Every day, Osmin Cruz-Garcia can’t believe he was able to make the over 3,000-mile trip from his hometown of La Libertad, El Salvador to Santa Cruz. He recalls the 7.6 earthquake and mudslide that hit La Libertad in 2001, killing over 800 people, destroying homes and changing his life forever. He was forced to relocate to America when the government didn’t provide jobs and eventually became a UC Santa Cruz food service worker. That was 16 years ago.
“Like everyone, I was following the American dream,” Garcia said in Spanish.* “We come from these small countries and many of us come for necessities.”
He left his mother and three children in El Salvador in 2001 and moved with his wife to Santa Cruz, where his sister was already living. It took nearly a year for Garcia to find stable work since he didn’t speak any English and had limited work experience. He applied to be a food service worker at UC Santa Cruz when a friend told him about the position.
“I feel grateful that I was able to find opportunities after coming here because many people don’t really put into perspective what they really have,” Garcia said.
Garcia is one of about 150 full-time UCSC dining hall workers and about 60 percent of them have been here for longer than 13 years, according to Bill Prime, director of dining and hospitality services at UCSC. Prime said full-time workers are the foundation of UCSC dining halls.
“A lot of times [service workers] often get overlooked or underappreciated,” Prime said. “It’s kind of more of an expectation that it’s there but when it’s not, everybody is the first to complain, ‘Where’s the food?’”
Garcia wakes up at 4 a.m. five to six days a week to get to work at the Porter/Kresge Dining Hall on his 12-hour shift. He said he was used to it even before moving to the U.S. As a child, he worked in the coffee fields with his eight siblings — instead of going to school — to help his parents make money.
At the dining hall he is responsible for preparing and cooking meals, although what he enjoys the most is serving plates because he is able to see, talk to and connect with students.
Before coming to the U.S., Garcia was a soldier for the Armed Forces of El Salvador from 1983 to 1990 in El Salvador’s civil war. He then became a personal bodyguard to many government officials — working in food service was not something he imagined he would be doing today.
“I have gotten used to the job now, but for sure it was a radical change from holding guns and wearing a suit to protect big, political figures to working behind a kitchen,” Garcia said. “Although, when you have very little resources and don’t have many other opportunities, you just have to be grateful for what you can get.”
There are some social, cultural stigmas Garcia has found to be difficult to deal with at times, being a Latinx man working in a cafeteria kitchen.
“Back in El Salvador many men didn’t work in restaurants because many people thought only women worked in restaurants,” Garcia said. “That is how some people of the Latino culture see it. Even here I still hear some negative comments about this kind of work — that it should only be for women.”
Adjusting to the difference in culture has not been the only difficulty Garcia has experienced in working at the UCSC dining halls. The Porter/Kresge Dining Hall is closed on weekends, but for the past two months, Garcia has been working on Saturdays at other dining halls in addition to his normal weekday shifts. With the rising cost of living in Santa Cruz, he said it’s been harder for him to take more than one day off.
“Just imagine when I first came here a gallon of gas was one dollar, a gallon of milk was one dollar […],” Garcia said. “Some people are only being paid the minimum, then there is no control or law to help those people.”
In order to afford living locally, Garcia and his wife rent a room in his sister’s home for $800 a month, which he said leaves very little for his other bills. Though, he said he still tries to save money to send to his mom and grown children in El Salvador. Garcia plans to leave Santa Cruz after he retires in five years due to the town’s high cost of living.
He isn’t the only one struggling to support himself and his family. Garcia said many of his co-workers sacrifice family time in order to work two jobs.
“I heard my co-workers talk about how they get home at 11 p.m. when their kids are already asleep, so they don’t get to see them,” Garcia said. “Then they have to wake up at 5 a.m. and their kids don’t get see them because they have to work.”
Garcia’s biggest struggle with the job is not the labor but his communication skills. Because he works about 70 hours a week, he struggles to find time to learn English.
“After all the amount of time I have been here I have not been able to pick up good English,” Garcia said. He explained he would like to learn better English to talk with students and create personal connections.
“Behind that cup of coffee that [students] are about to drink, there is a person that will welcome them,” Garcia said. “It’s not just being a food service worker but also a friend to students to show that we also appreciate them because we are all a team or family of the university.”
*Interviews with Garcia were conducted in Spanish and translated to English.