Last Updated on May 1, 2008 by Paulette Brown-Hinds


By Chris Levister

‘Don’t speak Spanish…can’t get the job?’

When San Bernardino High School teens Jazanique Jackson, Ashanae Brown and Kimyen Hawkins decided they wanted to work this summer, they left nothing to chance.

They knew the rules: plan ahead; role play; be positive; adapt; relate and encourage.

So when they hit the streets to start their summer job search they were prepared for virtually every eventuality except one.

¿No habla ingles?  Can’t speak Spanish.

“We were shocked. We applied at places like McDonalds, Burger King and Jack in the Box. We went to shoe stores, pizza parlors and convenience stores. The workers were overwhelmingly Spanish speaking. Pretty much they always ask us, ‘Do you speak Spanish?’ They said we prefer bilingual,” says Jazanique. And, as an American who only speaks English, her answer leaves her without the job.

“It’s hard when you can’t even get an interview because you don’t speak Spanish,” said Jazanique.

For Jazanique, Ashanae and Kimyen the job hunting experience is both frustrating and sobering. The unemployment rate among African-American teens is shockingly six times the national rate. This according to the U.S. Department of Labor translates into approximately 296,000 African-American teenagers actively seeking employment who are finding it difficult to secure a job.     

It does seem strange to Kimyen who grew up believing jobs are plentiful if you’re flexible, motivated and willing to work hard.

“It’s like three strikes…Black, young and non-Spanish speaking. I’m mad but there is nothing I can do about it. It’s not fair.”

Cashier-customer exchanges at four national fast food restaurants located at the busy intersection of Mt. Vernon and Washington Streets in Colton bore out many of the teen’s frustrations.

San Bernardino High School teens Jazanique Jackson, Ashanae Brown And Kimyen Hawkins are feeling the chill from employers who perfer bilingual workers.

Cashier:  “Welcome to McDonalds, can I take your order?”

Customer in Spanish: “Dame dos hamburgesas con queso, un Big Mac, dos papitas fritas y tres sodas.”  – Translation: “Give me two cheeseburgers, one Big Mac, two fries, three Cokes.”

Cashier in Spanish: “¿Grandes o chicas?” – Translation: small or large fries?

Customer in Spanish: “Grande” – Translation: Large

Cashier in Spanish: “¿Algo Mas? –  Translation:  Anything else?

Customer in Spanish: “¿Puedo usar mi tarjeta?” Translation: Can I use my debit?

Cashier in Spanish: “Si” – Translation: yes

Across the street at the Jack in the Box, the buzz among the all Latino staff was a mix of English and Spanish.

“Necesito mas popotes” That was Maggie Castro, on-duty manager, Saturday, calling for a replenishment of straws in the customer self service bins. “Keep this area clean,” said Castro wiping the countertop.

“That’s what we’re up against. It’s a form of discrimination,” says Jazanique.

And it brings up the question: is it legal, in America, to require an American citizen to speak a foreign language to get certain jobs?

McDonald’s for example employs 465,000 workers worldwide serving more than 26 million customers daily. More than 80 percent of its 13,700 U.S. restaurants are independently owned and operated by local franchisees. The food service powerhouse’s hiring culture is nothing less than emphatic about its commitment to equal opportunity employment.

The chain has been recognized for it’s commitment to diversity by Fortune Magazine, Hispanic Magazine and lauded by Black Enterprise Magazine as one of the 30 Best Companies for Diversity.

A statement on the corporation’s website says: “McDonalds is committed to recognizing the talents and job performance of all employees and values the contributions that come from people with different backgrounds and perspectives. We believe in developing and maintaining a diverse workforce that will strengthen the McDonald’s system.”

“I don’t think its discrimination. It’s more about catering to the customers who come through the door,” says Elva Gomez a former manager for Del Taco national food chain.

“Of course, you don’t have to learn to speak Spanish to get a job in a fast food restaurant, but in certain parts of the country, like San Bernardino, where you’ve got the impact of immigration, it certainly limits your chances of getting the job you want,” said Gomez.

“You better believe Black teens looking for summer jobs are feeling the impact of immigration,” said Gomez. It’s worrisome because Blacks are suffering more from the invasion than whites because they (generally) have fewer resources with which to run away from immigration.” 

“It’s a very stressful and difficult dilemma. Sometimes you feel like you’re straddling two nations, on one hand you strive for diversity, on the other you are forced to hire people who are best equipped to serve your core customer base. Sometimes that boils down to bilingual preferred,” says fast food manager Kevin Ellis who is biracial (Latino/Black) speaks some Spanish and does everything from hire workers to taking customer’s orders, cooking food, assembling sandwiches and handing orders to customers.

“I hate to sound so cynical,” but the American workplace is turning Spanish very fast. That requires you to learn another language in high school. That’s reality.” said Ellis.

For Jazanique, Ashanae and Kimyen that reality comes as more teens prepare to seek summer jobs. Citing rising gasoline and food prices among other things, Junior Achievement released the results of an annual survey showing a 22% increase in the number of teens who want to work this summer, says a spokesperson for the nonprofit.  

“The job chill is not limited to the fast food industry,” insists Miki Nelson who had to apply at 19 different businesses before he got a summer job stocking books at a national retailer.

“In most cases I was asked. ‘Do you speak Spanish’? We are being pushed out of minimum wage jobs on every front. Employers are under intense pressure to capture every dollar that comes in the door. Customers want cheap, fast, hassle free everything. What happens to Black inner city kids – whether they get summer jobs or not – is not on their radar,” said Nelson.

 “When we look in the want ads for jobs we qualify for, they say ‘Bilingual, bilingual, bilingual preferred’!” said Nelson. Which he and other Black teens have learned translates into, “If you aren’t bilingual, don’t bother applying.”