Seven Layer Dip.

There’s a horrible habit I’ve only become aware of since podcasting. When someone shares a traumatic story, something so painful I can’t wrap my head around it, I offer sympathy by commiserating with my own experience. Your Mom died when you were young? So did mine. Etcetera. It sounds like I’m playing the “One-Up” game. You had it bad? Just wait until you hear my story. I win.

Ugh. Not good. When you play that game the conversation becomes one where you’re speaking to yourself instead of to the other person. It’s a hard habit I’m working to break. But I’ll admit when I first heard about THAT MAN’S* refugee ban the only way I could fathom the thought of Lady Liberty’s light being extinguished was by focusing on Seven Layer Dip. Yes, Seven Layer Dip.

When I was young I met a boy. We fell in love and moved to his hometown of Westport, Connecticut. Yes, the White Bread Capital of the Northeast, but this boy wasn’t wealthy. His parents had moved there for the schools. To make ends meet he found a job at a clam house and I joined a Mexican restaurant, Pancho Villa’s. The boy had worked there in high school and put in a good word to the owner, Mr. Chapa. I bussed tables, something I’d become rather good at during my tenure with Chuck E. Cheese. When you spend two years scraping pepperoni off industrial strength rugs and shaking loose fake parmesan out of a wet rag smelling of sweat socks you become expert.

I spent my days scraping plates, stacking glasses, and refilling the ubiquitous bowls of chips and salsa. The salsa was extraordinary, still the best I’ve eaten, and for good reason. Chopped and mixed into a giant plastic tub each day by the dozens of immigrants Mr. Chapa employed. Almost his entire staff was made up of folks he’d sponsored. They spoke no English. He provided them with work, food, clothing, and shelter. To this day every time I chop a tomato I can see these hardworking folks “drawing straws” to see who’d be the poor sap stuck with filling the salsa tub.

The language barrier made for interesting times when we “got in the weeds” on Saturday nights, but for the most part sign language and facial expressions got us by. I got a lot of looks from patrons as the only woman busser and white at that. I didn’t care. I was away from my hometown for the first time, living with a man, having an adventure. I’d ride my bike to work, 20 miles each way, and leave with a small wad of tips in my pocket. It was a good life for 19.

The people I worked with? I have no idea what kind of life they had. We’d smile at each other over family meal, usually cobbled together from the ever-present buffet. Make small talk using Spanglish. I grew to know their personalities from the way they worked. As with every job some worked harder than others. Some smiled while others did not. Oddly, the language barrier made communication more deep and immediate because it took the small talk away. After a time I was promoted to service bar where José and I spent our shifts opening bottles of Dos Equis and Tecate and refilling the frozen margarita monster with bottles of triple sec and tequila. Not too much or Mr. Chapa would yell. But on Saturday nights we’d dump an extra bottle of both behind his back so our tips would be better.

Saturday nights were special for another reason. Mr. Chapa’s wife, who was white, would assume her hosting duties. For just one night a week, she’d take over the front door in a big way. Decked out in a floor-length authentic Mexican peasant dress with her jet-black hair teased and beehived within an inch of its life. If it’s true the higher the hair the closer to God then Mrs. Chapa was approaching sainthood. With her wooden bangles, huge dangly earrings, and eyes darkly rimmed with kohl, she resembled Frida Kahlo on acid. A stereotype strangled within an inch of its life. The first time I was introduced I bit my lip. Hard. Shared a look with another busser who shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes before bending back over the table he was wiping clean.

At the time none of it seemed odd. Mr. Chapa and his crazy wife. The staff who rotated through every couple of weeks like a revolving door. Mr. Chapa was doing a nice thing, right? They needed work, I needed work. When I look back now, I wonder. Were his motives completely altruistic? Or did he collect their wages and pay them a pittance. Did they live 8, 10, 20 to a room like migrants? Was I hired to be a cover? So folks from immigration would look the other way? When my mother visited and Mr. Chapa picked up the tab for both of us then sent over the mariachi band to serenade us with La Bamba while we sipped our Tequila Sunrises was he just being nice? Or making sure the nice hardworking white girl would stay?

I blame youth and inexperience for not knowing. Back then I could only see what was in front of me. The tips. The paycheck. The free buffet for family meal, which meant I could save food money for something else. There were hints that gnawed at me. One Saturday night when José crouched behind the bar every 30 minutes to sneak a tequila shot. I eventually counted eight. After four he motioned if I cleaned up that night and allowed him to leave early, I could have all the tips. Of course, I said yes. We winked at each other and chuckled together but a few weeks later he was gone.

Then there was Mrs. Chapa’s constant declaration she’d invented Seven Layer Dip. Every Saturday in full Mexican regalia, she’d make a big show of supervising its preparation then have staff walk it over to its prized place on the buffet like it was a holy offering. Everyone knew it was bullshit. Despite evidence to the contrary, Mrs. Chapa believed it, heart and soul, going so far as to include this alternative fact in all the restaurant’s advertising, with the story of its creation holding prime real estate on the menu. Who were we to judge? A white woman invented Seven Layer Dip? Okay.

That’s what Pancho Villa’s was in a nutshell. An authentic Mexican restaurant with just enough whiteness to keep its regular customers comfortable. Here they could get the mariachi bands, the salsa, the margaritas, and that damn dip while looking the other way because maybe the owner was helping his fellow countrymen and not taking advantage of them. Maybe.

That dip is pretty yummy though. I’m not sure I’ll ever forget its more ominous associations, but I won’t stop eating it. I’m grateful even at 19 I could sense appropriation when it was staring me in the face. It still bothers me the best I can do when faced with someone’s traumatic story is to offer up one of my own. I suppose it’s similar to folks contemplating religion. You have to give it a face in order to make sense of it. Because although we can empathize, we can never truly walk in someone else’s shoes. Although with this New World Order we have upon us more of us might get the opportunity. Anybody got some chips?

*I refuse to ever use his name on this site. He’d like it too much.

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