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'Linguistic Habitus' and the Domination of Latino Workers in the American Restaurant Industry: An Ethnographic Sketch

Eric Thornton[1], Department of Sociology, State University of New York at Purchase College


The US restaurant industry as we know it could not exist without the labour of Latin American immigrants. However, as is often the case with migrant labour, these workers do not enjoy a financial return and recognition equal to that of their 'native' counterparts. Through work-time 'observant participation' and interviews with New York restaurant professionals, I reveal a pattern of social domination existing along the lines of immigrant status that is endemic to the restaurant industry and upon which that industry and its culture profoundly depend. Utilising Pierre Bourdieu's social theory, I examine the symbolic means by which this type of domination is legitimised.[2]

In this article, I discuss Bourdieu's concept of linguistic habitus – that is, the literal embodiment and manifestation of the cultural capital of language skills – as a powerful theoretical tool for studying the US restaurant industry. I provide a contextual survey of the organisational structure of the typical American restaurant and use ethnographic case studies demonstrating how linguistic habitus operates in the re/production of social inequality. In this way, I sketch out the framework of my argument that the alleged egalitarianism of the US restaurant industry – which I identify as the quintessential expression of the service society – is a mere myth, and that the most efficacious means of the subordination, or social domination, of Latino immigrant restaurant workers is of a primarily symbolic nature.

Keywords: Service work, social inequality, race and ethnicity, Latino im/migration, restaurants.


Introduction: the Organisational Structure of the American Restaurant

ET: 'Is everything to your liking?'

Diner: 'This is wonderful. This tastes like authentic Italian food. Who is the chef? Is he Italian?'

ET: 'The chef's name is Antonio Salazar.[3] Actually, he's Mexican.'

Diner: 'Is everyone in the kitchen [looking over both shoulders, bringing her voice down to a whisper] Mexican!?'

(Service interaction, Bouliste Enoteca, an Italian restaurant in Westchester County, New York State)

Members of the American dining public are often surprised to learn that the kitchens ('back-of-house', or BOH) of even the fanciest restaurants are predominantly populated by Latino men, most of whom were not born in the United States. Some service professionals mock the customers' naive assumption that there is a correlation between the ethnic origin of their meal and that of who has prepared it: after all, this knowledge is a matter of common sense to restaurant workers. But is this mistake so ridiculous? The restaurant kitchen is intentionally hidden from customers' view for the very purpose of constructing a 'dining experience', (Erickson, 2004) and culinary preparation is often cast as either an art or a skilled craft (Fine, 1996a, 1996b) whereas Latino immigrant labourers are often associated with 'unskilled' labour. When considering this, it is much easier to understand why diners would misapprehend the social and cultural realities obscured by the closed doors of the restaurant kitchen.

For the smoothness and efficiency of their operations, restaurants often rely on an extreme division of labour. In doing so, they formalise a hierarchical system of inequalities in which the type of work one does and its perceived value (i.e. that which is dirtier and more manual and routinised, versus that which is more refined, more intellectual or creative, and more customised) correlates to that person's relative position in the hierarchy, the amount and type of recognition and social rewards that person receives, and of course the level at which they are financially rewarded.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is also a substantial racialisation of opportunity relative to the type of work one does and the economic and social rewards that work confers. Recently, some popular culinary authors (Bourdain, 2007; Ruhlman, 2006; Bourdain et al., 2004) and journalists (Pesca, 2006) have made a point of exposing this truth. Like the BOH, the ' front-of-house' (FOH) is also occupied by a large Latino workforce, and it is also a site of inequalities that exist at the intersection of race and ethnicity, citizenship (and perceived citizenship) status, and social class. Unlike the BOH, however, the FOH is a space in which no production, but only the provision of interactive services, occurs. And it remains an underexamined topic: apart from the topic's coverage in two reports on the New York restaurant industry by The Restaurant Opportunities Center/New York City Restaurant Industry Coalition ('ROC/NYCRIC': 2009, 2005), by journalists Severson and Ellick (2002), and ethnographically by Sherman (2007) and Zukin (1995), racial disparity in the dining rooms of the United States' restaurants is given very little literary examination.

In my nine years of working in restaurants, the disparity between the FOH and BOH has always been clearly visible. While BOH workers typically earn a meagre hourly wage for the thankless, gruelling and dangerous production of the restaurant's tangible product, FOH workers perform unproductive labour (Sherman, 2007: 7), services that earn them social recognition and legendarily generous remuneration in the form of tips. This often leads to a great deal of resentment on the part of kitchen staff and deep, salient friction between them and FOH staff. But, within the FOH itself, where the division of labour among workers in close and constant contact with one another is also clearly racialised, I observed that there was much less contention between co-workers, and much more acceptance on the part of the disadvantaged Latino workers. This raises the question: what is it about the social relations of the FOH that makes its workers more readily accepting of the blatant inequalities endemic to this work space?

The division of labour in the typical, contemporary American FOH is effectively divided in two segments: 'support staff' and 'front staff' (although this is not a point of further exploration here, it is worth noting that the support/front staff divide largely mimics the classic proletariat/bourgeoisie binary). The general dining public most likely understands what goes under the basic job description of servers (or waiters) and bartenders, because these are the people whose primary role is that of customer interaction. For our purposes here, it is unnecessary to discuss the basic job description of the front staff any further. However, it is important to note that in virtually all restaurants today, the front staff remunerates the support staff in much the same way as the clientèle tips the front staff.[4] This is not necessarily common knowledge, and it is crucial to understanding the organisational dynamics that affect workers in US restaurants.

The responsibilities of the support workers, namely bussers and foodrunners, are much less known by the general dining public. This is because, although they work 'on the floor' like their counterparts in the front staff, they are intended not to orchestrate social interactions but to undertake most of the dirty, physical 'busy-work'. Thus, as well as being subject to a lower rate of pay, these positions are considerably less prestigious. Bussers do the dirty, monotonous and less prestigious work that waiters generally don't do, such as clearing dirty plates, silverware, and glassware from tables, resetting tables as guests vacate them, polishing glass- and silverware as needed, restocking items as needed, etc. Food-runners (or 'runners' for short), are primarily responsible for taking plates of food from the kitchen to their destination in the dining room. Although this is a highly routinised and repetitive job, it is the most interactive of the support roles because it requires that each dish be announced as it is delivered. Notably, it is because of this that food-running generally confers more financial return and prestige than the other support positions.

Thus, we can begin to sketch an image of the disparity between front workers and support workers as being fundamentally related to social interaction, and more specifically, the ability to conduct the appropriate type of social interaction that is valued in the social space of the restaurant FOH.


Background and Methodology

There are perhaps few who can claim to know both the efficacy, and fallacy, of ideological meritocracy in restaurants as intimately as I do. But this claim should not be mistaken for smug, scholastic territorialism: rather, it should be understood as a somewhat embarrassing confession. I spent years surrounded by people whose work ethic, reliability, and tenacity far exceeded mine, people technically subordinate to me, who earned roughly half of what I did for similar work. There is an enchanting character to the logic of meritocracy, and I was long under its spell. For how else could I – a man in his early twenties, having not worked in restaurants for very long – justify earning more than men who had worked in restaurants for decades? How else could my fellow 'front' workers and I justify referring to these men as bus boys?

I was a foodservice professional long before I was a student of sociology. That occupation has stayed with me through the completion of my undergraduate course of study, and therefore, it has been with me for the development of my 'sociological imagination' in C. Wright Mills' famous terms. With this substantive paradigm shift came the desire to turn the critical sociologist's eye upon the life and worldview to which I had for years been committed.

I began working in restaurants in 2002. As a white native English-speaking man of a working-middleclass family in a Westchester County, NY suburb, I was never relegated to the lower tier of restaurant work. From the start, I 'skipped the line' into the higher-paying positions of the restaurant dining rooms. And I did this past older Latino immigrant restaurant veterans who were not realistically expected – or expecting – to receive promotion into these positions.


Legitimising Inequality in Interaction

This question, how extreme inequality is legitimised in a workplace where most employees work in close and constant interaction, is central to my research. In an increasingly diverse and integrated 'post-civil rights movement' US, the chasm between those at the top of the socio-economic spectrum and those at the bottom continues to widen. And, despite the prevailing radical-individualist rhetoric that we are in a state of pure economic freedom in which we are all in charge of our own destiny, socio-economic opportunity is persistently racialised.


Relevant Academic Literature and Research

The implications of my study and its relevance to social scientific literature are many. Given the space limitations of this paper, it is only possible to address a narrow set of topics and introduce a narrow selection of academic literature. However, this study makes a relevant and timely contribution to a great number of academic fields and literature.

The first concrete segment of my project began as a review of the field of 'interactive service work' literature and evolved into a theoretical, Bourdieuian critique of this literature.[5] In it, I discuss how the social-scientific field of interactive service work studies is split into two general camps: scholars who follow Arlie Hochschild's (1983) work, and those who follow that of Michael Burawoy (1985, 1979). Finally, I argue that a closer reading of Bourdieu's general concept of symbolic domination provides clarity to the contentious dilemma of how to theorise labour relations in the service society.

One of the predominant scholars in the field of interactive service work (indeed, the one who coined the term) is the sociologist Robin Leidner (see Leidner, 2001, 1999, 1993). Of the 'Hochschildian camp', Leidner is responsible for having originally raised many of the most pertinent questions in this field; namely, how we are to conceive of inequality in the type of work that places workers in direct contact with customers. Leidner is fairly antagonistic to the Burawoyan camp of service-work literature for being overly structural, i.e. by failing to grant workers due agency (2001: 441-42). But in her drive to identify worker agency, I find that Leidner overshoots, resisting to raise pertinent questions of social class structure, a problem that she inherits from too close a commitment to Hochschild's (1983) text.

Of the academic inspirations for my research, Rachel Sherman's (2007, 2005) ethnographic study of luxury hotel workers has been perhaps the most influential. Sherman's findings are that service workers and their customers in close personal interaction employ a logic that casts the extreme socio-economic disparity between them as individual, rather than as part of a broader social pattern. Integrating Burawoy's principle that workers actively consent to their domination (drawn directly from Antonio Gramsci's concept of hegemony) with Hochschild's concept of 'emotional labour', Sherman gives a fresh, innovative, and convincing analysis of labour in the luxury service sector.

Overall, I intend for this study to deal with the persistent racialisation of economic opportunity in the US. But the set of issues addressed here are many, and will interest researchers of many fields. Obviously, the study is relevant to immigration and Latin American studies. Labour researchers might take interest in my position on the nature of inequality in contemporary service work. Further, this study has implications for the nature of how we in the US view Latino race and ethnicity. The roles and ethnoracial identities of Latino immigrants in the US are likely changing, and whether these changes are to the disadvantage of other social groups, especially African Americans, is a contentious and important topic (Dávila, 2001; Waterston, 2006). Those concerned with the philosophical question of social structure and agency, material and symbolic domination, and other time-honoured antinomies may find my argument interesting. For I hold, following Bourdieu, that material and symbolic inequality, like structural and cultural capital, must not continue to be falsely dichotomised. Indeed, that we must always dig deeper to see that they are inextricable parts of a whole. Finally, because contributing to the fomentation of social change is my ultimate goal, I hope that those committed to labour organisation find my study useful.

One crucial note: although gender discrimination is highly relevant to the study of restaurants in general, the gender composition of support workers is homogeneous. Thus, my study is effectively limited to that of Latino male support workers. In future iterations of my project, I may confront what the exclusion of women from this segment of restaurant workers means. Although preliminary, my initial suspicion is that it relates to both gendered patterns of migration (I have known many bussers and foodrunners whose wives did not make the migration to the US with them) and traditional gender roles that place Latina immigrants in other segments of the service work population. For further reading on this topic, see the studies published by ROC/NYCRIC, (2007: 2, 16; 2010).


Data Collection

My research is almost exclusively focused on the so-called front-of-house service settings in restaurants rather than in the kitchen. Besides the language barriers preventing me from foraying very deeply into the kitchen setting, I chose to limit my research to dining rooms and taverns as these areas are a more clear-cut expression of the service society. From the winter of 2009 until the summer of 2010, I collected my data primarily by way of work-time participant observation ('observant participation' in Wacquant's terms; see Wacquant, 2004: 6). That is, my data consisted of content from workplace interactions, the interactions which comprise normal daily social life in restaurants.

In this paper, I use case studies of four individuals, to whom I have given pseudonyms: Julio, Silvio, Georges, and Mário. With the exception of Mário, all of these people were my co-workers at 'Trattoria', a large corporate Italian restaurant in Westchester County suburb of New York city. During my employment at Trattoria, I worked 20-30 hours per week as a server on a staff of about 24 'front' workers and 25 'support' workers. In addition to my work-time observations, I spent numerous hours per week in conversation with my co-workers 'decompressing' over drinks after work.

Mário and I were co-workers at 'Hellas', a contemporary Greek restaurant in Manhattan, for nine months between 2006 and 2007. We have stayed in touch since, and I arranged one informal meeting with him and a mutual friend and former co-worker, Konrad, in March 2010, which lasted approximately four hours. The bulk of our subject matter consisted of reflection on our days at Hellas and our experiences in restaurants since.

There are numerous reasons why I chose this methodology. Practically speaking, the pace of the restaurant dining room is simply too frenetic, the social interactions too dynamic, taking place at all times, rapidly, and simultaneously to be observed from a fixed position. Also crucially, where questions of race, immigration status, and inequality are concerned, informants to social research projects like this one are likely to temper or alter their behavior for reasons of self-preservation, self-consciousness, or discomfort. In other words, observation while participating in the day-to-day goings-on in my place of employment granted me a greater degree of access to the normal state of things than if I were explicit about my intentions. I have learned from experience that simply mentioning racial inequality in a restaurant causes a radical and uncomfortable break from the normal order, and a marked distrust by workers, managers, and customers alike.

In short, the best and most effective way for the researcher to observe the social life of the restaurant is to be physically, emotionally, and socially an invested participant in the life of the restaurant worker.


The Efficacy of Cultural Capital

Symbolic power is that invisible power which can be exercised only with the complicity of those who do not want to know that they are subject to it or even that they themselves exercise it (Bourdieu, 1991: 164).

In the earlier stages of this project, I framed my research with a number of works of immigration theory (Buff, 2008; Schwartzman, 2008; Massey et al., 2006; Massey et al., 2005; Bustamante, 2002, 1998, 1997; Bach, 1978; Portes, 1978; Burawoy, 1976) which shaped my understanding of the political construction of immigrant domination as a matter of 'top-down' causality. As informative as this literature was, it proved to be insufficient on its own: in this phase of my research, I was wont to reify or anthropomorphise the source of discrimination in an act of what Bourdieu calls pessimistic functionalism: 'this fantasy of the conspiracy, the idea that an evil will is responsible for everything that happens in the social world' (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 102). As a result, my analysis failed to capture the subtleties and re-production of immigrant domination and precarity on the so-called 'micro' level of the restaurant staff.

The social disparities of the FOH occur between people who work in close and constant contact with one another, in the same physical and social space (Sherman, 2007, 2005; Leidner, 1999, 1993), and who, although their individual tasks are clearly defined, perform the same basic duties of customer service. How are we to negotiate an analysis of social and economic inequality in such a setting? To do so effectively, it is crucial to emphasise the symbolic means of domination, acknowledging it to be a process, most often, of a much more pernicious nature. In a previous edition of this ethnography, I expound in detail, following Sherman (2007, 2005) and Rollins (1996) on the concept of visibility and invisibility in the FOH as a social feat, and on Bourdieu's concept of symbolic violence and symbolic systems. In this article, however, I will focus exclusively on Bourdieu's dual concepts of cultural capital and its embodiment, known as habitus.

Cultural capital is an integral part of Bourdieu's theory of symbolic systems. As with Marxian labour power, Bourdieuian capital is accumulated labour that belongs to its bearer. It exists in three states: embodied, objectified, and institutionalised (Bourdieu 1986: 243). Of particular interest to us here is cultural capital's embodied state, by which is literally meant the bodily internalisation and subsequent manifestation of culture, that of 'external wealth converted into an integral part of the person' (Bourdieu, 1986: 245), the cultivation of cultural practices. To Bourdieu, 'the link between the qualifications obtained by individuals and the cultural capital inherited by virtue of their social background' is concealed in the exercise of symbolic power, which preserves the appearance of meritocracy (Bourdieu, 1991: 24). The embodied state of cultural capital defies the distinction between inherited and acquired property, creating the illusion of the merit in one's cultural capital in that it ' combine[s] the prestige of innate property with the merits of acquisition' (Bourdieu, 1986: 245). Thus, individuals enter situations with a certain amount of inherited cultural capital – in direct relation to their social background – but they also accumulate cultural capital through social labour.

As I have stated, the most highly valued and generously remunerated labour in restaurants is that of the front staff. Primarily based on interaction with customers, the variety of skills that an apt front worker must possess ranges from the ability to make interesting small talk, cracking jokes à propos, and tactfully handling disgruntled customers. This, on top of other various abilities such as effectively managing a station, micromanaging support staff, and being able to discuss why a vineyard's location on a north-facing hill is pertinent to the character of its wines. Indeed, the job description comprises a wide variety of skills. Although many of these skills must be cultivated or 'earned' through job experience, their possessors could not have done so without first possessing a set of social skills by way of social inheritance (or ' socialisation') that completely revolves around their command of language skills.

Now, we will discuss a selection of my observations on the specific form and efficacy of linguistic habitus in restaurants.


The Symbolic Function of Language

Because competence is not reducible to the specifically linguistic capacity to generate a certain type of discourse but involves all the properties constituting the speaker's social personality […] the same linguistic productions may obtain radically different profits depending on the transmitter (Bourdieu, 1977: 654).

There is no doubt that the ability to speak clearly and succinctly is of functional utility in interactive service work. This is to say that a base level of English language and communication skills is, indeed, actually necessary for one to work in FOH interactive positions. However, employment and hiring practices based upon language ability are, in restaurants, very often simply a guise for racial discrimination. ROC/NYCRIC (2009: 28) found that in restaurants, 'language and accent often serve as a proxy for race by which workers of colour, particularly immigrants, are excluded from the better positions.' However, data in the same study indicated that white job applicants with a 'slight European accent' were 37% more likely to be offered a job than white applicants with no accent, while only 14% of non-accented white applicants were favoured over their white, accented counterparts. Thus, we can begin to see that it is not simply the effectiveness of a restaurant worker's utterances, but the identity of who is doing the uttering. Acknowledging this fact helps us to locate the forms of cultural capital that are valued in restaurants' FOH. Indeed, the findings of the ROC/NYCRIC study are consistent with my field observations.

Restaurant professionals in all segments of the staff have a very clear understanding of the important role of language in the restaurant field. In the kitchen in particular, cooks and dishwashers who can broker communication between monolingual workers are recognised as valuable assets to the staff. In many cases, there is also a direct correlation to the rank of a kitchen worker and their English language skills; I have, however, observed many higher-ranking cooks who spoke only functional 'kitchen English', and it may also be that Latino BOH workers learn both cooking and language skills at the same time over the course of their kitchen careers. But, in the FOH, exceptions to the rule of English fluency are much more rare. Many highly experienced bussers have expressed to me that their own difficulty with the English language was holding them back from promotion into server or bartender positions.


Having worked in restaurants for fifteen years – first as a cook and then as a busser and a runner – Julio is an extremely experienced and intuitive worker. As a busser there is rarely anything that he needs to be told to do. Of short and stocky build, as though he were bred to sustain long, physically and emotionally demanding and punishing workdays in service-capacity positions, Julio moves quickly and impeccably around the dining room floor. When a party finishes a course, he 'clears and crumbs' and always makes a point of reading the table's order ticket to ensure that he sets each guest appropriately (steak knives for those with a grilled meat, spoons for those with broth or soup dishes, shell bowls for those with clam dishes, share plates for each guest if the party is sharing a dish, etc.). He can de-bone a whole-roasted fish more quickly and more neatly than most of the servers and managers on the staff, and he could often see issues that needed my attention before I did. Of all the workers I have known and seen in any service capacity and any level of status, Julio is among the best.

Julio worked at least forty hours per week at Trattoria, and approximately twenty hours per week behind the bar at a much smaller, family-owned Italian restaurant in an adjacent town. When he told me of this bartending job, he immediately qualified this fact by explaining – in a shockingly apologetic tone – that it wasn't like a 'real bar', not like the kind of bartending that I do, he said. At his bar, there was very little in the way of mixed drinks, mostly wine and some bottled beer, and the volume, quality and style of service was lower.

Dealing with less alcohol requires less of a bartender, but that fact is irrelevant when compared to the revelation that Julio felt compelled to describe his professional pedigree as less valid, or valuable, than mine. I never asked if the bartending job was a better job, or more lucrative than food-running, but the fact that Julio eventually left that job to run food at another restaurant nearby indicates the answer.

During the time that we worked together at Trattoria, Julio and I came to hold each other in high esteem, both professionally and personally. I once appealed to him that his labour is every bit as valuable as mine and that he deserved more recognition and better pay. He felt compelled to defend me from my own statement, enumerating the reasons why he thought I was an excellent server and deserving of my higher pay scale. Remarkably, Julio spoke very little of my actual work ethic and very much of my habitus. He noted that I was very good in conversation with my guests and very well-spoken. Further, he praised my bodily capital, telling me that it was clear from my posture and demeanour that I had a history in good restaurants. He also cited how I held a tray of drinks (balanced on my fingers, which are splayed, and my palm not touching the tray), and how I grasped a dish (with only the pad of my thumb touching the rim, never with the thumb itself) and how I strategised serving my tables (all food served from the left hand, all drinks from the right, everything cleared with the right hand, ladies always first, by age).

Of course, these qualities which I possessed as a worker required years of cultivation. But, before I could begin to cultivate them, I was placed into the position to do so by virtue of the social and linguistic skills that I had inherited much earlier in life. Further, Julio's ability to identify my service style in itself evinces that he understood the mechanics of proper table service, too. Yet, he was still relegated to lower-paying positions.

The idea that possessing the right language skills is essential to attaining the more lucrative and respected FOH positions goes unchallenged among restaurant professionals. But, as the previously quoted ROC/NYCRIC study indicates, what is meant by the 'right' language skills is not necessarily unaccented English. Fully capable of conducting interactions in English (and indeed quite charming and clever in conversation), Julio is instead more likely to evade conversation as though overcome by an impending fear of embarrassment. Putting his head down and working even harder is the chosen way of doing this.


One white server at Trattoria, Georges, was extremely successful and loved by the management and his customers, despite possessing a thick southern-French accent that became increasingly more difficult to understand as he became busier with the dinner rush.

Georges once attempted to improve his English in the classroom. When he had first moved from France to be with his wife – an American 'English-as-a-second-language' teacher from New York – about five years earlier, he had found work at the mailroom of a local university. Georges hoped that the college environment would spark the desire and provide the financial wherewithal to take courses in English and Computer Science. However, Georges soon realized that he could not afford both to take classes and to start a family. Seeking more lucrative work, Georges applied for a serving position at a popular French restaurant in Manhattan, where he figured that his French accent would not hinder him. After about three years of work at this restaurant and the discovery that he was about to become a father, Georges decided to shorten his commute by staying in Westchester and working at Trattoria.

Wide-eyed, earnest, and normatively handsome, Georges was quite self-conscious of the trouble he sometimes had communicating with his customers, explaining that his syntax often became confused, that he had much difficulty conjugating verbs, and 'I am sometimes adding "-ing" onto the end of words and I don't know why […] I know a lot of the time I am not making sense.' Yet, I never noticed the sort of annoyance with Georges that is often expressed when a Spanish accent is the source of communicative difficulties. Indeed, one especially confused group of Georges' guests required my help translating his accented English into American English that they could understand. When the confusion was abated, they appeared very happy with his service again.

Affirming the findings of the 2009 ROC/NYCRIC study, Georges' European accent did not only not hinder his occupational opportunities, but actually appeared to have aided them. I was struck by the importance of this moment and by how remarkable it was that I had such an active, participatory role in it. What I observed in participation was such a clear manifestation of the linguistic double-standard. That is, the double-standard that allows one to accept the linguistic difference of the 'white' – to be read alternatively as 'racially-dominant' – immigrant while rejecting the linguistic difference of the immigrant of a socially dominated race.

In contrast to the case of Georges are two examples in which the accents of two individuals, Silvio and Mário, were cast as either positive or negative according to the context of the various perceptions of those around them.



Silvio was one of the original sommeliers at Trattoria. As I was also part of the restaurant's 'opening' staff, Silvio and I had spent a good deal of time getting to know each other, but we had never spoken about his background. In his early-to-mid-forties, tall and thin and with short-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair, Silvio looked like he might be European. The provenance of his accent was hard to pin down but, because I had heard Silvio addressing a busser in fluent Spanish once before, I knew at least that he was a native Spanish-speaker.

The Trattoria staff was trained for over a month before construction on this highly-anticipated, 'celebrity chef'-owned Pan-Italian 'pizzeria-trattoria' was finally completed. We had learned everything there was to know about the owning restaurant group's history and 'philosophy'; had gone through numerous mock-services to practise 'the steps of service'; had gorged ourselves on the cuisine in at least three tastings of the complete menu. The only thing that the management did not expect the front staff to know perfectly was the extensive list of wines by the bottle – more than 300 in total – which included wines of all price ranges, from all parts of Italy's many grape-growing regions. That was why they had hired and trained the wine staff of three sommeliers, including Silvio. By the time its doors opened, Trattoria's staff was thoroughly trained, its well-heeled Westchester clientèle had virtually worked itself into a frenzy, and the restaurant was packed every night.

It didn't take long to learn that, despite having perfectly good conversational English skills in more relaxed settings, Silvio had significant difficulty understanding wine orders coming from a group of frenzied servers during a dinner rush (each order consisted of the name of a wine, the 'bin number' of its location in the wine room, and the location of his delivery: a typical order would sound like 'Silvio, I need one Roccaperciata, bin fifteen, on table eight). This caused much stress among the waitstaff and the other sommeliers. The head sommelier, Maryann, complained to me that she was having to pick up Silvio's slack because 'he doesn't know what he's doing' and one white server declared to me that he wasn't fit for the job because 'he doesn't understand English!' Even my own patience was tested when Silvio had clearly pretended to understand a few of my orders rather than asking me to repeat myself, resulting in numerous unfilled orders and disgruntled customers. I began to make a point of having Silvio confirm my order by repeating it back to me, or repeating myself, which did lead to better results.

Eventually, I noticed something very interesting happening at the tables: the guests loved him, and many would keep him at the table or even flag him down for conversation in the middle of service. As I scrambled through the dinner rush, I wondered why guests were so enamored with Silvio when the staff was growing increasingly frustrated with him. And then, I came to understand when I finally had a chance to listen in on one of his conversations:

Diner: 'Where are you from?'

Silvio: [gesturing to the bottle of Italian wine in his hands] 'Very close to where this bottle came from.'

Diner: [audibly more excited] ' Oh- this wine!?'

Silvio: 'Yes, very close.'

Upon hearing this, the guests at the table immediately warmed to Silvio, and they kept him at the table to talk for longer than I was able to continue eavesdropping.

Frankly, I was certain that Silvio was not being truthful about being from Italy. I decided to ask him about it myself a few days later, in the calm of pre-service set-up. At first, Silvio told me that he was from a coastal area in north-western Italy called Liguria, but when I pressed further, he admitted that he was born and raised in Argentina, where his family had lived since they fled Europe in the second world war. He had never lived in Italy and, he recalled, had only visited relatives in the area once or twice as a child. 'But', he forcefully insisted, 'my family is from Liguria.'

Within the Trattoria staff, servers often complained of communicative difficulty with Silvio. Watching the way that Silvio's tables consistently behaved in conversation with him – straining to hear him, asking him to repeat – it was clear that his verbal limitations were also an impediment in communication with guests. However, in leading guests to believe that his accent was European, Silvio 'laundered' his linguistic capital so as to reframe his perceived ethnicity as a positive attribute. The guests ate it up, and asked for more.


Mário's case, like that of Silvio, exemplifies the revaluation of one's linguistic habitus based upon perceived ethnicity, albeit with a different twist. A restaurant professional from Portugal, Mário was at first incorrectly racialised as Latin American and then later re-cast as European, which greatly improved his occupational opportunities. My account of Mário's story is derived from my work-time observations with him, conversations with him at the neighborhood bar after work, and the accounts of our mutual friend Konrad, with whom worked Mário before I knew either of them.

Dark-skinned with chiseled, severe features, thick bone structure and musculature, wavy jet-black hair and a thick Portuguese accent, Mário came to New York in 2004 with an impressive résumé that reflected his management career in a number of high-volume bars and nightclubs in Lisbon. Having applied for a position as a server at 'Unagi's', a new, high-profile Japanese restaurant in Manhattan, he was denied a position as a server, but offered a job bussing tables instead; as he explained it, he was still unfamiliar with New York's restaurant industry and expected to be offered a promotion in time. But a year later, promotion at Unagi never came, and Mário quit his bussing job for a serving position at a new high-end contemporary Greek restaurant, Hellas, which is where I met him.

The difference between Unagi and Hellas, as it was explained to me by Konrad, who worked with Mário and watched his progression at both places, was that the overly image-conscious management of Unagi wasn't willing to employ a server who looked, and whose accent could be mistaken for, Latin American. At the new restaurant, by contrast, Mário's ethnicity was recast as Portuguese: with its calculated Mediterranean ambiance, Hellas' management recognised – indeed, embraced – Mário's European identity. However, this was no accident: now, Mário often consciously acts to differentiate himself from Latin Americans. When we worked together, I observed that he would address bussers in Spanish (which he spoke fluently in addition to his native Portuguese) but only ever to berate them: never to promote understanding or better communication. Every time I saw this, I noticed that Mário finished his tirade with a particularly foul-sounding string of obscenities in Portuguese. Whereas yelling at the bussers in Spanish could have the potential for facilitating better communication and a better outcome – his complaints were always about the quality of their work – doing so in Portuguese was a clear display of cultural and linguistic dominance intended to distance himself and his culture from the bussers and theirs.

This strategy of ensuring that he was not conflated with the Latino bussers worked. Mário was extremely successful at Hellas, where he commanded a high level of respect and greater preference in terms of earning ability. In fact, just a year after leaving Unagi, where he wouldn't even be considered for a promotion to a front-position, Mário was nominated by a highly-circulated New York culture and arts magazine as one of the city's best servers.

Like Silvio's story, Mário's indicates the importance of one's cultural and ethnic identity in the judgment of language skills by others, as well as the arbitrary nature of the criteria of this judgment; neither Mário's nor Silvio's native language is instrumentally more valuable than the next. However, the perceptions held by those around them, as to whether one or the other was European or Latino, established an ethno-racial context in which to determine the value of their linguistic capital.



As varied as these cases are, they all indicate that workers have a clear understanding of the value of linguistic capital in the restaurant field. Whereas Georges, Silvio, and Mário were positioned to cast their linguistic and ethnic idiosyncrasies in their favour, their stories are exceptions to the rule. A very specific command of the English language is normally a prerequisite for entry into the dominant and more lucrative positions in the restaurant industry. Industry-wide, individuals like Julio are much more common: these workers are functionally fully capable of performing the tasks that comprise the job descriptions of privileged workers like myself. But their advancement into the more lucrative and prestigious positions of the service élite is for all intents and purposes impossible. It is not merely the 'right' language skills that they lack, but also the 'appropriate' linguistic and ethno-racial self-representation. And, of course, these 'skills' are unattainable without first possessing the inherited forms of linguistic and ethno-racial cultural capital that are most highly valued in the service industry.

In today's service society, it is important that we turn a critical eye back upon existing notions of social domination and inequality in the workplace. More than ever, perhaps, material wealth and well-being are determined by (and go hand-in-hand with) symbolic capital. According to the existing order of things, the linguistic capital of bilingual Latin American immigrants – who are associated with cheap labour – is undervalued. But, as I have indicated in the ethnographic sketches above, the value of linguistic capital in restaurants is less a matter of its utility than of the ethno-racial identity of the bearer.

To understand more fully the nature of inequality in the contemporary American workplace, or how life opportunities are unevenly distributed among social groups, we have at our disposal an excellent set of analytical tools in Bourdieu's theory of symbolic domination. This article is but a cursory exposition of how the concept of linguistic habitus is relevant to ethno-racial inequalities in the, a concept of which its theorisation and empirical demonstration does not lend itself to simple and ready-made answers. But, for the restaurant industry as well as the much larger set of issues that it represents a part of, the implications are clear. In this service society, the order of things, the existing state of social and economic inequality, is maintained only on the precondition that the illusion of meritocracy is upheld. This illusion of meritocracy, in turn, is upheld by subtle, symbolic means, expressed here as the cultural capital of language skills.

If the reader is to take only one thing from this study, let it be that the most efficacious means of perpetuating material inequality in the contemporary service workplace are subtle, symbolic ones. Life opportunities are unjustly – though routinely – distributed unequally among social groups. This is no new revelation. However, the structure of the contemporary American workplace has changed, and the structure of inequality has changed with it. An entire portion of the restaurant industry's workforce is systematically held back, as I have shown, with the help of a system of logic that values an arbitrary set of social skills over the classic 'American' values of hard work and commitment. Now, with this knowledge, we must take steps to affect practical change and create a more just and equal service society.




I am indebted to, among many others, Dr Verónica Perera, Dr John Gitlitz, Dr Chrys Ingraham and Dr Suzanne Kessler, all of the State University of New York at Purchase College, and Kathleen Dunn, Colin Ashley, Justin Myers, and Erin Siodmak, all of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Funding was generously provided by the Katherine T. Ziegler Foundation/School of Natural and Social Sciences Undergraduate Research support Award in the Fall of 2009 and Spring of 2010



[1] The author currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is applying to PhD programs in sociology and continuing his studies of the restaurant industry.

[2] The most complete version of this project to date, entitled 'Symbolic Violence in the Dinner Rush: Class and Ethnoracial Domination in the American Restaurant Industry' was presented at the 2010 New York State Sociological Association conference.

[3] I use pseudonyms for all names of people and places reproduced from my fieldnotes.

[4] Tipping customs in American restaurants and taverns are quite different from those found in other parts of the world: a tip of at least 20% is expected for normal table service, and one is expected to tip a bartender at least one dollar per drink. Today, most of the front-of-house workers' income is earned through gratuities, due to exceptions in minimum wage laws for 'tipped employees'. In New York State, for example, the minimum wage for tipped employees was a mere $2.35 (see USDOL/WHD, 2010a; 2010b) until a rare progressive push in the favour of labour increased this number to $5.00 (see NYSDOL, 2011). This creates a situation in which servers and bartenders effectively manage and pay their subordinates, and in which both groups are subjected to much less protection in terms of job and payroll security.

[5] This unpublished paper, titled ' Reconciling the Empirical Idiosyncrasies of Interactive Service Work Literature: A Meditation on Bourdieu's Theory of Symbolic Systems in the Restaurant Context' was presented at the 2010 Eastern Sociological Society conference.



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To cite this paper please use the following details: Thornton, E. (2011), ''Linguistic Habitus' and the Domination of Latino Workers in the American Resturant Industry: An Ethnoraphic Sketch', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 4, Issue 1, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.