Language of the Grounds

Features - Management

The ability to be bilingual can help superintendents manage the workforce of the present and future.

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June 2, 2021

© Anna Kutukova | AdobeStock

Among players, the esoteric language of the game is known and rote, with golf’s vernacular a dialect unto itself.

Yet, across the fairways, between greens, from clubhouse to rough to work shed, native languages vary among those manning the turf, with, namely, a balance of English- and Spanish-speaking staff aiming to communicate on common ground.

An ever-diversified domestic population is certain to narrate the next U.S. Census results and in America’s most populous regions, golf’s workplace roles remain highly uniform, with English speakers predominantly holding management positions and Latin-born employees accounting for a majority of the employees on many maintenance staffs.

For superintendents and club agronomists, working across workplace totems often requires a tool of the dual tongue: The ability of being somewhat — or fully — bilingual.

Talking the talk, rising the rungs

His career path referred to as an “American Dream,” the fairways of Rafael Barajas’s life have taken him from humble Los Angeles golf course beginnings to becoming the first Hispanic or Latino president of the GCSAA in 2019.

Born in Mexico, Barajas moved to California when he was 14 years old.

“And everything — from the people to the language to the culture — it was all foreign to me,” says Barajas, the director of golf course operations at Boca Grove Golf & Tennis Club in Boca Raton, Florida. “So, I had to integrate to the system and the customs. It took a while, but it happened.”

While Barajas learned English as a second language as a teen and later gave night school a shot (“To be honest, it was just boring as hell for me,” he laughs), his personal drive to climb the career rungs was best paired with abating a fear of language shame.

“It was namely communicating with people and not being afraid of making a mistake or being laughed at,” Barajas remembers. “I’d say things like, ‘bulb light’ instead of ‘lightbulb.’ But when I got corrected, I wouldn’t get upset with people, I’d thank them for the help. If I wanted to make progress, to adapt and evolve and be competitive, I didn’t have a choice. You have to play with the same tools as everybody else, otherwise you’re just not gonna win.”

Barajas credits honing his tools with rising to the zenith of his trade.

“I have taken advantage of being able to speak both English and Spanish,” he says. “When interviewing for jobs over the years, I’ve sold myself that way. It makes me more valuable. When you have a Spanish-speaking crew, you can save a lot of time in translation, maybe 20 percent of your time getting things done, which is gonna make the course and club more productive.”

Moving up from head superintendent jobs in Southern California to his current post on the opposite coast, Barajas earned his certificate in turfgrass management from the University of California, Riverside. Along the way, he practiced his preach.

“I’d challenge the Hispanic guys in the crew, tell them to get themselves educated, because one of the biggest complaints was that the white guys were getting the good jobs,” Barajas says. “And I would ask them if they had the same qualifications as the guy who got the job — and if they didn’t, then why were they complaining?”

A continued grasp of the labor-to-language ranks has proved a key component in creating opportunities for Hispanic superintendents.

“I’m extremely proud of the Hispanic community in our industry,” Barajas says. “Now, when I look at our (superintendent) directories, I see Hispanic supers across the country, doesn’t matter which state. And I also see it with assistant superintendents.”

A new school example of such diversity may be viewed in Northern California, where, back in 2017, then 30-year-old Javier Campos was named head superintendent at the California Golf Club of San Francisco (Cal Club), hallowed turf he had worked since starting at the entry level in 2004.

Born in Mexico before moving to the United States as an infant, Campos is fast to credit his bilingual skills as a tool for improving productivity across the grounds as well as for creating trust with his crew.

“Being bilingual, it’s huge. Probably 95 percent of my crew is Spanish-speaking as a first language, and I’ve seen the skill as crucial in the efficiency of things,” says Campos, a graduate of the Rutgers Professional Golf Turf Management program. “When I was an assistant, my predecessor, Thomas Bastis, he spoke some Spanish. I’d have some fun with him, tell him it was, ‘Gringo Spanish,’ and I’d fill in the communication voids for him.” Campos now delegates any language gaps.

“My assistants speak very little Spanish, so I’m trying to teach them ‘Golf Course Spanish,’” he says. “On occasion, I’ll jot words down, so they can pick it up, little by little. You can imagine that, if you only spoke English and there was nobody to go between the languages, there’s a lot of efficiency lost.”

According to 2019 estimates from U.S. Census data, California’s population is 39 percent Hispanic, accounting for the Golden State’s largest demographic. Down the coast, the tenet of course-efficiency-via-communication remains in play.

“It’s very important in the golf industry and an advantage to me, being bilingual,” says Mexican-born Mario Ramirez, head golf course superintendent at The Journey at Pechanga in Temecula, California. “Having that extra tool when we’re trying to get things done makes my job easier, being able to communicate in Spanish with my staff. And it makes them feel more comfortable, especially with certain jobs we have on our course which are quite delicate.”

Ramirez sees a labor ladder akin to the views of Barajas. “Sometimes, guys won’t go for a higher position because they feel intimidated, not secure making that next step,” he adds. “Yes, having both languages does help move people up the ladder.”

Amid the common words comes common bonds. “There’s a trust that the guys have in me, understanding the culture, knowing the language,” Campos says. “That’s huge. We’re a union shop, and there are certain situations where the guys will come to me with questions, and the trust factor is crucial.”

Being fluent in both languages creates pathways in lieu of barriers across interactions on course or club grounds.

“In my own experiences, I personally don’t think there’s anything more important than the aspect of communicating with members,” Campos says. “You have to have a good vocabulary. Dealing with members who are of the 1 percent, leaders of industry, you have to be able to speak well in English and carry yourself well.”

Not lost in translation

From the vantage of English-speaking superintendents, an ability to communicate with Spanish-speaking staff proves a combo-tee scorecard of techniques.

“I’m not fluent, but I speak workplace ‘Golf Course Spanish,’ and there’s been work that’s gone into that over the years,” says Christopher Bien, the superintendent at Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert, California. “There is a language barrier but I don’t have a lot of trouble communicating what needs to be done. Sure, being bilingual would be helpful, but I don’t think it’s necessary because most of the crew and assistants are either bilingual or speak some degree of English.”

© Courtesy of Javier Campos

Age can also play a role in one’s bilingual abilities or desires. “When we do training, we’ll do it in Spanish and English, and there’s a good portion of the (Hispanic) crew members who would actually prefer it’s in English, though it certainly is somewhat age-dependent,” Bien says. “Some of the older people don’t have as much interest (learning English) and, even if they do, they’re not going to change their native language for me. So, it’s more incumbent on me to communicate to them.”

While Bien notes that visual aids can occasionally get the job done and says that he’s given a Rosetta Stone language course a try, he aptly observes that one’s upbringing has much to do with language skills.

“I’ve found that I wish I would have learned Spanish earlier, and taken it more seriously,” Bien says. “I was going to high school in Ohio and didn’t know anybody who spoke Spanish, so I didn’t take those studies all that seriously, just enough to get a B or something. And then I forgot much of it. Whereas my daughter, she gets an A-plus in Spanish and understands the importance of it for doing business and growing up in California.”

Backdrop proves a common thread and factor in communication.

“Some of it is almost a form of charades,” says native Michigander Sarah Ryan, the superintendent at MountainGate Country Club in Los Angeles. Ryan relocated to Southern California in 2016. “At first, it was a little intimidating, because I couldn’t speak Spanish hardly at all. I was doing baby talk Spanish, even though I can make fun of myself over it. But over time it’s gotten better.”

Going from English to Spanish drives the same road of crew member trust traveled by Spanish-to-Spanish communicators. “It helps the crew understand what I’m trying to get across but it also creates more camaraderie for me to communicate with them at a better level,” Ryan says. “I’ve always tried to be a manager who leads by example. So, by their showing openness to educate me on Spanish, I’ve, in turn, tried to do the same. And it has all helped us bond more.”

Word by word, learning a new language doesn’t always need to be serious business. “A lot of times, I’ll ask for the Spanish words, and then they’ll quiz me on it later,” Ryan adds. “And I like that. The more you use a word, the better you get. And we play around with it. If we’re all doing work in a bunker, one of us will call out the name of a tool and get the translation in another language.”

For those at introductory levels of the agronomy world, or for assistants aiming to move up the food chain, the skill of being bilingual seems on par with the most important tools found in the maintenance facility.

“If I were sitting down with a younger person in this industry, I’d certainly tell them to learn Spanish,” Bien says. “It hasn’t been detrimental for me not to be fluent, but it would just be better for everybody involved. If I could go back and do it all again, I’d certainly learn Spanish.”

The language of the labor game also previews skills of the future.

“I never thought that speking Spanish would be a huge thing as a superintendent, but, man, I’m so glad that I’m bilingual,” Campos says. “Any people out there who are assistants who don’t value their Spanish skills, they should definitely sharpen them. With the labor force shrinking in our industry, it’s gonna be a big deal being able to speak both languages.”

Judd Spicer is a Palm Desert, California-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.