Editor’s note: The Branner and Gerhard Casper dining staff member referenced in this article has refrained from disclosing their name due to concerns of employment security. She will be referred to as “Maitén” in this article. Maitén is an evergreen tree native to Latin America.
They say you are what you eat. At Stanford, food is fuel, ensuring that students are ready for a day of critical thinking and problem solving.
But, despite how crucial dining hall meals are to students’ everyday lives, the wonderful staff working in those kitchens are often overlooked.
One staff member working to feed the Stanford community is Maitén, a member of the Branner and Gerhard Casper dining staff. Maitén was born in Latin America 27 years ago. She grew up surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins in what she describes as “a completely different environment” compared to Stanford. As a child, Maitén was never lonely; her childhood home was always filled with laughter and family. In fact, this profound familial connection is what she considers a hallmark of Latinx tradition, which she believes lies in stark contrast to the individualistic, independent culture of the United States.
“Life back there is different, you need your family to do everything. You keep yourself close to them all the time because you need them — but here you don’t need them, you don’t need anybody. You can do anything by yourself and you will be perfectly fine,” Maitén said.
After graduating from a public university in Latin America with a degree in industrial design, Maitén spent a year working for a prosthetics research team at her university. She later moved to Miami through a foreign exchange program in order to learn English. After undergoing various visa extensions, Maitén worked as a nanny for a few years and faced a period of unemployment during the pandemic, before finally joining Stanford Residential and Dining Enterprises (R&DE) this year.
Maitén has always believed that food is a love language. So when a friend recommended her for the R&DE dining staff position, Maitén knew this was an invaluable opportunity to provide for herself while also spreading love to others. As a member of the team, Maitén says that interacting with students is often the highlight of her day.
Many students share the same sentiment and deeply value their valuable interactions and experiences with Stanford dining staff. Ivan Jacob Jimbangan ’25 says that he is always struck by the resolve and passion that dining staff members put into their work.
“It always interests me that the staff prepares cultural foods and really takes the task seriously so as to emulate the recipes authentically. I’m from Malaysia, and when this happens people like me from different cultures get to taste a bit of home or feel connected to our roots and families,” Jimbangan said.
Other students indicate that they are often moved by small gestures of kindness and that the simplest moments are often the most impactful.
“Once when I was running late and the dining hall was about to close, a very kind staff member waved me in and still let me grab my meal. I was so glad that I was able to eat,” said Hannah Griswold ’25.
Although Maitén enjoys her job, she has struggled leaving her family to move abroad. Maitén’s life today is much different from the life she left behind in Latin America.
“When I came here, my family joined me at the airport. When most people go to the airport, they have one person dropping them off, but I had two cars of my family, thirteen people. My little cousins and mom were crying,” Maitén said. “My dad made me plantains to take in tupperware, my favorite food.”
While many things have changed for Maitén over the last four years, she embraces the change as something to appreciate and be grateful for. For instance, Maitén takes pride in her newfound sense of personal autonomy.
Today, Maitén appreciates the life she has made for herself and enjoys small happinesses with her partner and their puppy dog. In the future, Maitén would like to return to college, reenter the industrial design industry and start a family.
In light of the disproportionate difficulties brought on Stanford dining staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, Maitén thinks about family now more than ever. A piece of Maitén’s heart will always belong to Latin America, and she hopes to visit their parents once circumstances allow for it. For now, she will continue to live meaningfully and hope that others will try their best to do the same.
“I hope that one day when I decide to have kids, they will think that I made the right decision,” Maitén said. “Maybe not a decision for me because I don’t know what will happen to me at the end of the day, but for someone that I will love in the future. I’m not thinking only about me, but my children and grandchildren. I want to offer them something better than what I got.”