I’m not Mexican, I’m Loco
In June of 2012, Starbucks asked its Irish customers if they were "proud to be British?” It goes without saying that the Irish were outraged. To be called something they are not? It wasn’t going to go over well. The controversial “crisis” of mistaken identity certainly forced Starbucks to do some quick talking.
Meanwhile, in “Rodeo Suburb” California, I did some quick talking myself, as I began using a new familiar phrase:
“Can you take the order in Spanish?”
After twenty-two applications, I found myself one of the only non-Spanish speaking employees at the only El Pollo Loco I had ever visited in my life. There were roles I could fall into quickly. Napkin Dispenser Refiller. Money Counter. Table Wiper. But Guide to a Mexican Food Menu? Not exactly.
“Go into the walk-in and get me some more creamy cilantro.”
Huh? In my mind, cilantro was that pesky green stuff that seemed to appear by magic all over the lobby no matter how many times I cleaned it. But I dutifully went into the walk-in (a relieving thirty-one degrees), and stared. How long could I stand in here before it was too long? At what point should I just give up and ask for help? If I stay in here for a long time, then still ask for help, how pathetic does that make me look?
I don’t remember if I found it or if I had to be shown. I do remember going through the same thing the very next day with guacamole.
“What’s in the Classic Burrito?”
Hell if I know! Even with my fifty percent discount, I still barely order off of the menu. I’ll stick to chicken nuggets and mac n cheese…
While the Irishmen fought to make their identity clear, I worked to warp mine into someone who knew what she was talking about around Mexican food. Slowly I started to learn the lingo—though gaining none of that Spanish Flair. “We have a special going on right now. If you order one of the family chicken meals, you can get eight more pieces of chicken for only five dollars!” Therefore, about once a day, I heard this:
“I’d like eight pieces of chicken for five dollars.”
“You have to order a family meal first. Then I can give you more chicken for five dollars.”
“How much is a family meal?”
I say it’s roughly twelve dollars, for the eight piece. More if you get twelve. Or sixteen. It depends on how many side orders you want.
“I’d like eight pieces of chicken for five dollars!” He thinks if he says it louder, I will understand better.
“I understand, but that’s not our promotion. Are you just ordering for you and your wife here?”
“Why not order two individual combos. How many pieces do you want each? Three?”
Three sounds good.
“Ok, that meal is just over seven dollars.”
“Ok, here is seven dollars.”
“No seven dollars each.”
“That is too much money!”
“That is what the menu says on the wall. See?” Numbers are the same in Spanish right?
“I want eight pieces of chicken for five dollars.”
“Sir, I can’t do that.”
“Get someone who speaks Spanish!”
The inevitable defeat. I was getting as much backlash as the Starbucks Twitter feed.
“@StarbucksIE How stupid are you people?
What makes Irish people proud to be British? Seriously?”
I could see it in his eyes. What made me think I knew what I was talking about?
I fetch the cook Adelfo, hoping he can make the menu understood. They argue for a bit. Adelfo asks me the prices and I show him. He gives the customer the same information. Throwing his hands up in frustration, the old man grabs his wife and storms out. Adelfo and I laugh. Spanish or English, sometimes language is no help for stinginess and stupidity.
I tried to figure stuff out, I really did. Still the more I learned, the more I had to deal with. Even though I only worked there for two months, it feels like an eternity. Yet, the distinct memories I have are only a handful. Looking back, all I remember are the questions that I couldn’t answer. Does it matter that all the peppers are different sizes? What do you even do with them? Irish and British different right? Faux pas after faux pas. Why hadn’t I taken Spanish in high school?
Sometimes though, you would get those customers who, despite a language barrier, were insistent that you just continue to take their order in English. If that meant them accidentally ordering, approving, and paying for sixteen pieces of chicken (that’s two whole chickens), so be it. In addition to the giant mess this family left for me to clean up, they also left behind a chicken. An. ENTIRE. Chicken. I saved it. Surely they would come back. Surely, when they arrived at home missing an ENTIRE CHICKEN, they would come back. Surely.
Surely, they did not. A whole box of chicken rotted on the counter. Meanwhile, we could have used that a few hours later, when a man promptly came in and ordered all of the chicken currently on the grill. With orders so large, they are usually considered catering. They are usually supposed to be ordered an hour or so in advance. Usually people don’t refuse large sums of cash from customers either. So the chicken left the building. Therefore, I had the pleasant task of informing customers that, for the next twenty minutes or so, El Pollo Loco was out of chicken.
But we had chopped chicken. For a burrito? Or perhaps a salad? Our Tostada salad is really popular. You would probably like it. And don’t bother cleaning it up. Some people like to just leave it on the table. Others enjoy dumping the salad onto the table and making salad art. Occasionally, people enjoy buying a salad, and then abandoning the whole thing on the floor before fleeing the building. Probably cackling. It’s pretty hilarious. At least until you can’t decide whether you start should cleaning it up with a mop or a broom. You can’t mop solid foods… but you can’t sweep salad dressing…
Personally, I recommend just eating it, but I am the outsider in this culture after all. Tostadas aren’t part of my identity. I tend more towards bologna sandwiches. But I finally know the difference between Tomatillo Verde sauce and salsa. And even if I can’t roll my “r’s,” I can “nyah” my “l’s.” But I’m aware that my tacos are “white people tacos.” That I am not Mexican. And that the Irish are not British.
Histories and Herstories
“That moment, I felt closer to Walt.”
On the last day of True Love Week, I paid a visit to Disneyland City Hall, in search of answers. Tucked in the back of New Orleans Square, lies a small, secluded courtyard—The Court of Angels. It is a place that for years and years, I never even knew existed. I felt like I had found a hidden gem. I soon came to learn that my hidden gem was the most popular spot for pictures and marriage proposals alike. Despite this fact, I almost always find it empty. Peaceful. Yet, I had no idea why it was named the way it was.
Stepping into my favorite pin shop, “Masquerade D’Orleans,” I began to ask around. One cast member was able to tell me that it was named after another cast member who died tragically in the nineties after working in the area for many years. My research in that particular story however halted at the discovery of a peculiar plaque: “Musique Des Angels. Music Lessons. Vocal Instructions. Mme. Sally McWhirter Instructor.” The story of the Court of Angels, for today, had to end with a name—seemingly pointing my reflection to the nature of this peaceful place. The fountain tucked into the wall. The little door behind the gate. The mast of a hidden ship that can just be seen peaking over one of the rooftops. The inevitability of mortality. An essay lay before me, and my research felt done. I visited my friend and enjoyed my evening before it was time to go home. I had homework after all. I could write about something. I was cold and tired.
And yet I popped into City Hall and asked a young tour guide named Esteban a question: “Do you know anything about the Court of Angels?”
He knew nothing beyond what I had already learned—but half an hour later I walked away from City Hall feeling very different than when I entered.
“There’s so much of Disney history that you still can’t get from cast members or books,” Esteban said, “because guests make memories too. Guests make history.”
Near the Court of Angels lies a perfume shop. Nowadays, it sells average, brand name perfumes in albeit fancy bottles. But it wasn’t always that way. When the shop first opened, guests could mix scents together to create and bottle a perfume of their own that was catalogued. Today, there exists a story of that perfume shop that can only be known through a woman who still works there since the transition. Towards the end of the “Create your own perfume” tradition, a young woman came in with a troubled look on her face. Her grandmother had come into the shop many, many years prior and had made a perfume she loved very much. One that she wore every day. Was it possible to find this perfume? By some miracle, her grandmother’s order was found and replicated. Upon smelling the scent, the young woman broke down in tears. It smelled just like her grandmother.
As story after story unfolded from Esteban, he explained to me that the memories you make in a place are just as important as the history and memories behind the place. I never knew Sally McWhirter, and I don’t know her story, but I think she would agree with him. After all, the Court of Angels was named for her because she loved it. She loved not only the courtyard but New Orleans Square. She loved not only New Orleans Square but Disneyland. She loved not only Disneyland, but people. Memories. Making history for a place where even the windows tell a story.
“There’s a story I love to tell,” Esteban said, his eyes lighting up. “This is a story I like to think of when I am sad and I love to tell it to guests and cast members alike.” He bounced to the other side of the porch. “And I always like to tell it in the same spot.”
Before he had authority as first President of Disneyland, Jack Lindquist was walking through Main Street. As he walked he overheard a little girl pipe cheerily to her father: “You were right daddy, this is way better than Santa!” In this moment, he realized that the family had spent all of their Christmas money on a day in Disneyland. He wanted to tell this family to go into the Emporium and take anything they wanted, but he could not. And so he watched them leave. Yet he couldn’t be sad after seeing the smiles on their faces. Cast members often tell each other that they may not be curing cancer, or ending world hunger, but if they can make people happy, even for a few hours, they are doing something worthwhile.
“And that right there,” Esteban concluded, pointing above me, is Jack Lindquist’s window. Honorary Mayor of Disneyland.”
Many people view Disneyland as a tourist trap. A place where even the McDonalds across the street lacks a dollar menu. A place where children are too tired to have fun, crying and screaming into the faces of frustrated parents who resent spending their Christmas bonuses on this vacation. When I tell people of the magic that exists, I get weird stares. I sound like a mental patient, insisting on things that just aren’t there.
It is true that I don’t always feel a surge of joy when I step through the tunnel onto Main Street. I don’t go once a year anymore, I sometimes go multiple times a week. The ‘magic’ is settled in me. It is serene and doesn’t knock me over every time I encounter it. I went into Disneyland this Sunday expecting a normal time—but I came out a smiling fool. This innocence that I felt—I hadn’t felt that in years. And I know I sound like a walking and talking cliché, but lying to avoid a cliché is a far worse sin.
The pictures I took of the Court of Angels this weekend are beautiful. A rich, royal purple fabric drapes the railing of a staircase filled with flowers, and I feel prettier just standing on it. I always felt that the courtyard was a place to retreat to. A place to rest and observe beauty. But now, I view it as a gateway to stories—the porch of history. When I think of what it means to me, I think of sappy things: I think of Mickey ears. I think of the things in Disneyland that never were—like the door above the staircase that leads to the empty remains of an envisioned Jazz Club. I think of a young man dressed as the prince from “Princess and Frog” leaning over my picture taking and saying “Little Door, eh?”
I think of perfume bottles. Families who spent all of their Christmas money on tickets for a chance to make memories together as opposed to buying things. I think of $31 lunches at the Blue Bayou and tiny tiaras for sale in the glass shop.
“Let me show you something,” Esteban said to me. He led me back inside the lobby of City Hall and pointing to a picture of Walt and Mickey. “This was the last photo that Walt took alive in the park. He drove around an empty Main Street with Mickey, circling it three times. Can you imagine what that was like? When I was training to drive the fire truck, still the original from 1956, I liked to remember that, and in that moment I felt closer to Walt. I’ve often thought about transferring to Florida, but what I love about Disneyland is its stories. Its history. And I don’t think, I can leave that.”
The Court of Angels was once known simply as Le Grand Courtyard, but its name change reflects an important value, shared by Disney lovers and haters alike: the experiences we have are precious. Our memories are our history. If you make every story valuable, when you die your memory will be valuable as well. You won’t be a ghost, but an Angel.