapped in a line at the bar waiting to place his drink order. H e
was clearly anxious, and was looking at his food order tickets to see what
he needed to do next. The crowd of customers waiting to be seated spilled
out of the foyer and into the aisle near where the waitresses and waiters
where waiting to place their drink orders. One customer, who recognized
John, caught his attention:

John: hi=
Customer: =hi can I get a glass of wine
John; sure (.) what do you want
Customer: are you busy
John: N O (.) I got it (.) what do you want

John’s friendly “hi” and over emphatic “no” were intended to suggest to
the customer that he was not busy, when he clearly was. As he later
explained, he knew that the customer knew he was really busy, but he also

1 5 8 What They Don’t Learn in School

knew that if he was friendly and accommodating, the customer probably
would give him a nice tip for his trouble, which the customer did. His
feigned amiability in agreeing to get the customer a drink was more or
less a monetary performance. John had learned to use language for finan­
cial gain. One should not be fooled by the apparent simplicity in the pre­
ceding interaction. While it may be brief, being able to be friendly and
accommodating under extreme circimistances like the “dinner rush”
requires years of practice in a real work setting learning to be able to say,-
“hi—sure—^NO, I got it.” ‘

Although interactions with customers have been presented individu­
ally, the reahty of how these events occur is quite different. Unlike fine-
dining restaurants where the dinner experience can extend over a few
hours, diners operate on high volume serving to a great number of
patrons in a short amount of time. George Orwell, reflecting on the dif­
ficulty involved in this work, wrote, “I calculated that [a waiter] had to
walk and run about 15 miles during the day and yet the strain of the work
was more mental than physical…. One has to leap to and fro between a
multitude of jobs— ît is like sorting a pack of cards against the clock”
(Orwell, 1933). Because one person may be serving as many as ten tables
or more at one time, the process of serving each individual table will over­
lap with the others. Food orders are taken numerous times in a half-hour
period during busy dinner hours at Lou’s. The preceding transcriptions
were taken from tape-recorded data collected on Friday evenings around
7 o’clock. My own interactions were recorded during a-period when I had
what is referred to as station, meaning that all of the tables under my
supervisidn were filled with customers. By this point in the evening I had
two customers at the counter, a party of four and six parties of two, for a
totil of eighteen customers—all of whom were in the process of ordering
their meals within the same half-hour to forty-fivfe minute period.

Literacy practices in this Environment are nothihg like those found in
traditional classrooms, but they might be more comparable to those
found in the emergency ward of a hospital or an air-traffic controller’s
tower. Interaction with texts and participants takes place in a rapid suc­
cession of small chunks. During the dinner -hoiurs, there are no long,
drawn out monologues. Time is of the essence during the busiest dinner
hours for all participants involved: from the waiters and waitresses to the
cooks, bartenders, and busboys. In two hundred lines of transcribed dia­
logue during a busy dinner period, for example, I never paused longer
than thirty-nine secbnds, and no participant spoke mdre than forty-one
words in one turn. Even these pauses were usually the result of other work

Learning t o Serve / 1 5 9

being completed, such as preparing a salad or waiting to order a drink.
During this period, virtually all the conversation, reading, and writing
were related to the immediate situational context. As this research has
shown, language use was far more complex than one might assume in sit­
uations and events that involve taking a customer’s food order. In addition
to knowing how food is prepared, what will appeal to specific customers,
and how to present this information in a friendly manner, the waiter or
waitress must also remain conscious of the number of other tables wait­
ing to have their orders taken and the amount of time that will take.
Reading menus and reading customers requires the ability to think and
react quickly to a multitude of almost simultaneously occurring literate

Menus at Lou’s are texts that are catalysts for interaction between staff
and customers, and their meaning is firmly embedded in this interaction.
Meaning is constructed from the menu through more than one mode of
communication and between a variety of participants. This process
involves knowledge of food preparation, use specific linguistic devices like
magic words and other ways of describing food, the ability to read indi­
vidual customers’ tastes and preferences, the general expectation to per­
form in a friendly manner, and all during numerous virtually simultaneous
and similar events. Yet, there is much left unconsidered in this chapter,
particularly regarding the nature of power and control. While waitresses
and waiters are frequently able to manipulate control over customer deci­
sions while taking a food order, this control is often tenuous and insignif­
icant beyond the immediate interaction.

Little also has been said in this chapter about the role of management.
Extensive research has already been done in the area of management con­
trol, hteracy, and worker skills (Braverman, 1974; Hochschild, 1983;
Kress, 1993; Leidner, 1993; Hall, 1993; Hull et al., 1996; Macdonald and
Sirianni, 1996; Gee, Hull, and Lankshear, 1996). These researchers con­
sider how Hteracy practices are manipulated by management to maintain
control over the worker. Whether it be scientific management sdiere
workers are deskilled and routinized, or Fast Capitalism where forms of
control are more insidious and shrouded in the guise of “empowering”
the worker, there is little research on intferactive service work beyond the
fast food industry that explores how this rhetoric plays itself out in a real
world situation. This leaves open to debate questions regarding the effec­

1 6 0 WhatThey Don’t Learn in School

tiveness of Fast Capitalism as a form of control over the worker. While
my research has shown that waiters and waitresses can exercise some level
of authority, skill and wit through their use of language with customers
they must also interact with management and other staff where authority
and control plays out in different ways.

In the end, however, the customer has ultimate authority over the
waiter or waitress. Diner waitressing has a long history of prejudice dat­
ing back to the beginning of the industrial revolution and involves issues
of gender regarding our general perceptions and ways of interacting
(Cobble, 1991; Hall, 1993). Waitressing is integrally tied to domesticated
housework and likewise has historically been treated as requiring little
skill or abihty. In fact, the stigma of servitude that plagues waitressing-and
other similar kinds of work are not only the result of less than respectable
treatment from management, but from customers as well. In her socio­
logical study of diner waitresses in New Jersey, Greta Paules sums it up

That customers embrace the service-as-servitude metaphor is evidenced by the
f way they speak to and about service worl^rs. Virtually every rule of etiquette is

violated by customers in their interactions with the waitress: the waitress can be
interrupted; she can be addressed with the mouth fall; she can be ignored and
stared at; and she can be subjected to unrestrained anger. Lacking status as a per­
son she like the Servant, is refased the most basic considerations of polite inter­
action. She is, in addition, the subject of chronic criticism. Just as in the
nineteenth century servants were perceived as ignorant, slow, lazy, indifferent,
and immoral (Sutherland 1981), so in the twentieth century service workers are
condemned for their stupidity, apathy, slowness, competence, aijd questionable
moral character. (1991: 138-139)

T h e low status of waitressing and waitering belies the complex nature of
this kind of work and the innovative and creative Ways in which such
workers use language.


1. Sbme of the more” than 20 websites I’have foimd so far like •waitersrevenge.com’are
award vanning. They includfe sites for taxi drivers, hotel workers, and the like.

2. How to appropriately refen to’waitresses and waiters is no,t a simple decision. Terms
server and food server are alternatives, but all are problematic. I personally do not

like server o i food server because they are too closely related to the word servitude.
T h e waiter/waitress distinction is problematic not simply because it differentiates
genders, but also because it is associated with a” kin(l/class of service. Often in fine-
dinirig restaurailts today both men and womeh’are referred tb as waitets, but it is

Learning t o Serve / 161

more commonly the practice in the “diner” style restaurant to maintain the distinc­
tive terms. This is historically connected to the diner waitressing being regarded as
inferior to fine-dining waitering because it was merely an extension of the domesti­
cated duties of the household.

3. Pseudonyms have been used throughout this chapter.

Works Cited
Better homes and gardens nem cook book. (1996). New York: Better Homes and Gardens.
Braverman, H. (1974). Labor and Ttionopoly capital: The degradation of work in the twentieth

century. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (1996). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor.
Drucker, P. (1993). Innovation and entrepreneurship: Practice and principles. New York:

Cobble, S. (1991). Dishing it out: Waitresses and their unions in the 20th century. Urbana:

University of Illinois Press.
Gee, J. (1991). Sociolinguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. New^brk. Falmer.

, Hull, G., and Lankshear, C. (1996). The new work order: Behind the language of the
new capitalism. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Gowen, S. (1992). The politics of workplace literacy. New York: Teachers College Press.
liall, E. (1993). Smiling, deferring, and good service. Work and occupations, 20 (4),

Hochschild, A. (1983). The managed heart. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hull, G. (Ed.). (1997). Chan^ngwork, chan^ngworkers: Critical perspectives on language, lit­

eracy, and skills. New York: State University of New York Press.
et al. (1996). Changing work, chan^ng literacy? A study o f skills requirements and devel­

opment in a traditional and restructured workplace. Final Report. Unpublished manu­
script. University of California at Berkeley.

Kress, G. (1993). Genre as social process. In B. Cope and M. Kalantzis (Eds.), The powers
o f literacy: A genre approach to teaching writing (pp. 22-i l) . London: Falmer.

. (1995). Writing the future: English and the making of a cultural innovation. London:

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New
York: Cambridge University Press.

Leidner, R. (1993). Fast food, fast talk: Service work and the routinization o f everyday life.
Berkeley: University of California Press.

Macdonald, C. and Siriaimi, C. (Eds.). (1996). Working in the service society. Philadelphia,
PA: Temple University Press.

Mahiri, J. and Sablo, S. (1996). Writing for their lives: The non-school literacy of
California’s urban African American youth. Journal of Negro Education, 65 (2),

Mars, G. and Nicod, M. (1984). The world of waiters. London: Unwin Hyman.
New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social fatures.

Harvard Educational Review, 66 (1), 60-92.
NSSB (National Skills Standards Board). (1995). Server skill standards: National performance

criteria in thefoodservice industry. Washington, DC: U.S. Council on Hotel, Restaurant
and Institutional Education.

162 What They Don’t Learn in School

Orwell, G. (1933). Down and out in Paris and London. New York. Harcourt Brace.
Paules, G. (1991). Dishing it out: Power and resistance among waitresses in a New Jersey

Restaurant. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Reich, R. (1992). The work o f nations. New York: Vintage.
Star, L. and Griesmer, J. (1989). Institutional ecology, translations and boxindary objects-

Amateurs and professional in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-1939
Social Studies o f Science, 19.

Street, B. (1984 April 5). Literacy in theory and practice. London: Cambridge University

—• j

‘learning to Serve”
Stuart Tannock

f the interactional study of science and technology has often worked
2 ^ r t o make the labor of scientists and technicians appear less speciaHzed

and more everyday and mundane, the interactional study of low-end
sei;vice work has frequendy taken the form of a “recovery project,” seek­
ing to make that which we see as everyday and mundane seem instead to
be special, skilled, and indeed, “Uterate.” Such symbohc leveling can be
immensely and aesthetically appealing in the halls of academe: with our
oyra hands—that is, with our own specific forms of social scientific Hter-
a c y — c a n begin to erase the vast inequahties that exist between con­
temporary knowledge and service workers. Service workers now appear to
us as highly knowledgeable; knowledge workers as merely serviceable. l
‘I In tiiis response, I do not wish to focus so much on the core argu­

ments. of Tony MirabeUi’s chapter, for these I find to be persuasive.
MirabeUi produces a deft analysis of the precise ways in which the literate
w6rk of diner waitstaff is locally and collaboratively accomphshed,
embedded in social networks, and closely tied to individual waitstaff iden­
tities. From the vantage point of literacy studies (and critical discourse
analysis), MirabeUi produces an excellent example of the value of moving
beyond simple text analysis to study how actual written texts are pro­
duced, read, and negotiated in real time, ongoing interaction between
diverse social actors.

My focus in this response is instead on the frame that MirabelH uses
to argue for the larger social value of his chapter:»specifically his desire to
erase the “stigma of servitude” by demonstrating the “complex,” “mnova-


How to Tame a Wild Tongue

Gloria Anzaldua was born in 1942 in the Rio Grande Valley of South
Texas. At age eleven. she began working in the fields as a migrant worker
and then on her family’s land after the death of her father. Working her
way through school, she eventually became a schoolteacher and then
an academic, speaking and writing about feminis t, lesbian, and Chi­
cana issues and about autobiography. She is best known for This
Bridge CalJed My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981),
which she edited with Cherrie Moraga, and BorderlandsfLa Frontera:
The New Mestiza (1987). Anzaldua died in 2004.

“How to Tame a Wild Tongue” is from BorderlandsfLa Frontera.
In it, Anzaldua is concerned with many kinds of borders – between
nations, cultures, classes, genders, languages. When she writes, “So, if
you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language” (par. 27),
Anzaldua is arguing for the ways in which identity is intertwined
with the way we speak and for the ways in which people can be made
to feel ashamed of their own tongues. Keeping hers wild – ignoring
the closing of linguistic borders – is Anzaldua’s way of asserting her

“We’re going to have to control
your tongue,” the dentist says, pulling out all the metal from my
mouth. Silver bits plop and tinkle into the basin. My mouth is a

The dentist is cleaning out my
roots. I get a whiff of the stench when I gasp. “I can’t cap that
tooth yet, you’re still draining,” he says.

“We’re going to have to do some­
thing about your tongue,” I hear the anger rising in his voice. My
tongue keeps pushing out the wads of cotton, pushing back the
drills, the long thin needles. ‘Tve never seen anything as strong or
as stubborn,” he says. And I think, how do you tame a wild tongue,



train it to be quiet, how do you bridle and saddle it? How do you
make it lie down?

“Who is to say that robbing a people of
its language is less violent than war?”


I remember being caught speaking Spanish at recess – that
was good for three licks on the knuckles with a sharp ruler. I
remember being sent to the comer of the classroom for “talking
back” to the Anglo teacher when all I was trying to do was tell her
how to pronounce my name. “If you want to be American, speak
‘American.’ If you don’t like it, go back to Mexico where you

“I want you to speak English. Pa’ hallar buen trabajo tienes que 5

saber hablar el ingles bien. Que vale toda lu educaci6n si todav{a
!tablas ingles con un ‘accent:” my mother would say, mortified
that I spoke English like a Mexican. At Pan American University, I
and all Chicano students were required to take two speech classes.
Their purpose: to get rid of our accents.

Attacks on one’s [orm of expression with the intent to censor
are a violation of the First Amendment. El Anglo con cara de ino­
cente nos arranc6 la lengua. Wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can
only be cut out.


Ahogadas, escupimos el OSCU1’O.

Peleando con nueSlra propia sombra
el silencio nos sepulra.

En boca cerrada no entran moscas. “Flies don’t enter a closed
mouth” is a saying I kept hearing when I was a child. Ser !tabla­
dora was to be a gossip and a liar, to talk too much. Muchachitas
bien criadas, well-bred girls don’t answer back. Es una (alta de
respeto to talk back to one’s mother or father. I remember one
of the sins I’d recite to the priest in the confession box the few
times I went to confession: talking back to my mother, hablar pa’
‘tras, repelar. Hocicona, repelona, chismosa, having a big mouth,
questioning, carrying tales are all signs of being mal criada . In


my culture they are all words that are derogatory if applied to
women – I’ve never heard them applied to men.

The first time I heard two women, a Puerto Rkan and a Cuban,
say the word “nosotras,” I was shocked. I had not known the word
existed. Chicanas use nosotros whether we’re male or female . We
are robbed of our female being by the masculine plural. Language
is a male discourse.

And our tongues have become
dry the wilderness has
dried out our tongues and
we have forgotten speech.


Even our own people, other Spanish speakers nos quieren poner
candados en la boca . They would hold us back with their bag of
reglas de academia.

Oye como ladra: ellenguaje de la frontera

Quien tiene boca se equivoca.

“Pocho, cultural traitor, you’re speaking the oppressor’s lan- 10

guage by speaking English, you’re ruining the Spanish language,”
I have been accused by various Latinos and Latinas. Chicano
Spanish is considered by the purist and by most Latinos deficient,
a mutilation of Spanish.

But Chicano Spanish is a border tongue which developed natu­
rally. Change, evoluci6n, enriquecimiento de palabras nuevas por
invenci6n 0 adopci6n have created variants of Chicano Spanish,
un nuevo lenguaje. Un lenguaje que corresponde a un modo de vivir.
Chicano Spanish is not incorrect, it is a living language.

For a people who are neither Spanish nor live in a country in
which Spanish is the first language; for a people who live in a
country in which English is the reigning tongue but who are not
Anglo; for a people who cannot entirely identify with either stan­
dard (formal, Castillian) Spanish nor standard English, what
recourse is left to them but to create their own language? A lan­
guage which they can connect their identity to, one capable of


communicating the realities and values true to themselves – a
language with terms that are neither espa/;al “i ingles, but both.
We speak a patois, a forked tongue, a variation of two languages.

Chicano Spanish sprang out of the Chicanos’ need to identify
ourselves as a distinct people. We needed a language with which
we could communicate with ourselves, a secret language. For
some of us, language is a homeland closer than the Southwest­
for many Chicanos today live in the Midwest and the East. And
because we are a complex, heterogeneous people, we speak many
languages. Some of the languages we speak are:

1. Standard English
2. Working class and slang English
3. Standard Spanish
4. Standard Mexican Spanish
5. North Mexican Spanish dialect
6. Chicano Spanish (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California

have regional variations)
7. Tex-Mex
8. Pachuco (called cal6)

My “home” tongues are the languages I speak with my sister
and brothers, with my friends. They are the last five listed, with 6
and 7 being closest to my heali. From school, the media, and job
situations, I’ve picked up standard and working class English.
From Mamagrande Locha and from reading Spanish and Mexi­
can literature, I’ve picked up Standard Spanish and Standard
Mexican Spanish. From las recitn {{egadas, Mexican immigrants,
and braceros, I learned the North Mexican dialect. With Mexicans
I’ll try to speak either Standard Mexican Spanish or the North
Mexican dialect. From my parents and Chicanos living in the Val­
ley, I picked up Chicano Texas Spanish, and I speak it with my
mom, younger brother (who man’ied a Mexican and who rarely
mixes Spanish with English), aunts, and older relatives.

With Chicanas from Nueva Mexica or Arizana I will speak Chi- 15

cano Spanish a little, but often they don’t understand what I’m
saying, With most California Chicanas I speak entirely in English
(unless I forget). When I first moved to San Francisco, I’d rattle
off something in Spanish, unintentionally embarrassing them.
Often it is only with another Chicana tejana that I can talk freely.

Words distorted by English are known as anglicisms or pachis­
mas. Thepacha is an anglicized Mexican or American of Mexican


origin who speaks Spanish with an accent characteristic of North
Americans and who distorts and reconstructs the language accord­
ing to the inOuence of English.3 Tex-Mex, or Spanglish, comes
most naturally to me. I may switch back and forth from Engli sh
to Spanish in the same sentence or in the same word. With my
sister and my brother Nune and with Chicano lejano contempo­
raries I speak in Tex-Mex.

From kids and people my own age I picked up Pachuco.
Pachuco (the language of the zoot suiters) is a language of rebel­
lion, both against Standard Spanish and Standard English. It is
a secret language. Adults of the culture and outsiders cannot
understand it. It is made up of slang words from both English
and Spanish. Ruca means girl or woman, valo means guy or dude,
chale means no, sim6n means yes, churro is sure, talk is periquiar,
pigionear means petting, que gacho means how nerdy, ponle aguila
means watch out, death is called la pelona . Through lack of prac­
tice and not having others who can speak it, I’ve lost most of the
Pachuco tongue.


Chicanos, after 250 years of Spanish/Anglo colonization, have
developed Significant differences in the Spanish we speak. We col­
lapse two adjacent vowels into a single syIJable and sometimes
shift the stress in certain words such as ma(vmaiz, cohele/cuele .
We leave out certain consonants when they appear between vow­
els: lado/lao, mojado/mojao. Chicanos from South Texas pro­
nounce (as j as in jue ((ue). Chicanos use “archaisms,” words that
are no longer in the Spanish language, words that have been
evolved out. We say semos, Iruje, haiga, ansina, and naiden . We
retain the “archaic” j, as in jalar, that derives from an earlier h,
(the French halar or the Germank halon which was lost to stan­
dard Spanish in the 16th century), but which is still found in sev­
eral regional dialects such as the one spoken in South Texas. (Due
to geography, Chicanos fTom the Valley of South Texas were cut
off linguistically from other Spanish speakers. We tend to use
words that the Spaniards brought over from Medieval Spain. The
majority of the Spanish colonizers in Mexico and the Southwest
came from Extremadura – Heman Cortes was one of them –


and Andalucfa. Andalucians pronounce II like a y, and their d’s
tend to be absorbed by adjacent vowels: lirado becomes lirao.
They brought ellenguaje popular, dialeclos y regionalismos. ‘)

Chkanos and other Spanish speakers also shift II to y and z to
S5 We leave out initial syllables, saying lar for eslar, lay for esloy,
hora for ahora (ct/banos and puerlorrique.;os also leave out initial
letters of some words). We also leave out the final syllable such as
pa for para . The intervocalic y , the II as in lortilla, ella, bOlella, gets
replaced by Ionia or IOrliya, ea, bolea. We add an additional syl­
lable at the beginning of certain words: alOcar for locar, agaslar
for gascar. Sometimes we’ll say lavaste las vacijas, other times
lavates (substituting the ates verb endings for the aste).

We use angHcisms, words borrowed from EngHsh: bola from 20

ball, carpela from carpet, meichina de lavar (instead of lavadora)
from washing machine. Tex-Mex argot, created by adding a Span­
ish sound at the beginning or end of an EngHsh word such as
cookiar for cook, watchar for watch, parkiar for park, and rapiar
for rape, is the result of the pressures on Spanish speakers to
adapt to English.

We don’t use the word vosotroslas or its accompanying verb
form . We don’t say claro (to mean yes), imag(I1ate, or me emo­
ciol1a, unless we picked up Spanish from Latinas, out of a book,
or in a classroom. Other Spanish-speaking groups are going
through the same, or similar, development in their Spanish.


Deslenguadas. Somas los del espanal deficienle. We are your linguistic
nightmare. your linguistic aberration, your linguistic mestisaje, the sub­
ject of your bur/a. Because we speak with tongues of fIre we are culturally
crucified. Racial1y, cultural1y, and linguistically somas huerfanos – we
speak an orphan Longue.

Chicanas who grew up speaking Chicano Spanish have internal­
ized the belief that we speak poor Spanish. It is illegitimate, a
bastard language. And because we internaHze how our language
has been used against us by the dominant culture, we use our lan­
guage differences against each other.

Chicana feminists often skirt around each other with suspicion
and hesitation . For the longest time I couldn’t figure it out. Then


it dawned on me. To be close to another Chicana is like looking
into the mirror. We are afraid of what we’lJ see there. Pena. Shame.
Low estimation of self. In childhood we are told that our language
is wrong. Repeated attacks on our native tongue diminish our
sense of self. The attacks continue throughout our lives.

Chicanas feel uncomfortable talking in Spanish to Latinas,
alTaid of their censure. Their language was not outlawed in their
countries. They had a whole lifetime of being immersed in their
native tongue; generations, centuries in which Spanish was a first
language, taught in school, heard on radio and TV, and read in
the newspaper.

If a person, Chicana or Latina, has a low estimation of my 25

native tongue, she also has a low estimation of me. Often with
mexicanas y latinas we’ll speak English as a neutral language.
Even among Chicanas we tend to speak English at parties or con­
ferences. Yet, at the same time, we’re afraid the other will think
we’re agringadas because we don’t speak Chicano Spanish. We
oppress each other trying to out-Chicano each other, vying to
be the “real” Chicanas, to speak like Chicanos. There is no one
Chicano language just as there is no one Chicano experience. A
monolingual Chicana whose first language is English or Spanish
is just as much a Chicana as one who speaks several variants of
Spanish. A Chicana from Michigan or Chicago or Detroit is just
as much a Chicana as one from the Southwest. Chicano Spanish
is as diverse linguistically as it is regionally.

By the end of this century, Spanish speakers will comprise the
biggest minority group in the U.S., a country where students in
high schools and colleges are encouraged to take French classes
because French is considered more “cultured.” But for a language
to remain alive it must be used· By the end of this century
English, and not Spanish, will be the mother tongue of most Chi­
canos and Latinos.

So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language.
Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – I am my lan­
guage. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride
in myself. Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish,
Tex-Mex, and all the other languages I speak, I cannot acceplthe
legitimacy of myself. Until I am free to write bilingually and to
switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have


to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spang­
lish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers
rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be

I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will
have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my se;.pent’s
tongue – my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I
will overcome the tradition of silence.

My fingers
move sly against your palm
Like women everywhere, we speak in code .. ..


“Vistas, ,J corridos, y comida: My Native Tongue

In the 1960s, I read my first Chicano novel. It was City of Night by
John Rechy, a gay Texan, son of a Scottish father and a Mexican
mother. For days I walked around in stunned amazement that a
Chicano could write and could get published. When I read I Am
Joaquin’ I was surprised to see a bilingual book by a Chicano in
print. When I saw poetry written in Tex-Mex for the first time, a
feeling of pure joy flashed through me. I felt like we really existed
as a people. In 1971, when I started teaching High School English
to Chicano students, I tried to supplement the required texts with
works by Chicanos, only to be reprimanded and forbidden to do
so by the principal. He claimed that I was supposed to teach
“American” and English literature. At the risk of being fired, I
swore my students to secrecy and slipped in Chicano short sto­
ries, poems, a play. In graduate school, while working toward a
Ph.D., I had to “argue” with one advisor after the other, semester
after semester, before I was allowed to make Chicano literature
an area of focus.

Even before I read books by Chicanos or Mexicans, it was the 30

Mexican movies I saw at the drive-in – the Thursday night special
of $1.00 a carload – that gave me a sense of belonging. “Vdmonos
a las vistas,” my mother would call out and we’d all – grand­
mother, brothers, sister, and cousins – squeeze into the car We’d
wolf down cheese and bologna white bread sandwiches while
watching Pedro Infante in melodramatic tearjerkers like Nosotros


los pobres, the first “real” Mexican movie (that was not an imita­
tion of European movies). I remember seeing Cuando los hijos se
van and surmising that all Mexican movies played up the love a
mother has for her children and what ungrateful sons and daugh­
ters suffer when they are not devoted to their mothers. I remem­
ber the singing-type “westerns” of Jorge Negrete and Miquel Aceves
Mejra. When watching Mexican movies, I felt a sense of home­
coming as well as alienation. People who were to amount to some­
thing didn’t go to Mexican movies, or bailes, or tune their radios
to bolero, rm,cherita, and corrido music.

The whole time I was growing up, there was norteno music
sometimes called North Mexican border music, or Tex-Mex
music, or Chicano music, or cantina (bar) music. I grew up bsten­
ing to conjuntas, three- or four-piece bands made up of folk musi­
cians playing guitar, bajo sexta, drums, and button accordion,
which Chicanos had bon’owed from the German immigrants who
had come to Central Texas and Mexico to farm and build brewer­
ies. In the Rio Grande Valley, Steve Jordan and Little Joe Hernan­
dez were popular, and Flaco Jimenez was the accordion king. The
rhythms of Tex-Mex music are those of the polka, also adapted
from the Germans, who in turn had borrowed the polka from the
Czechs and Bohemians.

I remember the hot, sultry evenings when corridos – songs of
love and death on the Texas-Mexican borderlands – reverberated
out of cheap amplifiers fTom the local can tinas and wafted in
through my bedroom window.

Corridos first became widely used along the South Texas/
Mexican border during the early conflict between Chicanos and
Anglos. The corridos are usually about Mexican heroes who do
valiant deeds against the Anglo oppressors. Pancho Villa’s song,
“La cucaracha,” is the most famous one. Corridos of John F.
Kennedy and his death are still very popular in the Valley. Older
Chicanos remember Lydia Mendoza, one of the great border
corrido singers who was called la Gloria de Tejas . Her “Eltango
negro,” sung during the Great Depression, made her a singer of
the people. The everpresent corridos narrated one hundred years
of border history, bringing news of events as well as entertaining.
These folk musicians and folk songs are our chief cultural myth­
makers, and they made our hard lives seem bearable.


I grew up feeling ambivalent about our music. Country­
western and rock-and-roll had more status. In the 50s and 60s,
for the slightly educated and agril1gado Chicanos, there existed a
sense of shame at being caught listening to our music. Yet I
couldn’t stop my feet from thumping to the music, could not stop
humming the words, nor hjde from myself the exhilaration I felt
when I heard it.

There are more subtle ways that we internaljze identification, 35

especially in the forms of images and emotions. For me food and
certain smells are tied to my identi ty, to my homeland. Woodsmoke
curling up to an immense blue sky; woodsmoke perfuming my
grandmother’s clothes, her skjn. The stench of cow manure and
the yellow patches on the ground; the crack of a .22 rifle and the
reek of cordHe. Homemade white cheese sizzling in a pan, melt­
ing inside a folded tortilla. My sister Hilda’s hot, spicy mel1udo,
chile colorado makjng it deep red, pieces of panza and hominy
floating on top. My brother Carito barbequing fajitas in the back­
yard. Even now and 3,000 miles away, I can see my mother spic­
ing the ground beef, pork, and venjson with chile. My mouth
salivates at the thought of the hot steaming tamales I would be
eating ifI were home.

Si Ie preguntas a mi ma1na, “iQue eres?”

“Identity is the essential core of who
we are as indjviduals, the conscious
experience of the self inside.”


Nosolros los Chicanos straddle the borderlands. On one side of
us, we are constantly exposed to the Spanish of the Mexkans, on
the other side we hear the Anglos’ incessant clamoring so that we
forget our language. Among ourselves we don’t say nosotYOs los
americanos, a nosotros los espanoles, a nosolros los hispanos. We
say nosotros los mexicanos (by mexicanos we do not mean citi­
zens of Mexko; we do not mean a national identity, but a racial
one). We distinguish between mexicanos del olro lado and mexica­
nos de este lado. Deep in our hearts we believe that being Mexican
has nothing to do with which country one lives in. Being Mexican


is a state of soul- not one of mind, not one of citizenship. Neither
eagle nor serpent, but both. And like the ocean, neither animal
respects borders.

Dime con quien andas y le dire quien eres.
(Tell me who your friends are and I’ll teU you who you are.)


Si Ie pregunlas a mi mama, “lOue eres?” Ie dira, “Soy mexicana.”
My brothers and sister say the same. I sometimes will answer “soy
mexicana” and at others will say “soy Chicana” a “soy lejana. ” Bu t
I identified as “Raza” before I ever identified as “mexicarza” or

As a culture, we call ourselves Spanish when referring to our­
selves as a linguistic group and when copping out. It is then that
we forget our predominant Indian genes. We are 70-80 percent
Indian’· We call ourselves Hispanic” or Spanish-American or
Latin American or Latin when linking ourselves to other Spanish­
speaking peoples of the Western hemisphere and when copping
out. We call ourselves Mexican-American!2 to signify we are nei­
ther Mexican nor American, but more the noun “American” than
the adjective “Mexican” (and when copping out) .

Chicanos and other people of color suffer economically for not
acculturating. This voluntary (yet forced) alienation makes for
psychological conflict, a kind of dual identity – we don’t identify
with the Anglo-American cultural values and we don’t totally
identi fy with the Mexican cultural values. We are a synergy of
two cultures with various degrees of Mexicanness or Angloness. I
have so internalized the borderland conflict that sometimes I feel
like one cancels out the other and we are zero, nothing, no one.
A veces no soy nada ni nadie. Pero hasla cuarzdo no 10 soy, 10 soy.

When not copping out, when we know we are more than noth- 40

ing, we call ourselves Mexican, referring to race and ancestry;
meslizo when affirming both our Indian and Spanish (but we
hardly ever own our Black ancestory); Chicano when referring to
a politically aware people born and/or raised in the U.S.; Raza
when referring to Ch icanos; (ejanos when we are Chicanos from

Chicanos did not know we were a people until 1965 when
Ceasar Chavez and the farmworkers united and I Am Joaquin was


published and fa Raza Unida party was formed in Texas. With that
recognition, we became a distinct people. Something momentous
happened to the Chicano soul- we became aware of our reality
and acquired a name and a language (Chicano Spanish) that
reflected that reality. Now that we had a name, some of the frag­
mented pieces began to fall together – who we were, what we
were, how we had evolved. We began to get glimpses of what we
might eventually become.

Yet the struggle of identities continues, the struggle of borders
is our reality still. One day the inner struggle will cease and a true
integration take place. In the meantime, (enemos que hacer la
lucha. cQuien esla prolegiendo los ranchos de mi genie? cQuien
eSla Iralando de cerrar la fisura enlre la india y el blanco en nueslra
sangre? EI Chicano, si, el Chicano que anda como un ladr6n en su
propla casa.

Los Chicanos, how patient we seem, how very patient. There is
the quiet of the Indian about us. ” We know how to survive. When
other races have given up their tongue, we’ve kept ours. We know
what it is to live under the hammer blow of the dominant nOrle­
americana culture. But more than we count the blows, we count
the days the weeks the years the centuries the eons until the white
laws and commerce and customs will rot in the deserts they’ve
created, lie bleached. Hwnildes yet proud, quielos yet wild, noso­
lros losmexicanos-Chicmws will walk by the crumbling ashes as
we go about our business. Stubborn, persevering, impenetrable
as stone, yet possessing a malleability that renders us unbreak­
able, we, the meslizas and mestizos , will remain.


I . Ray Gwyn Smith, Moorland Is Cold Coumry, unpubHshed book.
2. Irena Klepfisz, “Di rayze aheymrrhe Journey Home,” in The Tribe of

Dina: A Jewish Women s A11lhology, Melanje Kaye/Kantrowitz and Irena
K1epfisz, eds. (Montpeliel~ VT: Sinister Wisdom Books, 1986),49.

3. R. C. Ortega, Dialectologfa Del Bamo, trans. Horlencia S. A]wan (Los
Angeles. CA: R. C. Ortega Publisher & Bookseller, 1977), 132.

4. Eduardo Hernandez-Chavez, Andre\’ D. Cohen , and Anlhony F. Bel­
tramo, El Lenguaje de los Chicanos: Regional a’id Social Characlerislics of
Language Used by Mexican Americalls (Arlington, VA: Center for Applied
Linguistics, 1975),39.


5. Hernandez-Chavez, xvii.
6. Irena KJepfisz, “Secular Jewish Identity: Yidishkayt in America,” in

The Tribe of Dilla , Kaye/Kantrowitz and Klepfisz, eds., 43.
7. Melanie KayefKantrowitz, “Sign,” in We Speak ill Code: Poems and

Other WYitings (Pittsburgh, PA: Motheroot Publications, Inc., 1980),85.
8. Rodolfo Gonzales, I Am JoaquiniYo Soy Joaquin (New York, NY:

Bantam Books, 1972). It was first published in 1967.
9. Gershen Kaufman, Shame: The Power of Caring (Cambridge, MA:

Schenkman Books, Inc., 1980),68.
10. John R. Chavez, The Lost Land: The Chicago Images of the Southwest

(Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1984),88-90.
t t . “Hispanic” is derived from Hispa/1.is (Espmla, a name given to the

Tberian Peninsula in ancient times when it was a part of the Roman Empire)
and is a term designated by the U.S. government to make it easier to handle
us on paper.

12. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo created the Mexican-American in

t 3. Anglos, in order to alleviate the ir guiJt for dispossessing the Chicano,
stressed the Spanish Paft of us and perpetrated the myth of the Spanish
Southwest. We have accepted the fiction that we are Hispanic, that is Spanjsh,
in order to accommodate ourselves to the dominant culture and its abhor­
rence of Tndians. Chavez, 88-9 1.

For Discussion and Writing

l. List the different kinds of languages Anzaldua says she speaks and
organize them according to a principle of your own selection. Explain
that principle and what the list it produces tells us about the Chicanola
experience with language.

2. How does Anzaldua use definition to discuss her experience wi th lan­
guage, and to what effect?

3. connections Compare Anzaldua’s sense of herself as an Amelican
to Audre Lorde’s in “The Fourth of July” (p. 239). In what way does
each woman feel American? In what way does each not?

4. In her discussion of moving back and forth between the varieties of
languages she speaks, Anzaldua uses the tenn “switch codes” (par.
27). Define that term and write about situations in your life in which
you switch codes.


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