The language of hot, gritty work

I have heard some people say that Mexicans belong in Mexico. That if they’re in America, they should learn English. When you serve a man food, who comes in off a 12-to-16-hour firefighting shift protecting your community, it’s impossible to buy in to that.

At 4 a.m., my annoyingly happy alarm goes off. If you had asked me two weeks ago if I thought I would be getting up before dawn, willingly, the answer would be “hahaha, you’re funny.”

But 17 days ago, a teenager allegedly threw fireworks into a ravine in the Columbia River Gorge and in one act, the wilderness less than 20 miles from my home exploded into flames.

Now, I serve waffles, biscuits and eggs to the almost 1,000 men and women fighting the Eagle Creek wildfire. My role is not exactly glamorous, but I have a newfound respect and insight into these firefighters, many of whom are not English-speakers.

I arrive each morning at the Hood River County fairgrounds about 15 minutes before breakfast begins. A few men loiter near the catering truck, reading the whiteboard where we post the menu along with a riddle:

“Waffles, eggs, potatoes, oatmeal. I have towns but no houses, lakes but no water, what am I?”

My first shift, I spent the better part of an hour trying to decide what to say to these men and women. What do you say to a person who comes off a 12-hour shift protecting your home and your forest?

“How’s your day” doesn’t cut it. His or her day was long. Sweaty. Hard. I began to ask things like “what part of the fire are you stationed at?”

After I moved over to the food trailer, my interactions with firefighters was more limited. “You headed in or out?” “Have a good rest” “Thank you,” I tell them.

Working the food line last week, I had to ask firefighters if they wanted scrambled or fried eggs. After a few men looked at me with questioning eyes, the girl next to me jumped in with, “quiere huevos fritos o huevos revueltos.” The man in front of me smiled as he now understood my question, “huevos revueltos.” This happened over and over. Me asking a man if he wanted fried or scrambled eggs, him nodding yes, and then my co-worker repeating the question in Spanish.

Panicked, I tried to quickly learn the phrase in…

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