She walks quickly and lightly, a slight pattering of feet as she rushes back and forth behind the counter. Her glossy black hair is set in a ponytail and all loose ends are secured under a red baseball cap. Anna Sanchez is a small, petite, young lady but her large, spherical brown eyes and her wide, full-mouthed smile offset her tiny physique.
“Bienvenidos a Tortilleria Nixtamal! What can I get you?” Anna greets her customers. She says her favorite place to be in the restaurant is at the cash register. She loves taking people’s orders. “I love actually interacting with the customers. Doing the other restaurant work can sometimes get boring but talking to people isn’t usually. Either people are quick and just want to get their food or sometimes they’ll strike up a little conversation. One time, this little old lady was ordering when she just kind of stopped talking and stared at me. It was the oddest thing but then she smiled and told me I looked a lot like her daughter who had moved abroad the year before. It was kind of nice to see how much she smiled at me. I also love it when I see my friends from the neighborhood. Sometimes, the other cashiers will give me a heads up if they see my friends come in so I can say hi quickly. They’re not really supposed to do that but the other workers kind of baby me.”
It’s easy to see why Anna gets babied. Not only is she the smallest in stature, but she’s also far younger than the other workers at the Mexican restaurant in Corona, Queens. When asked why she works at the restaurant, Anna says that she’s saving up for college. She works full-time as of now but she really hopes to go to college for a degree in fashion. “My least favorite part of this job is the uniform – a bright yellow shirt and a red cap and red apron? Come on, we’re like a walking advertisement for McDonald’s!”
She hopes to apply to college next year and enroll as soon as she gets an acceptance. Anna doesn’t have to save for her whole tuition by herself, her mom has some money reserved on the side for Anna’s education. “My dad passed away a few years ago when I was fifteen. He was sick for a long time and I guess it was just time for him to go. Even after he passed, he’s still helping us. That’s where the money on the side comes from, my dad had life insurance so we got a little sum of money. It’s not enough to pay for a college tuition, though, so I work. I actually got this job really easily, I applied and they happened to have a vacancy and it was kind of 1-2-3.”
For Anna, fashion has always been a passion. “When I was little, I would always steal the clothes from my parents’ closet, my mom’s or my dad’s, and I’d tie them together and make scarves or mix and match and I don’t even know what else, just all sorts of things.”
She hasn’t spruced up the uniforms at Tortilleria Nixtamal because the co-founders, Fernando Ruiz and Shauna Page, are strict on the dress code. Other than that, Anna really enjoys her workplace environment. “I love the ethnic vibe of the restaurant, it reminds me of my town in Mexico. There’s Spanish flowing everywhere and when I come in for my shift, it’s kind of like I never left Mexico twelve years ago.”
Anna says other than being behind the register, her favorite part of working is opening up the store early in the morning. “It’s so, so quiet since it’s really early in the morning. I don’t always open up, thankfully. I mean, I am a morning person but I don’t want to be waking up at the crack of dawn every day. We have to open up really early so we can make fresh tortillas. Did you know that we go through 500-1,000 pounds of corn a day? When the restaurant first started, we used to only use 50 pounds a day. That’s insane!”
Anna proudly tells of the restaurant’s tortilla making process, from how the corn is loaded into the machine and processed. No preservatives are added and no additional flavoring, not even salt. The dough is made and carried directly to another machine that flattens it out and makes circular corn tortillas. “I’m pretty small, I’m 5’1, so I don’t carry the dough to the machine. Usually one of the bigger guys does it, like my coworker Rodrigo.” Regardless, Anna definitely does her share at the restaurant, flitting around from the register to the machines to cleaning tables, but always with enough time and grace to greet a customer with a friendly “Bienvenidos!”