Casa Bonita workers learn a second language while restaurant renovations are underway

Casa Bonita staffers say, ‘We’re all connected more as a family.’
3 min. read
Cliff diver Beau Gentry (L) and longtime Casa Bonita employee Alex Perez (R) show off their certificates.
Tony Gorman/CPR News

Twenty-nine Casa Bonita staff members received their language certifications during a ceremony at The Action Center in Lakewood Thursday. Staffers were offered English classes to Spanish speakers and Spanish to English speakers over a 16-week, 32-class program.

The program was led by Dana Rodriguez, the executive chef hired to improve the menu.

She knows how important communication is in Mexican restaurants. When she moved from Mexico to the United States in 1998, she applied to Casa Bonita but was told she lacked experience.

"Obviously one of the first things they asked, 'Do you speak English?' I didn't understand everything. So, I started as a dish washer," Rodriguez said. "Even being a dish washer, to be able to communicate with the line cooks, with the chef...  You learn eventually. But you have to try really hard."

Rodriguez said her English improved while she worked in the kitchen and talked to people. Plus she watched cartoons like South Park.

Casa Bonita's new executive chef Dana Rodriguez speaks to the staff.
Tony Gorman/CPR News

Today, the Colorado Restaurant Association and Hispanic Restaurant Association assist metro Denver restaurants in finding second language programs, making it a little easier for workers to learn.

"The thing is that not everybody can afford to put 60 students to pay for," Rodriguez said. "They invest in the employees to learn now because it's a benefit for everybody."

Rodriguez said Casa Bonita always employed staff who spoke Spanish as their first language. Alex Perez is one of those employees, who has worked at the restaurant for almost 30 years. He came to the United States from Nicaragua in the 1980s. He took English classes at the university in his home country and in San Francisco before coming to Colorado. He saw the latest program as an opportunity to improve his English.

"I learned more about how to use verbs. I think I can learn more vocabulary, too. And then, more practice in English," Perez said. "I try to have better communication with my bosses, my coworkers, and basically customers. That's what I do. I try to be better."

Beau Gentry has worked at Casa Bonita for two years. He joined the restaurant as one of the famous cliff divers to gain acting experience. He said the program has brought staff together.

"There was a little bit of disconnect," Gentry said, adding that Spanish speakers weren't always able to talk to English speakers and vice versa. "But, now we're all connected more as a family."

Casa Bonita staff who received their Spanish certifications.
Tony Gorman/CPR News

Casa Bonita's reopening is still up in the air but in the meantime, those who completed the program will continue learning their new language at various non-profits.

Casa Bonita first opened in Oklahoma City in 1968. Additional locations were opened elsewhere in Oklahoma and in Arkansas before coming to Lakewood. The restaurant became known for its lavish entertainment with cliff divers, magic shows and a mariachi band.

The restaurant shot to the national stage when it was featured on an episode of South Park. The Lakewood restaurant is the last location in operation. It almost suffered the same fate when its owners filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year but South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone purchased it for $3.1 million.

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