My family and I were recently driving past a row of stately homes on the Connecticut shore. Now and then, my husband and I would comment on the architectural details we liked, like eaves, fish scale shingles, and fairy-tale turrets. In the back seat, my 17 year old step-daughter sighed and said, “Looking at these gorgeous homes just depresses me, because I know I’ll never have that kind of money.”
This casual comment, and the sense of resignation that it contained, echoed in my mind for several weeks. To put it bluntly, I would have thought that only so-called “at risk” kids talked like that. Don’t most middle-class kids see their futures as glimmering with possibilities? Perhaps I should be glad for my step-daughter’s healthy grasp of the economic realities of life; that she hasn’t bought into the prevalent myth of entitlement. After all, the homes in question are in the million-dollar range, and the people who own them are at the very top of the national income scale.
But let’s get back to the fact that she’s 17. She’s smart, popular, kind, and strikingly pretty, even by harsh pop-culture standards. In a year, she’ll attend a good college and she’ll major in business. While teenage girls of all races typically struggle with their self-esteem, I guess I was surprised to hear notes of self-doubt from a non-minority, all-American girl who never suffered from a lack of supervision, a lack of role models, body image issues, depression, pregnancy, poverty, crime, illegal status, language barriers, prejudice, and the shame of being considered “different.” If kids who fit the mainstream definition of “cool” still experience self-doubt, then we can get a glimpse of the dangers lurking for the Latino teenager.
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I think back to my own 17-year old self. While I struggled with self-esteem too (I was shy, skinny, with acne, braces, and mediocre grades), I never doubted that I could do whatever I set my mind to do. When passing through an upper-class neighborhood, I would point and say, “I’m gonna buy that one.” I actually have a picture of myself doing such a thing. Ironically, the foundation of my irrepressible optimism blossomed from poverty. My grandfather migrated from Puerto Rico 60 years ago with no skills, a sixth-grade education, and 6 small children to feed. He broke his back working in a factory, but died a proud homeowner and father to 6 adults who all had lives better than his. My father put himself through college and graduate school and achieved the ultimate reward—a career he loved. He assured me that I would stand on his and abuelo’s shoulders and that I’d reach heights they had never dreamed possible.
Fast forward. I don’t own a waterfront mansion, but I have what’s important—a healthy, loving family, and I get to do what I love everyday, which is to write. I know what makes me happy and I can recognize false desires before they take hold. Of course I wish I had more money, but the size of my bank account doesn’t affect who I am, how I feel about myself, and it certainly can’t rob me of my right to dream.
So what does it mean to be 17, to have no societal barriers, and to gaze at a beautiful home and think, I’ll never have that? Every child has a right to glimpse their own potential. Every kid ought to have role models, goals, and dreams. Money, houses, and fame are an entryway for them to think about what they might want in life, but it’s just that, a start. Typically, money will either guide them or blind them from discovering what they truly value. My guess (and this is only a guess) is that my step-daughter’s reaction rose from her wise, self-correcting subconscious. A waterfront mansion is what she thinks she ought to want, rather than what her heart truly covets, so she’s instinctively taking herself out of the game. Obviously, the big beautiful house is being seen through a completely different cultural lens than I had. I wonder if being expected to succeed (by virtue of race and social class) can be stifling. Is this child’s skepticism a generation-wide rejection of the spend-happy materialism of the last couple of decades? Perhaps I am witnessing the disorienting mirage of the American Dream, which has morphed into being about what we want rather than what we need.
A Buddhist might disagree, but I believe that desire is good, as long as we focus our energy on the right things. My aunt refers to her youth as “the hungry years.” And who remembers hunger better than the poor, the politically repressed, the immigrant, the migrant… And their children? Despite all of their struggles, Latinos are celebrating their accomplishments and their potential now more than ever. We have earned a buoyancy of the spirit that comes from witnessing our families rise, step by hard-working step. While so many Americans see decline, millions of Latinos see assent. A seed of hope has blossomed within us that we now have the opportunity and the privilege to pass on, from our own homes and communities and beyond, wherever it is needed.