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Culture Report: The Unseen Toil and Joy of Immigrant Kitchen Workers

Javier and Alejandro Areguin
Javier and Alejandro Arreguin / Photo courtesy of Hill Street Country Club

Brothers Alejandro and Javier Arreguin spent much of their childhood in the realm of immigrant kitchen work: Their father worked in kitchens as long as they can remember. And ultimately, they stepped into the roles themselves. “I started working in kitchens when I was 15,” Alejandro Arreguin said. “We inherit these positions.”

In “La Jaula Dorada,” a new exhibition with the Oceanside arts nonprofit Hill Street Country Club, the Arreguin brothers celebrate the everyday physical and emotional sacrifices of kitchen work that they say people don’t often pay attention to.

The show’s title translates to “the golden cage,” inspired by a line in a song — music, Alejandro Arreguin noted, is important to him and to the kitchen worker culture. He paraphrased the line roughly as: “What do I need all this money for if I’m still inside of this golden cage?”

The Tools of the Trade

The exhibition includes several large installations, primarily using the materials kitchen workers use each day. One wall includes an array of snapshots of kitchen workers printed on real, used order tickets, using a non-traditional method that combines smartphone photography, acetone-based Chartpak markers with heat-based Xerox printing. “All of these photographs are taken while working,” Alejandro Arreguin said.

For another group of pieces, the Arreguin used a water-based method to transfer portraiture of kitchen workers onto grease-stained pots, pans and trays, including one of their own father.

The subject in each pan photograph is still in the kitchen, however, but relaxing, eating or laughing. “They don’t have a breakroom,” Alejandro Arreguin said. He also spoke of the physical, emotional and environmental relationship with the kitchen evident in the images: scarred, calloused and exhausted bodies sharing meals together.

A large-scale collage of receipts, Alejandro Arreguin’s favorite piece, shows the meta nature of creating art within their own community. His coworkers know that he makes art with receipts, and one kitchen worker affixed a bunch of tickets to his body, posing. “They’re like, ‘Hey Alejandro, take a picture of me!’” he said. “It looks like he could be a saint.” On the print, they added halos around the individual’s head and a message about paydays and holiness.

Alejandro and Javier Areguin
“Santo Luis,” a piece in Alejandro and Javier Arreguin’s exhibition “La Jaula Dorada” / Photo courtesy of Hill Street Country Club

“This is not a political approach,” said Alejandro Arreguin, though he added that focusing on a class of workers generally consisting of immigrants is inherently political. “It’s about having a community and being conscious of these workers that are never seen.”

There’s also a timelapse video and poetry installation tucked behind a patchwork curtain stitched from front-of-house black napkins and back-of-house stained white rags. And a looped sound recording fills the gallery space with the low-grade, frantic background noise of a kitchen.

“I don’t consider myself a photographer,” said Alejandro Arreguin. “I am a multimedia artist.” His brother Javier Arreguin is a poet, spray paint artist and traditional oil painter. After dropping out of Mira Costa College, Alejandro Arreguin focused on work, and on building up this exhibition with Javier and Hill Street Country Club founder Dinah Poellnitz.

Not an Actual Country Club

Poellnitz and cofounder Margaret Hernandez opened the current home of Hill Street Country Club inside the LinkSoul golf apparel company three years ago, and have been in business as a pop-up gallery for more than seven years. For them, it’s not about putting Oceanside on the map, or even San Diego. Hill Street Country Club aims to provide space for artists in a way that’s not just free of the philosophic restraints of generational wealth, but also doesn’t require it.

Hill Street Country Club
From “La Jaula Dorada” / Photo courtesy of Hill Street Country Club

“We really want to focus on making sure that local artists have a solo exhibition space and that they’re curated and treated like contemporary artists and not like coffee shop artists,” Poellnitz said. “Because every artist has the potential to be a solo exhibition artist. They just need the space and they need that curator communication and conversation.”

Poellnitz repeats a mantra — personal, communal, universal — that’s part of Hill Street’s mission. “Art has to be personal in order to convey a communal and universal message,” she said.

“La Jaula Dorada” achieves all of those things. The intensely personal glimpse into a group — immigrant kitchen workers, mostly men — not traditionally associated with vulnerability, the cohesion of kitchen community and the universality of the invisible working class make it relatable. “Like, how is this work not relatable in Chicago or New York or L.A. or Tucson?” she asked.

Oceanside Evolving

Raised in the Oceanside area, Poellnitz said that she’s seen the community change and gentrify, but also cling to its roots. Pointing to a fallen sign across the street, Poellnitz said, “I’m kind of glad that my mortuary is having a hard time fixing their sign right now. It’s been like that for two months.”

Along with helping Oceanside evolve its art scene, she has also personally evolved. “When I revisit what we used to do three or four years ago, god, we were hustling. Now I’m just kind of chilling and being really picky about choosing my battles,” Poellnitz said. “I truly believe that you don’t waste your time fighting institutions. You take that energy and you go build new ones. I mean, what’s the point of fighting a giant when you can just build a new one?”

Dinah Poellnitz
Hill Street Country Club’s Dinah Poellnitz / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

As Poellnitz’s participation in civic arts and culture organizations also ramps up (Oceanside has its own Arts Commission [1] as well as a committee for its recently acquired status as a California Cultural District [2]), Hill Street is growing too. The benefit art show she helped develop earlier this year to support local artists with health-related expenses, Artists for Artists, will also become a foundational project to provide a variety of mini grants to artists.

And in a few months, Hill Street will work with the Oceanside Public Library on a California Arts Council Local Impact grant to provide pre-packaged art projects that families can take home.

“La Jaula Dorada” runs through mid-November. “There’s so much love and respect in this show,” Poellnitz said. “These are the people that scrub your utensils. These are the gods you don’t see before you pray over your food.”

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