The following project took on several iterations. The original idea was to interview kitchen workers. The back of the house – dishwashers, prep cooks, the line. The unseen crucial cogs in the wheel.
Over time and many miles, the project morphed. It seemed to be turning into a project about immigrants because they are who staff our region’s kitchens. This was good. I felt self-congratulatory. ‘Voice to the voiceless,’ I thought.
“I have reservations,” somebody of import said to me.”Then I do, too,” I said. We agreed that we would use only first names. Then we decided to change the names. In journalism, anonymous sources are frowned upon. After much fretting … I thought, ‘so frown.’ In some cases, names will be changed.
Then I met Genevieve Yellowman. “I am not immigrant,” she said. “I know, I know … I hope you know that I know that,” I replied. “I am Diné.” Okay. “The project is about kitchen workers,” I said. “Not just immigrants.” “I do other things,” she said. And the project became something else.
And then I saw 86-year-old John Carver sitting by himself at a restaurant in Cortez. He had a well-worn cowboy hat, hammer-claw hands, maybe a certain inaccessibility in his eyes. Who is that and how long has he been sitting there? And with that, the theme expanded once again.
So, here is a group of people you might never meet. All food workers in some form. That is the project. Here, in their own words, is who they are. Where they are from. And where they are going.
Iam from Guatemala. I came here in 2011; five years ago. In Guatemala, my mom, my dad, we had nothing. So my uncle, he said, come here. So I started walking.
From the Mexican border. I walked, like, 12 days. Two weeks. It’s like that. You know?
When I am here I am working a lot. I have a little money. I have two jobs. I work six days. I work in the day and the night. Like 15 hours a day; 14 hours. I need money for my rent … and to send money to my mom.
Have you been home?
January 2011 was the last time I saw my mom. My family, too. I have a brother and sister in Guatemala, too. I talk to them on the cell phone. I am always sad because it is my family. Always my mom cries and me, too, because maybe I will never see her again. My mom is crying and she says ‘take care of yourself so you can have a better life.’ This is exactly what my mom said when I left her. Take care. Be careful with your life. Only this.
I am from Chihuahua. I came here, oh my goodness, at first it was just the summers. Maybe five years ago. Then two years ago I started coming in the winter.
I don’t like Chihuahua too much with the violence and stuff. But my home is good. Thank God for that. My dad and my mom are really good friends and, my dad, he works very hard. I help my parents and my brother and my nephews. I send them money. I also save money for here, too.
Are you homesick?
Of course. I never thought I would leave. So the first time it was really hard. But I actually have stayed for love, too. I like to stay with my boyfriend here. I met him here. I changed all my things for him. It is a little hard … I have sad days … and I think, ‘what can I do?’ and then I think I can only do the best I can.
In Chihuahua, I worked in a hospital. I studied chemistry, biology, bacteriology and parasitology.
What is your dream?
I have many plans. I would love to be back in a hospital. I like that kind of work. I like to work. It is something that I love. Maybe I can work in a hospital in the mornings and a restaurant at night.
I am 27. I was born in 1989. I think I am 27 or 28. I came here in 2005. I was 16. I am from San Mateo, Guatemala. When I came from there we came in a bus to the Mexican border. At the border we had to walk.
I don’t have any family over there. My mom, my dad, they died when I was like eight years old. I do not have any information. I think they were sick. They died and that is why my sister sent me to the United States. She said ‘if you stay here, you will have nothing to do.’
Have you seen your sister since you left?
No, but I talk to her. She saves my money. I send it to her. She is like my mom. She watched me after my parents died.
Would you like her to eventually come here?
No. I want to go there.
You want to go back?
Yes. Because here, it is only work. One day I will make my plan and I will go.
What is your dream?
My dream is to have family and live like they live here. Live nicely.
I started here in 1978. But my husband is a pipeliner, so we kind of went all over for a while. We were in Grand Junction for eight years. I have been back here 15 years in December. I came back because Mom and Dad were getting older and my sisters were having kids so I came back to help with the restaurant.
When I was a teenager, I thought there is no way in the world that this is what I would do. I started when I was like 10 years old. I went to college for a couple of years but played more than I studied. There is no regret; none at all. At 18 you know, you say, ugh, I am not going to do that [work in a diner]. But now I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. For the – I don’t know – I have a lot of fun here. You know? I talked for a while about taking some accounting classes or something like that. And even my dad was like, ‘you do it if you want to do it if that is what you want to do. But I can’t see you sitting anywhere. I can’t see you sitting in some office doing something like that.’ So I thought, ‘he is probably right.’ This is what I have always done. It is … it’s home.
I think sometimes what I would do if something were to happen to this place? I think I would try to open up a restaurant of my own. That is what I would do.
I used to be shy and real tender hearted. Finally I just decided that the only person that can really make me feel terrible is me. So if I don’t let it happen, it won’t. It isn’t an easy thing to do. It isn’t. I am not saying I don’t have to work on it sometimes. I always say I get a black feeling in my heart and I don’t like that. I don’t want that. I don’t want to be that.
When you think of your life 10 years from now, do you see yourself here?
I do. Hopefully it’s mine by then. I would love for it to be mine. When mom is ready to be done and sell out I would love to buy it.
How would you change it?
I would keep it the way it is. I am pretty proud of this place. It has lasted a long time.
I am 36. I have been in the United States since I was 18 years old. We walked for five days. Through the desert. You think it’s easy. It’s not. I am from Mexico. Ojos Calientes. I grew up in a little town. My dad used to drive a big truck moving produce.
When was the last time you went home?
Six years ago. My mom had passed away. I have two sisters in Mexico. I saw them six years ago. Right now, it’s a little different because I have my own family over here. I have a wife and little kids.
There is more money, work and security here. In Mexico, there are cartels and drugs. But if I was alone I would prefer to go back, but now that I have a family here, I stay. This is a really nice country.
We are working very hard to get our home in Washington State. We are planning to go there and work less. Maybe two more years. My wife’s family is in Washington. Let’s see what happens.
Can I take your picture?
No. I don’t want any picture.
What if I don’t show your face?
I was born here in 1930. I farmed my whole life. Cattle. Hay. Mostly hay. My nephews run the farm now. I still live out there. They treat me good.
They built this restaurant here around 1952 around the first part of the middle of summer. 60 years ago. Somewhere around there. I have been a customer ever since. Off and on. I come in everyday. Different times. I am allowed to come in anytime. I live just two miles down the road.
I don’t know what else I can say.
It’s ok, you told me your story.
Ok. Do what you want with it.
I have spent my entire life here in Rico. This is my second year cooking here. But I do a lot of different stuff. I caretake homes. But I have always cooked.
Everywhere from Telluride to Cortez?
No, just here in Rico.
You mind if I ask how old you are?
How has Rico changed over the years?
It hasn’t changed much. It still feels the same. But I would like to see it change.
What brought your parents to Rico?
Mining. They stayed here and died here. I still have a sister here. My sister is the town clerk.
Do you see yourself staying here?
For now. The older you get, the time comes to head down.
Someplace warm. How long have you been doing this?
This magazine for 6 years, but this kind of work since the
mid-90s, I guess.
Oh, so just taking pictures and stuff?
Yes. I guess so.
What is this story about?
It was going to be about immigrant food-service workers then it grew into something else.
I am a native. I am Diné.
Yes, yes, I knew you weren’t an immigrant. I assumed you were native. I hope you know that.
So, obviously something has kept you here in Rico.
It’s not the people. There is nobody around. It’s the surroundings. It is the … the … the … landscape. It keeps you going. You know?
How do you spell your name?
The color plus the man. Yellowman. There is only a few of us.
I came here when I was 15. I am 24 now. I am from Huehuetenango, Guatemala. I came with my friend.
How did you get here?
The whole way?
Yeah. The whole way. So, like, two months. From Guatemala to here.
Have you ever been back?
No. But I send money back. To my mom. I have family here now. I have three children. Twins. And a girlfriend.
If you could choose between here and Guatemala, what would you choose?