My parents, like my grandparents, have never had the luxury of an office job. They don’t work at desks with swivel chairs and cool air conditioning that’s set on high. Hard work runs through my family’s veins. And it wasn’t until I started working in the food industry that I realized how resilient my parents and everyone else who works long hours in service jobs truly are.
My dad drives a huge garbage truck from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Simi Valley, where temperatures can reach up to 100 degrees. He constantly jumps in and out of a monstrous vehicle to take the piled-up trash away to the distant landfill. My mom works in a grocery store deli, a job for which she gets up at 4 a.m. to prepare the fried foods for football Sundays and she serves with a smile even though she’s exhausted.
That’s why it was so hard for me to leave the aimless food jobs I had during community college — because I thought that’s just what I had to put up with to earn a living.
I held various jobs throughout my community college career — from serving at a sandwich shop to working a quick stint in retail to catering events. Looking back, I’m surprised that I somehow managed to pay my rent with the minimum wage rate and the part-time hours that I worked.
Of course, there were some rough months when you could find me on the phone with my landlord asking for a couple of extra days to pay my rent. None of the jobs I had in community college were close to fulfilling me, nor did they provide enough money for my financial stability. Yet I worked them, and like my mom, I tried to do it with a smile on my face.
I was 19 years old when I started working at a sandwich shop in Santa Barbara. My job was to ring up customers, expedite food and take orders. It seemed simple with very little responsibility — exactly what I needed because I was taking on a full-time course load at school.
The longer I held this job, the more the men I worked with would jabber lighthearted jokes with me and I with them. Occasionally, though, the jokes became sexual and vulgar. I would just shrug them off because I didn’t want to complicate my work life. The inappropriate jokes about my body or their body or even customers’ bodies became a normal part of my work day.
One of the employees, specifically the chef whose jokes always went too far, was in a higher position than we were, so we didn’t think anything could be done.
But things got worse after a Saturday lunch rush at work, when we were all cleaning up and reorganizing the food stations. I was leaning into the deli case, wiping up some of the food bits, when suddenly someone slapped my bottom. I turned around quickly and was so surprised I couldn’t speak. Some of the men were laughing. I was furious. I screamed at the men, asking for them to tell me who touched me. I grabbed my bag and jacket and left without telling anyone. I got to my car and cried and punched my steering wheel out of frustration.
I felt embarrassed even though I did nothing wrong. I felt wronged and mistreated. I looked up local lawyers on my phone while I was in my car and called one a couple minutes after I cooled down. The person I spoke to on the phone said I had no case yet since I hadn’t informed the owner of what happened. I was told that I had to tell the owner directly in order to give them a chance to resolve the situation by their protocol. So I did.
This resulted in a sexual harassment meeting that all the employees, including myself, had to attend. It consisted of the owner reading from a manual and having all of us sign an agreement that we understood what sexual harassment is and that it’s unacceptable.
But the meeting wasn’t taken seriously by those whom it was for. It felt like a weak attempt for the owner to protect themselves from a sexual harassment lawsuit without trying to make any systemic change. Work from then on was awkward for me, with my fellow employees being cold to me at every turn. So I quit.
After this experience, going to community college and finishing the transfer process became a necessity. It pushed me to succeed and to move on to the next chapter of my life. This tough experience taught me to speak up for myself — not to be embarrassed or ashamed for calling someone out on their shit, even if they are well liked by others.
This was a turning point in my life that made me realize that higher education was the right path for me. I wanted to transfer to a four-year university and increase my chances of never having to work in the toxic food industry again.
Mixty Espinoza writes the Friday column on her experience as a first-generation transfer student. Contact her at [email protected]