My parents grew up in poverty in Latin America. Their story is not an unfamiliar one in America. My parents were able to obtain a middle school education, which at that time in Latin America, was a good educational accomplishment. Like most children living in impoverished, lower class families, my parents both had to contribute to the household income. Opportunities for earning extra money were scarce, but my parents were creative and determined; they took what jobs they could find and set themselves up to establish work where there had previously been none. My mother would say that sometimes people just didn't know what work they needed someone else to do -- but if you do some work, and the people like it, they see that it is nice not to have to do the work for themselves. When my grandparents immigrated to the United States, they had much the same attitude. The work that people wanted someone else to do was seasonal farm work. Both of my grandfathers became migrant farm workers.
My mother was able to stay in our home country and work as a housewife and mother for 14 years. There was not much other work available, so she never held down what might be considered a "paying job." Still, taking care of a family in an impoverished village is can completely consume every waking minute -- everything is harder and takes longer when poverty complicates life. During this time, however, my father was in the United States, earning a living and sending what money he could back to his wife and children living in the country he had to leave behind. My parents understood about social mobility, but I think they believed in economic mobility more. They knew that the work they did defined them, in other people's eyes, so without a hope of doing work that would be considered as highly valued in America, they reached for whatever social mobility they could -- but economic survival, not moving up the social ladder through vertical mobility and increasing their social status -- was what drove them.
My Growing Up Years Class Position
My brother and I basically grew up without seeing our father who was living in America. Even though our father and grandfathers were in the America, my brother and I were surrounded by relatives and people we knew really well. We felt like we had familial connections and knew who were and where we fit in our community. When I was five years old, my mother, my brother, and I immigrated to the United States to live with our father. One of the primary motivations for my mother taking us to the United States was for us to get more education than she and my father had in their home country. My mother guessed that my brother and I would get more education -- attend school for more years -- and get a better quality education -- year-for-year -- when attending American schools than if we stayed in our home country and attended school.
Once we moved to the United States to join our father, we lived in a below middles class situation in a one-bedroom apartment. We did not have a car and had to walk or take the bus everywhere we went. After 11 years, my family had saved enough money to buy a car and buy a house. In the earliest days after our move to the United States, I remember having two treasures in the house: A colorful postcard of Mary, the Mother of God, and pressed glass salad bowl bought from a drug store. I can't think of a clearer image to represent my family's position in the class hierarchy -- we had two things of value to us, but they would not be of any value to people higher up in the class hierarchy. Objectified cultural capital was something we would not have for a long time.
My Family's Cultural Capital
My mother still worked as a homemaker in America, and I remember that she walked me and my brother to and from school every day. My brother would have been able to walk to school on his own since he was several years older than me, but because my mother would not let me walk to school alone, my brother came along, too. Eventually, I was allowed to walk to school with other girls -- in a group -- and then my brother was able to walk with a group of his guy friends. When we first moved to America, I was grateful for my mother's company on the walks to and from school. Everything seemed a little strange, a lot busier, and a lot noisier. My mother would explain things to me in Spanish -- we talked as we walked. After awhile, I realized what a sweet but old-fashioned tradition this was-protecting the young women. And, oddly, my American girl friends at school seemed to envy my mother's attention and protectiveness -- it seemed to elevate my class status some and result in a bit of social mobility because it was a harmless, even enviable way, of being different. It made me feel special, and I guess it made my friends feel a bit cheated that they did not get a daily demonstration of how central they were to their own families. My mother likely felt there were more threats to her children in this new country than there had been at home -- unanticipated threats, perhaps, because she knew what to expect and watch out for in the old country. But there were many more opportunities, and that made up for her anxieties.
From this observation, it becomes clear to me that family was in many ways rich in social capital and cultural capital. Unlike a lot of my American friends, I grew up with a strong sense of family and a connectedness that kept me from straying too far from my roots. Our cultural capital was mostly of the embodied sort -- we had rich ethnic traditions that gave us confidence and a self-identity that transcended the poverty of our early years and the poverty we gradually left behind -- through hard work, perseverance, and attaining our short-term aim goals -- one at a time. My parents were bright and had acquired the same sort of adaptability that kept my grandfathers on the migrant farm workers circuit year-after-year. I came to see that achieved characteristics were more important than ascribed characteristics -- though I didn't know the terms at the time, I understood the meaning and the intent. I was taught that sometimes you may have only a vision of where you want to go, but that holding on to that vision can help you to eventually get there. Loss of hope was the greatest danger, my father said, because it led young men to the street. My mother said that loss of faith was a greater danger -- and she kept us all going to church. I know that sounds trite, but the bottom line is that my parents used our cultural capital to help us stay on track, and lay down new tracks leading to better places.
My father had the sort of institutionalized cultural capital that comes from being able to offer something of value -- something for which others are willing to pay. Although he never earned any certificates or degrees, he had something of similar value -- his reputation as an honest, bright, hard-working -- if disadvantaged -- man. In fact, I think some of what he "sold" was a romantic notion of the poor man pulling himself up by his boot straps. The main barrier to my father's vertical mobility -- and even the small bit of social mobility he constructed for himself -- was trust. My father instinctively knew that in order to change his class status in America, he would have to engender trust in those who hold power -- and employment opportunities! As an immigrant, he knew he would be permitted more vertical mobility if he was trusted -- and for many people in the dominant society, this meant assimilation. My father worked hard to learn English, and he did not associate often with other immigrant men who were on their own -- without their families -- in America. To whom -- and I think he was extraordinarily insightful in this regard -- that would lead only to downward mobility in this new land. He observed that the street-corner gatherings of lone immigrant me often resulted in tangles with the law and never positioned the men to seize whatever opportunity there was to be found in the larger society.
My Current & Future Class Position.
My family now considers themselves to be upper middle class. My generation has had opportunities to attend college and have held jobs that were not manual labor. My family has been acutely aware…