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Yesenia Ayala ’18 honored by White House

The White House recently recognized Yesenia Ayala ’18 for her courage and contributions to the Latino community in Iowa. She and 10 other young women were selected from more than 1,000 nominees as Champions of Change for empowering and inspiring members of their communities.

Ayala said later that the experience helped her go beyond her comfort zone to advocate for the community she loves and that needs support.

“Through my personal experience,” she added, “I was able to bring awareness to not only the local, state, but national community of the importance of mentoring and supporting students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and how we can all come together as one to make the movement work.”

As a service learning work-study student at Grinnell, Ayala works for Al Exito — a nonprofit group that empowers Latino youth in nine Iowa cities. She coordinates programming and mentoring for middle and high school Latino students, facilitates family programming and events, and engages other Grinnell students in encouraging Latino students to stay in school and plan for college.

Ayala also has designed and led workshops to inform Latino youth and their parents about the U.S. education system, financial aid, essay writing, and the college applications process. These activities promote more family involvement at school, greater civic engagement, and an increase in the likelihood that young Latinos will graduate from high school and pursue higher education.

A native of Los Angeles, Ayala is majoring in sociology and Spanish with a concentration in Latin American studies. She plans to pursue a law degree in civil rights upon graduation.

This fall, she continues to work with Al Exito to develop ways to incorporate teachers into the program, which Ayala hopes will expand statewide.  

Ayala’s Inspiration

Ayala talking with Auñón (who is in a NASA suit) at a gathering At a ceremony on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, Ayala joined other Champions of Change in a panel discussion moderated by MTV video blogger Francesca Ramsey. Ramsey noted that it’s often tough to get Latino students and their families comfortable with the college application process when it’s a completely new experience for them. Then she asked Ayala: “What have you done as a leader to overcome some of those fears from students and parents that you’ve been working with?”

Ayala said she was inspired to do the work she is doing because she is a first-generation Latina college student who had a difficult journey from high school to college. She often shares her story at Al Exito events to inspire others.

“I was working fulltime at McDonald’s as a manager while in high school, I was going to high school in a very low-income community, and I was striving to get A’s,” she said. “I was also taking the responsibility and the role of helping my parents raise my siblings.”

Thanks to the encouragement of a high school English teacher, Ayala applied for a Posse Foundation scholarship, as did more than 2,100 students in LA. She was one of 112 selected, winning admission to Grinnell, where she receives a full-tuition scholarship and additional financial aid.

“In most Latino families and communities,” Ayala said, “it’s very difficult for parents to let their children aspire for higher education, because they come from a community where they don’t know anything about the U.S. education system. … So every time we conduct a workshop, it’s our opportunity to let our parents know, our community know, our students know that it may be difficult sometimes to break those boundaries, those cultural oppositions, but it’s okay to do it.  If you don’t take a risk, you never know how far you can go.”

Alumni Begin Year of Service

This August, a dozen Grinnell alumni began a year of service through the Lutheran Volunteer Corps (LVC), a national service-leadership program that unites people to work for peace with justice. The program is popular among Grinnellians, and Grinnellians are popular with the organization, as well. Holding more than 10% of the 104 positions, the Grinnellians represent the largest group of alumni from any college or university in this year’s cohort of volunteers.

After the week of intensive training and orientation on topics including anti-racism work, self-care and intercultural communication, the volunteers dispersed to 13 U.S. cities, each person committed to serve full-time for one year with a particular social justice organization, while practicing simple, sustainable living in household communities of four to seven people.

The Grinnell alumni are serving in a variety of positions — including case managers, program assistants, and academic associates — and in everything from marketing and communications to farm and gardens to academics. They will serve in six cities this year:

Chicago, Ill.
Hannah Bernard ’15, Chicago Community Loan Fund
Elaine Fang ’15, Lakeview Pantry
Eleni Irrera ’14, Free Spirit Media
Katherine Quinn ’15, Lincoln Park Community Shelter
Milwaukee, Wis.
Ankita Sarawagi ’15, Bread of Healing Clinic
Seattle, Wash.
Rebecca Carpenter ’15, Jewish Family Service
Tacoma, Wash.
Fatima Cervantes ’15, L’Arche Tahoma Hope
Brittany Hubler ’15, L’Arche Tahoma Hope
Twin Cities, Minn.
Jordan Schellinger ’15, Twin Cities’ Habitat for Humanity
Alex Sharfman ’15, Our Saviour's Community Services
Washington, D.C.
Georgina Haro ’15, La Clinica del Pueblo
Alexa Stevens ’15, Thurgood Marshall Academy

The LVC says they are “proud of the continued partnership with Grinnell College and congratulates these 12 Grinnellians as they begin their year of service!”

LVC, affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is open to persons from all spiritual traditions and welcomes people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered in all aspects of the organization. It supports volunteers as they explore the spiritual aspects of justice, community, and sustainability.

The Grinnell alumni earned degrees in a wide variety of areas: anthropology, art, biological chemistry, economics, French, psychology, philosophy, political science, Russian, sociology, and Spanish.

Culling the Masses

David Cook-Martin, SociologyCulling the Masses: The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas, co-authored by Associate Professor of Sociology David Cook-Martín, has won several national awards. Cook-Martín wrote the book with David FitzGerald, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego.

“Grinnell College and its students have played an important role in the development of this book,” Cook-Martín said, citing institutional support and undergraduate research participation funded by the National Science Foundation. In addition, he noted that at least eight students participated through Mentored Advanced Projects, other students served as research assistants, and still others critiqued drafts used in the classroom.

The Book

Culling the Masses explores how governments in the Americas have deliberately chosen their populations by ethnically selective immigration and nationality laws. The book, published by Harvard University Press, challenges the widely held belief that democracies “naturally tend toward welcoming policies of equality and anti-racism.”

“Today, the idea of choosing individuals based on perceived race is repugnant to our ideals of equality and fairness,” Cook-Martín added. “Generations of scholars have argued that racism was an aberration that democracies eventually worked out of their laws.

Culling the Masses challenges this assumption by showing how governments in the Americas have deliberately chosen their populations by ethnically selective immigration and nationality laws. In fact, the governments that were most inclusive, whether democratic or populist, were most likely to select by race. The biggest exemplar of liberal democracy was the United States, which had the longest period of uninterrupted racial exclusions (between 1790 and 1965).”

The Honors

The book has received the following honors:

  • The 2015 Best Scholarly Contribution Book Award from the American Sociological Association’s Political Sociology Section;
  • The Thomas & Znaniecki Best Book on International Migration Award from the American Sociological Association; (Cook-Martín’s other book — The Scramble for Citizens — received this same prize in 2014;
  • The 2015 Best Book Prize for Books on Migration and Citizenship from the American Political Science Association; and
  • Honorable mention for the 2015 Theodore Saloutos Book Prize from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society, for best book about U.S. immigration history published in 2014.

Decoding Diversity

Lester Alemán ’07 became an advocate and a leader while a Posse Scholar at Grinnell College. He also worked as a program director for nearly four years at the Posse Foundation in Los Angeles. So it’s only fitting he had a chance showcase those skills while discussing the often controversial topic of diversity at the first-ever TEDxGrinnell event.

We talked with Lester about his TEDxGrinnell experience and time as a Grinnell student.  

What was it like giving a TEDxGrinnell talk?

Lester Alemen, left, talks to TEDx attendeesDelivering a TED Talk is, by far, one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my career. I’m honored that Grinnell College thought of me as someone who is a subject-matter expert in the field of diversity initiatives. My speech delivered a dose of obvious. But what’s more striking to me is that no matter how obvious diversity is in this country, we — as a nation— still resist it. I wrote my talk not only for the sociology majors of the country, but for people who need a reminder of what truly shapes this nation, and how we continuously perpetuate our lack of acceptance. “It’s not okay” somehow became my tag line. So when I think of how many people kept repeating that after my talk, I think I drove a message home. Now the work rests in the hands of those who listened.

Thinking back as a student, what is the most striking way you were affected by the culture shift from your home in Los Angeles to Grinnell?

Attending Grinnell College allowed me to understand the fabric of our social landscape. It also taught me to be very vocal and persuasive in the pursuit of social change. Going from an urban environment to a rural setting taught me to be adaptable. Those four years really shaped my vision for how I live my professional life.

What’s the most important piece of advice you would share with prospective Grinnellians?

The biggest piece of advice I can offer any prospective student is that Grinnell College is not the college for just anyone. Grinnell not only offers the unique opportunity to learn about the unique world we are all a part of, it offers the opportunity for you to truly become an agent of change. If change isn’t what you were made to do — then this isn’t the school for you. If change is what you live for, then welcome.

What’s the most important way Grinnell College assisted you in becoming the leader you are today?

There were caring adults who wanted nothing more than to see me thrive — and knew exactly how to help facilitate that growth. That was new for me. They taught me the most important thing a leader needs in this world: true and active compassion. 

  • Taking a course with Kesho Scott, associate professor of sociology and American studies, is a must for anyone that appreciates witty, insightful banter — the kind that gives you an eye-opening dose of what we are doing to each other in this world.
  • Karla Erickson, associate professor of sociology, taught me that only I could dictate my path and pushed me to make tough decisions as my major adviser.
  • Kara Lycke was a soundboard for the frustration I felt the more I learned about the injustices in our education system.
  • Judy Hunter had the patience to really teach me how to put my feelings and thoughts into words at the Writing Lab.
  • Katherine McClelland helped me overcome my fear of math so I could pass my statistics class.
  • The late Howard Burkle indulged all my life questions — and my appetite, I should add — as my Posse Mentor.
  • Charlie Duke gave my Posse a home away from home when Howard could no longer do that.

Alemán currently works at NBCUniversal in the Page Program, Talent Development Group.

Intentional Diversity

“Even though I am African-American,” says Zac Ellington ’10, “I don’t think I truly understood the benefits and importance of diversity — not just racial, but socioeconomic, geographic, and experiential — until arriving on Grinnell’s campus with my Posse.”

Posse Scholars are students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential who may be overlooked by traditional college recruiting methods. Each Posse consists of about 10 students who attend college together as a group.

The Posse Foundation recruits students from nine urban areas in the U.S. and then helps them prepare for and apply to participating colleges like Grinnell.

As of 2014, 97 Posse Scholars have graduated from Grinnell, 59 from Los Angeles and 38 from Washington, D.C. Nationally, 90 percent of Posse recruits graduate from college.

Introducing Posse Alumni

Javon Garcia ’14

“I would not be where I am right now without Posse and Grinnell,” Garcia says. “It has given me so many opportunities.”

Garcia counsels and educates Illinois residents through AIDS United Chicago, a group consisting of AmeriCorps volunteers.

In New York, Garcia served as a public health intern for Harlem United and conducted street outreach for the Audre Lorde Project, which provides services for clients with HIV/AIDS. 

“Posse for me is not just for four years,” says Garcia. “We are lifelong friends. It’s just a commitment we have made for life.”

Rosal Chavira ’11

  • Major: Spanish and sociology
  • Position: site lead, Leslie Lewis School of Excellence, Chicago
  • Posse city: Los Angeles

With five brothers and five sisters, Rosal Chavira says college might not have been affordable for her family. After her high school English teacher suggested Posse, she knew college was a part of her future. 

“Grinnell has a reputation for creating critical thinkers and creating educators who go back and serve,” says Chavira, a first-generation college student.

“Being a mentor and teacher is both rewarding and grueling work, but I wake up every morning to serve my students — because they too deserve to see and rise above their circumstance into the greatness they have the potential to become,” Chavira says.

Zac Ellington ’10

  • Major: psychology
  • Position: international program director, World Scholar’s Cup Foundation, Los Angeles
  • Posse city: Los Angeles

“The power of any posse is greater than the sum of its parts, and I was and still am fascinated by the way students of different backgrounds who don’t necessarily share interests come together to be a force for dialogue and change,” Ellington says.

“It helped me understand why colleges, especially liberal arts institutions like Grinnell, strive to look past just test scores when admitting an incoming class,” he says.

Frank, meaningful conversations during Posse Plus Retreats helped inform the entire campus.

“Some of the conversations that started during the retreats became recurring themes in campus dialogues, and I really feel that the retreats helped participating students find their voices,” he says.

Lester Alemán ’07

  • Major: sociology and education
  • Position: program director, Posse Los Angeles
  • Posse city: Los Angeles

When Lester Alemán attended high school, his college plans were underdeveloped.  

“I was thinking very vocationally,” says Alemán, a first-generation college student. “The purpose was to go off and find a career to pay me.”

Fortunately, being nominated for Posse expanded his college possibilities — and it led him to Grinnell.

“I can’t imagine having gone to college without a Posse,” Alemán says.

Posse became an even bigger part of his life after graduation in 2007. Now, he works on behalf of the program to help exceptional students have their own Posse experience. Alemán worked as a trainer for Posse Los Angeles and is now its program director. His academic background as a sociology and education major fit well with building a career at Posse and helping students.

At Grinnell, he experienced “an amazing” Posse mentor, lasting friendships with Posse Scholars, and encouragement to excel academically.

“Posse is a transformational experience,” he says.

Program Preps Students for Grinnell

A pre-orientation program is helping put new Grinnellians at ease — a week before classes begin — through tours, workshops, and social events.

“It has helped lower my stress,” says Dasaan McCrimmon, a first-year student from Philadelphia, Pa.

The five-day program introduces students to the campus and college resources. Each student is paired with a student mentor.

David Chang, a first-year from San Diego, Calif., lauds the program. “Being in PCPOP with other students from across the nation, and a lot of them being students of color and minority students, I think that’s great,” he says. “It’s great to know people and know where things are.”

Jocelyn Acosta is a mentor and third-year sociology and gender, women’s, and sexuality studies major from El Monte, Calif. “It’s an awesome program,” she says. “It’s important for students to have one-on-one attention.”

PCPOP participants have fun while exploring campus. Some of their activities include:

  • Scavenger hunt and campus tour
  • Dinner with President Raynard S. Kington
  • Leadership Panel with Student Government Association (SGA)
  • Ice Cream Social
  • Visits to the writing, reading, and math labs
  • Discussion about wellness and financial management

Joan Mohan, director of the Reading Lab, makes students feel comfortable seeking help. She shows them resources about time management and discusses good reading and study habits.

“How did you ever learn anything in your life?” she asks. “It takes time. It takes practice, repetition, perseverance, a little bit of patience, a little bit of bravery, and, me nagging along.”

The program is organized by the Office of Intercultural Engagement and Leadership (OIEL).

Jocelyn Acosta ’16 sociology and gender, women’s, and sexuality studies major from El Monte, Calif. Dasaan McCrimmon, a first-year student from Philadelphia, Pa. David Chang, a first-year student San Diego, Calif.

Saving Food, Feeding People

More than 3,350 pounds of food — about the weight of a Ford Mustang — was donated to families in the Grinnell community during the 2013­–14 school year.

This intensive effort was led by Dylan Bondy ’16, who started the Grinnell College chapter of the Food Recovery Network (FRN) in May 2013. FRN is a national organization that works with college students to fight food waste and hunger.

Bondy, who serves as the Grinnell chapter president of FRN, works with the College dining hall to recover leftovers to feed local people in need.

How Food Recovery and Distribution Works

College dining hall staff members pack leftover food from the kitchen and the line — where food is served to students — into large, single-use aluminum trays.

After each meal, a student volunteer picks up the food, weighs it — to record in FRN’s national database — and puts it into the student organization’s refrigerator in the Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center.

The next day, three students drive that food a few blocks to the First Presbyterian Church. With the help of church volunteers, especially Dave and Linda Cranston, the food is distributed to people who need it. This happens five days a week during the school year.

Another important partner is Mid-Iowa Community Action, which verifies that people are eligible for food assistance and provides vouchers for their weekly food pickups.

This smoothly operating partnership and distribution network didn’t exist a year ago. Thanks to the help of many people in the community and on campus, including the Center for Religion, Spirituality, and Social Justice, the project is going strong.

Bondy says, “The work we’re doing in the community is substantive. We are out there in the field, meeting people in the community, putting food in their hands. FRN volunteers (or FRNds) get to form meaningful bonds with the people of Grinnell and help support their livelihood.”

The program is expanding for 2014–15. The Hy-Vee grocery store in Grinnell is a confirmed new partner, Bondy says. Hy-Vee will donate food that is past its sell-by date, but is still good.

How the Idea Evolved

 Students talking to diners while serving foodWhen Bondy was a first-year student, he saw students loading trays with way more food than they could eat. The uneaten food — full slices of pizza, burgers, chicken breasts, whole salads — was composted or thrown out.

Bondy wanted to do something about the waste. He was talking to his mom about it one day. She told him about an interview she’d seen with a guy named Ben Simon from the Food Recovery Network, who spoke about of his efforts to start a national student movement for food recovery and waste reduction. She urged Bondy to get Grinnell involved.

“As soon as I found out about Food Recovery Network, I knew I had to bring it to our campus,” Bondy says. He worked with Mary Zheng ’15 to get the project going.

About 30 students volunteer their time and effort each semester. Additionally, more than 200 students subscribe to the College’s FRN email list.

Educating Students About Food Waste

One of the group’s early and ongoing efforts is to educate students about food waste. Chapter volunteers weigh and evaluate food from student trays, which can’t be recovered for use.

This activity is paired with a “Take what you’ll eat” campaign. Bondy even took a documentary film short course and made a film about tray waste at Grinnell.

Bondy says, “For a while, I definitely spent more time on FRN than academics because I could see the tangible impact, that students were making really valuable changes and connections in the greater community. As a sociology major, I often get sick of just seeing social change in the textbook — it’s all about the real world application, making a concrete change.”

Food Waste & Hunger Summit

Five members of Grinnell’s FRN chapter attended the Food Waste & Hunger Summit in April 2014, the first of its kind. Students from all over the U.S. discussed strategies for reducing hunger and food waste in their communities. “We got to see a new national movement that’s making a substantive difference around the U.S.,” Bondy says.

Because Grinnell College has the first successful rural food recovery model in the Food Recovery Network, Bondy led a session entitled “Innovative Solutions to Rural Hunger,” in which he shared the chapter’s story and provided a sort of road map to rural food recovery.

“Through student food recovery efforts,” Bondy says, “our generation is going to make the change this nation needs, and we’re going to see hunger in the U.S. be greatly alleviated.”

Mary Zheng ’15, from from Gainesville, Va., is majoring in anthropology and Chinese.

Dylan Bondy ’16 is a sociology major from San Rafael, Calif. and Delary Beach, Fla.

Disability and Diversity

Jen Brooks ’15 sits in a yoga-like pose on a blue gymnastics mat on the floor of her bedroom in Lazier Hall. She faces a wide-screen Mac on a table about 4 inches off the floor. Flowers and 21st birthday cards decorate the nearby windowsill.

Using a joystick and a separate switch that works like a mouse button, Brooks opens a reading assignment for a sociology class. A male computer voice reads quickly — Brooks could slow it down, but she likes it fast. As the voice reads, the text is highlighted in yellow on the screen.

Brooks started using Kurzweil, the software program performing these functions, after she came to Grinnell. “Grinnell really embraced me and figured out what I needed to thrive in this environment,” says the sociology major from Atlanta, Georgia.

Brooks chose Grinnell because of its accessibility. She praises the college for its services and the technologies available for class work.

Still, Brooks has been vocal in calling for better accessibility and acknowledgment of diversity.

“Grinnell can be the most accessible college in the country,” Brooks says, “but we need to develop a culture of diversity to go with it. Disability is a natural part of diversity.”

Physical Accessibility of Campus

Jen Brooks going through a door held open for herBrooks credits Jennifer Krohn, who coordinates physical accessibility services, with excellent responsiveness.

When Krohn heard that automatic doors were closing on Brooks’ chair during her campus visit in 2011, she asked Brooks how long the doors should remain open. Brooks told her 12 to 15 seconds. “It wasn’t something we thought about before that,” Krohn says.

In summer 2011, Krohn hired Patrick Comparin ’12, also a power chair user, to evaluate campus facilities. He assessed the timing of doors, the positions of card readers for entering locked facilities, and the locations of door openers.

With Brooks’ form of cerebral palsy, she’s able to move her arm to the side to push a door opener.

Brooks has been impressed by the College’s quick action in addressing some concerns. “It’s remarkable how much thought has been put into the physical accessibility,” Brooks says. “I tell Jennifer Krohn about a problem, like a broken door opener, in the morning and she often gets it fixed by the afternoon.”

Brooks lives in an apartment that was converted from a computer room and little-used student lounge in Lazier Hall on East Campus. The apartment has three bedrooms, one for Brooks, one for a live-in aide, and one for a roommate. “I am now living independently on campus,” Brooks says.

Technology and Internet Accessibility for Learning

Jen Brooks and her aide in classThe College has made significant progress over the years in terms of physical accessibility of the campus, Krohn says. She and the Accessibility Committee would like to see the same progress in terms of technology and Internet access.

“Assistive technology provides access to learning,” Krohn says.

Joyce Stern, dean for student success and academic advising, approves accommodations for a student with a disability. Stern says that accommodations for Jen Brooks were different from any the College had approved before.

The Office of Academic Advising hired a classroom aide, Lucy Chang, to attend classes with Brooks and facilitate her speech, repeating what Brooks says. Brooks is an active participant in classroom discussions. In addition, Chang scribes her exams and helps with a laptop when Brooks needs to use a digital book in class.

Brooks accesses all her class materials in alternative formats. Using Kurzweil, she takes in content by hearing it and viewing it in large print on a screen.

“Before I got Kurzweil, I needed assistants to scribe my homework for me,” Brooks says. “Now with Kurzweil and other assistive technology, I’m able to do my own work, which is a big improvement in my life.”

Grinnell continues to work on improvements. This spring, a higher education consultant with significant expertise in disability services spent time on campus conducting interviews and reviewed Grinnell’s policies across the offices that handle accommodations, accessibility, and disability services. The report is pending.

“At Grinnell, we need to promote a culture of disability diversity,” Brooks says, “where people with disabilities are not only accepted into a community, but included in every aspect of the community.”

Students Earn Gilman Scholarships to Study Abroad

Tracy Pa ’15 and Isaiah Tyree ’15 have been awarded federally funded Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarships to support their study abroad during the spring 2014 semester.

  • Tyree is a history and psychology major from Taos, New Mexico. He will study at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Tyree is involved in soccer and track. He plans to pursue a career in counseling and is considering serving in the Peace Corps after graduation.
  • Pa  is a sociology major with a concentration in East Asian studies from San Francisco, Calif. She plans to study at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan, in order to continue her education in the Japanese language and feed her passion for Japanese literature. She is a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and is conducting a research project on Asian-American literature.  After graduation, she plans to travel and volunteer abroad for a few years, before returning to the United States for graduate school.

The Gilman Scholarship is a federal grant program that provides awards for U.S. undergraduate students receiving Federal Pell Grant funding to participate in study abroad programs worldwide. The program aims to diversify the kinds of students who study abroad and the countries and regions in which they study by supporting undergraduates who might otherwise not participate due to financial constraints. Doug Cutchins, assistant dean and director of post-graduate transitions, is Grinnell’s campus representative.


How We Die Now: Intimacy and the Work of Dying

Karla Erickson, sociology, began work on her newest book — How We Die Now: Intimacy and the Work of Dying — after she observed the spiritual, physical, and emotional support hospice workers provided her dying grandparents.

Erickson, a feminist ethnographer of labor, immerses herself in the occupational and social worlds she studies. To develop a deep understanding of the working lives and occupational wisdom of end-of-life workers, she trained as a nurse’s aide.

She and 12 of her students partnered with a retirement community, using participant observation and interviews with administrators, nurses, chaplains, volunteers, residents, and family caregivers to understand the dynamics of aging and preparing for death in an elder community. Grinnell is a destination for retirees and has several excellent elder communities. Grinnell’s trusting, small-town culture welcomed Erickson and her students; participants gave them intimate access to the final chapter of life.

How We Die Now book cover

“In the 21st century, many of us are living longer, dying more slowly, and more important, dying differently than our ancestors,” she says in an article in the fall 2013 issue of The Grinnell Magazine. In it Erickson offers eight lessons she’s learned to help those “navigating the transition from life to death.”

She joined Charity Nebbe in an interview on Iowa Public Radio to discuss the book and current elder and hospice care.

Her earlier book, The Hungry Cowboy: Service and Community in a Neighborhood Restaurant, is a behind-the-scenes look at class, community, and gendered labor in a Tex-Mex restaurant.

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