Learning the mother tongue of those they feed

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October 4, 2004 // UPDATED 4:14 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Chipotle's Latino line workers bridge the communications gap with help from their employer

Veronica Guzman Jimenez, 26, left Mexico City five years ago for Minnesota to make a better life for herself.

She boarded a plane in Las Vegas bound for the Twin Cities after entering the country through Arizona in a hot, cramped van with a group of Mexican immigrants.

When she arrived in Minneapolis, the only person she knew was a friend of her mother's she had never met before. Despite the rather lonely circumstances, she managed to find a job assembling sandwiches at the airport, and eventually a place to live on her own.

After a few months, she traded the nightshift at the airport for a job at the Mexican fast-food chain Chipotle on the University of Minnesota campus. Today, she is one of the smiling but often-anonymous workers who keep Downtowners sated with Chipotle's bulging burritos at the 50 S. 6th St. skyway location.

Chipotle's design puts burrito assemblers close to customers waiting for their food. However, like many of her co-workers, Guzman Jimenez speaks very little English. Between balancing full-time work and family obligations to partner Mario and 2-year-old daughter Karen Michelle, she hasn't found time to do take English classes on her own.

To address the needs of Guzman Jimenez and other Spanish-speaking immigrants, Chipotle has begun offering workers English classes in the morning before their work shifts. The most recent round of classes started Aug. 30.

About 75 percent of the workers employed by Chipotle's 300 restaurants across the country speak Spanish as their native language, according to Chipotle's human resources department. Locally, Chipotle operates 29 locations, employing about 80 food workers and 70 managers.

The fast food chain started offering English classes to its Denver workers in 1996. Now Chipotle's Culture, Diversity and Language Program offers classes throughout the country -- from California to Washington, D.C. The diversity training, called "Walking a Mile in their Zapatos," also includes cultural training for managers and employees.

Earlier this month, Guzman Jimenez started taking 7 a.m. classes at the skyway Chipotle with four other workers. (She worked the 8 a.m.-4 p.m. shift afterward.) A recent class focusing on numbers and days of the week had a subdued tone, as one would expect at that hour.

Eventually, the students perked up as the teacher, Sandy Knight, a manager at a Brooklyn Park Chipotle, tried to infuse some energy into the room by raising her voice and asking students to do the same when answering her questions.

The classes are highly vocational. Knight relied on basic words relevant to the Chipotle workplace. For instance, she asked, "How many burritos are in one order?" and "How many tacos are in one order?"

The class, designed for beginners, ran for about an hour. Another session is held for more advanced English speakers. The sessions lasts four to six weeks. The 70-hour program is voluntary, and employees are paid to attend.

When asked about the classes during an interview at her apartment, Guzman Jimenez said she wished the classes could be longer.

"It's hard to learn much in one hour," she told Jeanne Massey, a volunteer translator who assisted with this article.

She said learning English has been the most difficult part of being an immigrant, and she wishes she had more time to study the language to become proficient.

Guzman Jimenez is part of a much larger group of immigrants looking to improve their English speaking and writing skills.

Maureen Acosta, director of fund development and communications for Chicanos Latinos Unidos En Servicio (CLUES), said the demand for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at her organization has increased dramatically since Sept. 11, 2001.

Although the immigration process has become more cumbersome since the terrorist attacks, Acosta said more people already in Minnesota see the value in ESL classes.

The waiting list for classes at CLUES has more than 600 people.

"People realize that it's very important if they want to progress in their job," she said.

To Guzman Jimenez, becoming fluent in English is a top priority. Otherwise, she appears very satisfied with her new life in Minnesota.

In her spare time, she goes dancing at the Quest nightclub, 110 N. 5th St., or the Conga Latin Bistro, 501 E. Hennepin Ave.

At Chipotle, she earns $9.35 an hour, up from $7.45 when she started. She works 40 hours a week, meaning she earns about $19,000 a year. After paying for rent, daycare, groceries and other bills, she sends money home to her mother in Mexico City who is also caring for a daughter she left behind.

Mario, 25, also works for Chipotle at West 26th Street & Hennepin Avenue South. They worked at that location together until she moved to the skyway Chipotle about a year ago.

Guzman Jimenez met Mario through his cousin, who helped her find an apartment and work at Chipotle. She and Mario met on the job, instantly hit it off and decided to move in together.

Guzman Jimenez said she and Mario each worked 45-plus hours a week before they had Karen Michelle, and have since cut back to spend more time with their daughter. The couple's Whittier apartment has several tributes to the charismatic 2-year-old, such as a large oil painting of her likeness above a couch in the living room.

While Chipotle line workers balance life in an unfamiliar country with making a living and learning a strange language, some of their managers grapple with at least the last two.

Ted Bates, a Chipotle human resource generalist who helps facilitate the English classes, said the company also pays managers to attend Spanish classes.

"One of the goals is to get people comfortable at work and build their confidence," Bates said.

Blake Doud, a manager at the skyway Chipotle, said he's taken two Spanish classes.

The Chipotle at 50 S. 6th St. employs about a dozen workers, he said. Every worker with the exception of one or two over the past several months has been a native Spanish speaker either from Mexico or another part of the United States.

Workers who have opted to take the English classes have been more productive, Doud said.

"Any time you close a communication gap, you're going to get a benefit," he said.