Most epiphanies begin with a dream, an influential person, a curious story, a life-changing event, a marvelous occurrence—something quite extraordinary. My epiphany, however, began entirely differently. In fact, it started with something common, something outwardly uninspiring, something most people have experienced—something quite ordinary. Indeed, it all started with a summer job. Yes, a summer job.
Let me start from the very beginning. Ambitious, albeit frustrated by the cookie-cutter society that surrounded me, I opened the brightly-painted and overtly gaudy door to Olamendi’s Mexican Restaurant, determined to prove that I was an adult to the world which still treated me like a child. At barely 16 years old, I expected to leave at the end of the summer with valuable work experience and a small paycheck that I could invest in my future. It never occurred to me that I would leave with so much more.
On my first day of work, I discovered that I would more or less be the manager of the restaurant’s newest location, largely because I spoke English fluently and had far more education than most of the Hispanic employees at the restaurant. Though I lived in a society primarily dominated by white, upper-class affluence, I always resisted the implicit teaching that socioeconomic stratification was acceptable. Yet on that day, I subconsciously allowed myself to believe that I, or at least my authority, was superior to my fellow coworkers. Then, I met Natividad Cervantes.
From the moment I set foot in the restaurant, she glared at me from behind the stove with wary, brooding eyes and an irritated scowl. Her disgust at being assigned to work with a “silly, vacuous American girl” was evident in every inch of her short, plump frame and even more ubiquitous than the stifling aroma of refried beans and spicy chili sauce that permeated the restaurant. I was taken aback by my welcome, or lack thereof, but refused to let my dismay show, instead meeting her gaze with a pinched smile and forced “hello.” She muttered a sour reply, stiffly crossed her arms, and moodily returned to work, rendering me invisible for the remainder of the day. I resolved that she was simply arrogant, close-minded, or perhaps even jealous. It was Pride and Prejudice at its finest.
I vowed that I would sooner guzzle a bottle of the scorching, crimson hot sauce at my side than befriend my enemy. After all, by society’s standards, we were nothing alike. She was Mexican. I was not. She was pregnant by her senior year in high school. I was not. She came from a long line of poor avocado farmers. I did not. She was bound to an abusive and unfaithful husband. I was not. We weren’t supposed to talk, to be friends, to respect and accept each other. Initially, it was a world of difference, but eventually, none of it mattered.
After a particularly trying ten-hour shift, she spoke to me explicitly for the first time. She asked me to teach her how to use the cash register, and I eagerly agreed on the condition that she teach me how to make the perfect burrito. Our initial conversations, which consisted of only a few sparse exchanges—a grumble, a laugh, a smile—progressed to small talk. Eventually, as we each became both student and teacher, the words came freely. We shared everything without fearing persecution by the other. Skin color, race, wealth, age, gender, political views, background, family, and ethnicity—these words became meaningless. Her Hispanic friends couldn’t understand our friendship, and I knew that. My friends stared in bewilderment when I attempted to explain my summer, and I knew that. But an irrevocable sense of equality and understanding was developing between us, and I knew that as well. For the first time in my life, I began to see the importance of diversity.
While the majority of my friends spent the remaining two months of their summer learning how to attain the perfect tan, I learned life lessons that changed my view of the world forever. Natividad, whom I quickly learned to call Nati, happily answered my questions about Hispanic culture, a topic that society still seems to virtually ignore. Initially, I too struggled to understand the concepts and unwritten customs that she related to me. They seemed strange, nonsensical, and at times, downright ridiculous. It was not until a lazy, August afternoon that I truly understood. While unpacking a box of produce, I spied a gargantuan, softball-sized avocado. I burst out laughing—it was huge. She frowned. I immediately stopped and looked at her inquisitively.
“Look at the aguacate,” she said softly. “You are impressed because it is big. But, it will be hard and tasteless. In America, you use chemicals, so it will grow bigger, so it will grow faster, so it will look perfect. You force it to grow. It is not natural.”
Looking me straight in the eye, she murmured, “Where I come from, they are too poor to buy chemicals. The aguacate are small and imperfect, but they grow slow and sweet. They don’t pretend to be something they’re not. They are like us.”
Tears streamed down my cheeks, and understanding flooded my heart. It dawned on me that diversity wasn’t important for its ability to encompass black, white, rich, poor, tall, short, young, or old. Rather, diversity was the power to be different, to learn from those who weren’t like you, to be like nobody else in this world. It was the power to learn that there is no right or wrong, to simply be yourself, and above all, to understand that each and every one of us is created equal.