Growing up in America you are conditioned to believe that everyone has the same chance at life and all it takes to be safe, secure and stable is to work hard and be responsible. There is a clear path to this safe, secure and stable life: you get perfect attendance in school, you get good grades, you study, you graduate from high school and you go to college. After college you get a good job with health insurance and a 401K, get married (with a beautiful wedding of course), have kids and live happily ever after in a nice house in a good neighbor that has good schools so that you can set your kids on that same path to success. And that is how you get boots, your parents had boots and they passed down the boots to you and so on and so on. Anyone who lives in poverty or deviates from this plan and is not successful has somehow failed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
In your successful life you have a diverse group of friends. There is your Black friend who came from poverty and a single mother household who went to college and now works in the office next to you. Then there is the Mexican friend who came here as a child with her parents. She is now an American citizen and a college grad too. Both of these friends are your prime examples when you are in a thread on Facebook discussing racism because obviously everyone has a chance to make it in America, just look at your Black and Brown friends who did it! They are your proof that racism does not exist and even more than that, they are proof YOU are not a racist.
But then….. Covid19 happens. Who could have seen this very predictable and expected pandemic coming? Everyone who was in charge of preparing for it knew it was inevitable but nobody told you. So it caught you off guard. Now you have been laid off from your good job which is fine because you have savings. Until you don’t. Suddenly you find yourself unsure of the future. You see pictures of long carlines at the food bank and you have no clue how to even go to the food bank to get food if you needed it, but thank God you do not need it! You still have groceries because YOU did all the right things! But the footage of people in those lines is starting to keep you up at night because you do not want to be in that line. Your entire life you have believed that people in those lines have somehow failed at life and failing at life is not an option for you. It never has been. You work hard. Those people asking for handouts are somehow less responsible than you. You have worked hard for your nice house and your nice car. Speaking of: you have no idea how you are going to pay for your nice house and your nice car.
I can only imagine that this is someone’s life right now. Not mine because there is one thing I can do well: poverty. I come from generations of it. My grandparents were exploited, migrant workers. Both of them Americans. My mom, tios, and tias also worked in those fields starting at 4 years old. They were what we now call “toddlers” and yet they were out in the hot sun working in the fields for a few cents an hour. That was way before Covid19 was ever a thing. Way before some of ya’ll ever even thought about the challenges of the “working poor”. Which is a term for people who work hard (harder than pretty much anyone else in this country as a matter of fact) and are still poor. The people who shatter the myth of “if you work hard, you will be ok” that so many privileged Americans are raised to have faith in.
I am tired.
I am tired of talking about generational poverty, the exploitation of workers in the lowest income brackets in this country who work the hardest, and how those things are deeply rooted in White Supremacy and racism in this country. I am tired of being told that everyone in this country has a fair shot and white privilege is not real. I am tired of White People who ignore the root causes of all these things until it is convenient for them to bring them up when they want their nails and hair done even if it means risking their lives, their family’s lives and the lives of the people getting paid minimum wage to do those services. I am tired of having to explain the root cause of so many issues is trauma and generational poverty and has nothing to do with someone not being able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And more than anything, I am tired of seeing people suddenly talking about despair from financial instability as if this has just become a thing in the last few months. Because it hasn’t. People have been dying by suicide stemmed from the stress of not making ends meet for a very long time. People have been numbing their pain and anxiety with drugs and alcohol for a very long time. People have been burying loved ones who take their own lives for a very long time. This is not suddenly an issue because Karen wants to go out to eat and feels she has the right to highlights.
June 6, 2013 was the most perfect day of my life. I had spent the night with my son and his girlfriend in the hospital as we waited for my first grandchild to be born. Anthony, my son, and I spent a lot of time together for those 24 hours. I was with them from the moment Ariana checked in to be induced. Anthony and I talked and ate in the cafeteria (which is my favorite thing to do by the way) and then Aaliyah was born and the whole world was perfect. My husband packed up my other three kids and drove them to the hospital to meet their hours’ old niece. They held her in awe of this tiny new life in our family and then we walked across the street to eat dinner. My husband owned his own pest control company at the time and it was doing great. Anthony was one of our employees. Total we had 7 trucks on the road and we were on our way to having a half-million-dollar year. On our way back to the hospital after dinner, I looked up at that sky and took in a deep breath. I carved that feeling into my brain because it was the most perfect moment of my life. Everything was great.
Five months later one of our employees died in his apartment half a mile from our house. My son Anthony had just bought a brand new mustang because everything was so great and he meant to go by Warren’s on the way home to show the car off but he didn’t. He figured he could show Warren the car on Monday morning when Warren came to get his schedule for the week. That would not happen because Warren was dead by that Monday. That death changed everything for us.
In the next four years, we would lose a lot of people in our lives. For me and Anthony, the worst would be our Tio Roy and his wife, my Tia Mary. They died ten months apart and then a month after Tia Mary Anthony took his own life. So in eleven months, I lost three of the most important people in my life and one of them was my oldest son who died by suicide in my garage. A year later my husband sold his company because he just could not keep it going with so much loss. At that point, most of his customers knew both Warren and Anthony which made it difficult for my husband because he had to keep up the “I am fine” face with every service he did all while thinking about both his best friend Warren and our son Anthony whose names were on almost all of our accounts.
That company was my husband’s dream and he built it from the ground up with the money he made while in Iraq and Afghanistan as a contractor. He planned it, saved the money, and then executed his plan. He is the best pest control tech in the world (literally) and he worked his ass off to make his dream come true. He worked hard, he was responsible, we got married in the Church and went to Mass every Sunday and yet he lost it all. Because “work hard and everything will be ok” is a big fat lie.
I think a lot of people are facing a crisis because they are just now realizing what a big fat lie that is. Life has a really messed up way of exposing that lie. You can work hard and do all the right things and then have it all fall apart for many reasons such as a global pandemic or addiction or the suicide of your child or all of the above.
In the three years since my son’s suicide, I have had to confront a lot of my own traumas and a lot of the impact those traumas had on my children. How I made choices based on the sexual abuse I endured as a small child and how my kids really paid the price for that. I also had to look at my mother’s life to see where her trauma impacted me and my life. She began working in the fields at the age of four and she went to school with white kids who called her a wetback and assaulted her with racial slurs. She came to think that not speaking Spanish was how we complied with Whiteness so that we would not be targeted with White Rage. All of these things are things she does not have the vocabulary for and also she would deny most of them because she has been conditioned to think this is just how life is.
For most of my life I also thought that my life was just “how life is”. I felt like a failure and like I was destined to just be a broke single mother which is what was expected of me from birth. What I see now is how much my ancestors’ experiences have passed down a lot of pain, trauma and how much inequity there is in this country which has so much to do with why I feel like I have to work so much harder than others to get to where they are. And sometimes it feels impossible to get there.
When I look at the books published by Catholic publishers I do not see my story. I do not see the story of a woman who comes from migrant workers and who was a teen mother. I do not see the story of someone who has come to understand the issue of racism and assimilation in this country. I do not see the story of poverty and struggle. All I see are white faces with the story of a middle-class woman who becomes Catholic and lives happily ever after even if there were some struggles. And that also makes me tired. I feel like I am going up a mountain that I am never going to get to the top because there is an active wind pushing against me. That wind is racism. It is in our Church and it is exhausting.
Being successful in this country has very little to do with boots or hard work. If that was the case then farmworkers and people working in meatpacking plants would make more money than actors or athletes because they work harder. Trust me.
Those people who are considered essential workers who are putting their lives and the lives of their family members at risk should get healthcare coverage, a living wage, paid sick leave without a doctor’s note, and hazard pay. People who are not fighting for workers rights to those things and want to claim that they care about workers not dying from despair need to really look inside themselves and come to terms with the fact that what they really want is their comforts to be restored and it has little to do with their concern for those workers. If it truly does come from a place of concern for those workers then I expect to see you talking about the issue of poverty and exploitation of labor even when this pandemic is over. That is the way to justice and change.
More than anything, the way forward has to be paved by handing the mic over to people of color to tell our stories and our experiences with racism. To tell the stories of how poverty and inequity have impacted our lives. The way forward also includes Catholics remembering who we are and what our Church teaches us about justice, fair wages, the right for people to feed their children and most of all to realize that pro-life means a lot more than just being against abortion.