Soamy Silva often gets mistaken for a student. At 22, she’s around the same age as the kids who, drunk and stumbling, regularly fill the late-night Spicy With line at Jo’s. She’s behind the grill five days a week, so you’ve probably seen Soamy before, with her blue piercing above her lip, curly light brown hair, and perpetual smile.
But if you’ve never really talked to her, you should. I recently met up with Soamy for tea and conversation on one of her few days off. We discussed life, dreams, and the shit she puts up with on a daily basis.
The first thing I noticed was how different Soamy looks outside of Jo’s. Her hair, unconstrained by a net, juts out freely around her round, vivacious cheeks. The bright, relaxed outfit she’s wearing is a stark contrast to the apron and canvas green polos required by the Jo’s dress code. Jokingly, she tells me she’s surprised anyone would want to interview her: “My life sucks.” I disagree.
I’m surprised by how much I can relate to her. Both our families happen to come from the same small city, Ponce, Puerto Rico, though neither of us has lived on the island. And we’ve both had a parent who was, at one point or another, in jail. We also bonded over a shared love for clubbing and the beach—and over the fact that we both spent Valentine’s Day sans date.
Nevertheless, the courses of our lives have run rather differently. A Providence native, Soamy went to Central High School and later got a degree in massage therapy from Lincoln Tech. A professional masseuse for a while, she quit her job at a local spa once it “started getting sketchy.” She then went to CCRI to study substance-abuse counseling and, somewhere along the way, wound up at Jo’s. “I’m bored easily. My interests go back and forth,” she told me, waving her hands to emphasize her point.
Though she says the pay and benefits are good, Soamy looks at her position at Jo’s as a job, not a career. I could feel the excitement swelling in her as she told me about her two dreams. One is to open her own successful business in Providence: a restaurant serving “Spanish but mixed” cuisine. Spicies With, in case you’re wondering, won’t be on the menu. Her other dream is to become a fashion designer and create her own line of clothing. She starts sewing and culinary classes in April and, judging by the determined seriousness in her voice, I’d say she stands a good chance of fulfilling at least one of her dreams.
In the meantime, she’ll still be working at Brown. “When I applied to Jo’s, they didn’t tell me I’d be on the grill 24/7,” Soamy says with a wry grin that doesn’t quite mask her irritation. “The rush can be really stressful; sometimes people don’t want to move or have their backs turned. I have to keep asking ‘Can I help you?’ until they respond.
Still, the majority of students who come into Jo’s wasted don’t cause any serious problems for Soamy. In fact, as a young person who also likes to go out, she finds their drunken antics funny, for the most part. But there are always exceptions, and this past Halloween weekend was especially bad.
On October 31 at around 1:45 a.m., when whatever’s left over from the grill gets placed on the countertop for “grab ‘n’ go,” a spiced kielbasa slipped off the glass and onto a girl’s chest. Soamy apologized, but this didn’t stop the visibly drunk student from yelling at her. Jo’s closed for the night, and the situation could’ve ended there. However, the student came back the next evening and accused Soamy of “throwing a piece of chicken” at her. Soamy corrected her: “It was a kielbasa and you were drunk.” This prompted a slew of verbal insults from the student.
Soamy’s older coworkers advised her to take a walk to blow off steam. Instead, she went to the basement and cried. Her manager came down and, though supportive, basically told her, “You can’t talk back to them.” The customer is always right, even when they’re belligerently drunk and shouting.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone, drunk or otherwise, could get so angry with Soamy, who’s incredibly nice to everyone. What most upset Soamy about the incident, she said, is that the student “made it seem like I was her maid.”
As disquieting as it is, I’m positive that Soamy’s story of mistreatment by a student is not an isolated incident at Brown. The Spicy With counter is just one backdrop for the manifestation of the inherently unequal power dynamic between student and staff.
During my two years here, I’ve watched students treating BDS workers, custodial staff, and public safety officers with patronizing contempt and condescension. Yet what’s particularly troubling about the kielbasa incident is not simply that Soamy was treated unfairly but that her voice was effectively silenced—because she’s behind the counter instead of in the line.
When verbally harassed, Soamy had only two options: silently take the abuse or respond and risk being fired. The student, though eventually escorted out of Jo’s by security, was able to dish out insults with relative impunity. In a place where the values of community and diverse perspectives are constantly being praised, it’s frustrating to know that the voices of Brown staff members often don’t count as much as those of the students here.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of interacting with staff as if they exist solely to serve us, we should give them the respect they deserve—even when we’re wasted. Soamy, for one, would appreciate it.