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How Do You Say "When Is Casa Bonita Reopening" in Spanish?

Casa Bonita's English learners receive their certificates of completion.
Casa Bonita's English learners receive their certificates of completion. Amy Antonation
First things first: No, we don't know when Lakewood's pink palace is reopening. Neither does Dana Rodriguez, the James Beard-nominated chef tapped to run the kitchen. "People don't realize it was already hard to go through construction and open restaurants before," she explains. "After the pandemic, there is no date. Especially with the size of the place we have...we don't know where we're going to find hundreds of employees. [Plus] the supply chain, the construction...we have no idea."

But the restaurant's longtime employees aren't sitting idle. Many have remained on the payroll while  working at nonprofit organizations like Project Angel Heart, We Don't Waste and the Action Center. And they also gained an opportunity to invest in their own skills when Casa Bonita launched English and Spanish language classes for employees in the hopes of facilitating communication and camaraderie among its workers.

The program wasn't a joke: For 26 weeks, students attended ninety-minute classes twice a week. Community College of Aurora instructors took on two cohorts: fifteen Spanish speakers learning English and fourteen English speakers learning Spanish.

On September 22, those 29 students graduated at a low-key ceremony celebrating their newfound language skills. The room was filled with employees of all ages — from teenagers to folks who could be grandparents — all wearing bright blue T-shirts emblazoned with the restaurant's name in a familiar pink, curlicued font. As each person was called to the front of the room to collect their certificates, there were cheers from the audience and plenty of warm hugs between teachers and students. An older employee who had completed the Spanish class said to his instructor, "It's been an honor and a pleasure."
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Chef Dana Rodriguez at the graduation ceremony.
Amy Antonation
"I was very surprised with the English speakers who wanted to learn Spanish, because you never see that," says Rodriguez. "It feels really good to be equal, because usually you push the Spanish speakers to learn, and this was right down the middle."

Alex Perez, a native Spanish speaker, has worked at the iconic restaurant since 1995 as a "server, bartender, sopaipilla maker when they need one" — basically a Juan of all trades. "The company gave me the opportunity to learn more English," he says, noting that he took advantage of the course because he has "too many questions." He reenacts waving his hand above his head in class: "Teacher, teacher, pick me!"  While his English was good before class, he smiles broadly as he says, "But it's better now."

Beau Gentry has been employed at Casa Bonita as a cliff diver and entertainer since 2016, and admits his Spanish was "muy mal, no bueno" before the course. "This class we've been in has brought us all together even more," he says. "There's not that disconnect of maybe being nervous to talk to a Spanish speaker."
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Beau Gentry (left) and Alex Perez.
Amy Antonation
Of course, anyone familiar with kitchen culture, much less the irrepressible, potty-mouthed Rodriguez, knows that a language class for her employees wouldn't be complete without learning a few curse words. The question of how many swear words Perez and Gentry learned (in class) was met with belly laughs from both. "A little, but not because of Dana, because of us just asking the teacher," says Gentry. "He's made it fun. The teacher's been awesome."

Rodriguez embraces her swearing habit cheerfully, noting: "Everybody can tell you, 'What is Dana's rule?'" she says. "'Don't fuck it up.'"

Rodriguez has observed positive changes both in individuals and group dynamics as a result of the language classes. She points to the inertia and lack of motivation that can overtake anyone when they've become comfortable in an environment, noting that changing jobs can seem daunting because an employee may be expected to speak more English or Spanish. "With this team, I think the classes helped them have more confidence," she says. "One of the girls just approached me and said, 'Can I go and work at your [other] restaurant one day a week so I can keep practicing?' They get more confident so they can start doing different things. They don't have to be a dishwasher for the last ten years and the next five years." And just getting to class has been a unifying experience for some of the employees: Rodriguez notes that because some workers don't drive, carpooling has created a closer bond within the team.

While the focus was on the graduates, questions about what Casa Bonita will look like when it reopens were inevitable, and we were able to glean a few bits of information. Rodriguez says the sopaipillas will "of course" be making a comeback (praise the lord!), but that all the food, including tortillas and salsas, will be made in-house, and higher-quality ingredients like Mexican cheeses will be used in the kitchen. Gentry notes that he expects to return as a cliff diver, too.

But as Rodriguez addressed her employees, she reminded them: "You guys are the star of the show. I'm not here to talk about Casa Bonita, what is changing or what is new. This is Casa Bonita, all of you guys. You are the most important thing."
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Amy Antonation knows that street tacos are infinitely superior to tacos that come covered in squiggles of crema, and she will stab you with her knitting needles if you try to convince her otherwise.
Contact: Amy Antonation

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